How Irish Unity Got a Boost From Brexit, Demographics

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In May 1921, the island of Ireland was split in two -- giving rise to Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, and to what would become the independent Republic of Ireland. A century later, the clamor for a referendum to reunify Ireland is growing. There’s little prospect of a vote in the next five years, but shifting demographics, coupled with the forces unleashed by Brexit, suggest a ballot at some point beyond then is a possibility -- though only if the British government approves.

1. Why is reunification on the agenda?

The U.K. exit from the European Union is one big reason. Both Ireland and the U.K. joined the European Economic Community, as the EU was known then, in 1973. In the Brexit referendum in 2016, 56% of Northern Irish voters supported remaining in the EU. As in Scotland, where a majority backed EU membership, being forced out of the 27-nation bloc has stirred nationalist sentiment. Scotland’s government is pushing for a referendum to leave the U.K., which also includes England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Some 88% of Northern Irish who see themselves as “nationalists” voted to remain in the EU, compared to just 34% of “unionists,” who support staying in the U.K.

2. Why must the British approve a referendum?

It’s written in the Good Friday Agreement -- the 1998 peace deal that largely ended three decades of violence in the region. The governments in Dublin, Brussels and Belfast have no formal say. Under the terms, the U.K.’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland can only call a referendum -- commonly referred to as a “border poll” -- if it appears “likely” a majority there would back a united Ireland. The accord doesn’t define “likely,” but possible scenarios include multiple polls showing a majority in favor of reunification or a consistent nationalist majority in the region’s power-sharing assembly. If a poll were called and defeated, it would be seven years before another could be held.

3. Would the Republic of Ireland also get a vote?

Almost certainly, yes, but the proposal has to pass on both sides of the border. If Northern Ireland voted against, the measure would be rejected no matter what happened in the south. Northern Ireland has a population of about 1.9 million to the Republic’s 4.9 million. Voters in the south would probably back reunification.

4. What do the polls say?

Few if any polls in Northern Ireland have ever indicated a majority in favor of reunification. A Sunday Times poll in January showed a slim lead for the pro-union side -- 47% to 42% -- with 11% of respondents undecided. Polls in the south consistently back unity. An RTE-commissioned poll in March showed 53% of respondents in favor of a united Ireland, 19% against and 28% undecided. Another finding of the Sunday Times poll: a majority of Northern Irish want a border poll within five years. What’s more, a YouGov poll showed more Britons were in favor of a border poll than were against one.

5. What do the authorities in Dublin say?

The current Irish government is adamant there should be no border poll for at least five years amid heightened tensions in Northern Ireland around Brexit. An Irish reunification referendum anytime soon would be “dynamite,” former Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who played a key role in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement, said in March. Longer term, all mainstream political parties publicly aspire to eventually reunite Ireland. Privately, though, most outside Sinn Fein (the main nationalist party) are wary for two key reasons. First, the potential cost; the U.K. provides Northern Ireland with a subsidy of about 10 billion pounds ($13.8 billion) annually. Second, the potential difficulty of absorbing a unionist community opposed to the concept, some bitterly so.

6. Why was Ireland divided?

The island was partitioned in 1921, a division cemented by a peace agreement between the British government and Irish rebels seeking independence after more than a century of British rule. Northern Ireland, where the population is majority Protestant, remained part of the U.K. The mostly Catholic southern part of the island became the Irish Free State, before formally declaring a republic in 1949.

7. How do demographics come in?

Northern Ireland’s census, which took place in March, may show Catholics outnumbering Protestants for the first time -- though Protestants are still likely to be a majority among voting age groups. Results will be released in the fall of 2022. At the last census, in 2011, 48% identified as Protestant and 45% as Catholic. Not all Protestants are unionists and not all Catholics are nationalists, but religious identity does tend to be a good indicator of attitude to a united Ireland. Catholics voted to stay in the EU by 85% to 15%, while 60% of Protestants voted to exit, for example.

8. So when might a vote happen?

Not anytime soon. Neither the Dublin nor London governments has showed any appetite for a referendum, especially with Brexit having crystallized divisions in the region. That’s not to say the winds won’t shift. A new referendum for Scottish independence, for example, could boost sentiment for a border poll, as might the census results in 2022 or the likely inclusion of Sinn Fein in the government in Dublin.

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