Small steps towards Irish unity

The question of what to do about the open land border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland has plagued the UK ever since Brexit, since Ireland remains part of the EU bloc while Northern Ireland, being part of the UK, is now out of it. Irish people on both sides are adamantly opposed to introducing a customs and border barrier that would interrupt the free flow of goods and people that they have enjoyed ever since the Good Friday peace accord that was signed in 1998 that brought an end to the long standing conflict.

The agreement acknowledged:

  • that the majority of the people of Northern Ireland wished to remain a part of the United Kingdom;
  • that a substantial section of the people of Northern Ireland, and the majority of the people of the island of Ireland, wished to bring about a united Ireland.

Both of these views were acknowledged as being legitimate. For the first time, the Irish government accepted in a binding international agreement that Northern Ireland was part of the United Kingdom. The Irish Constitution was also amended to implicitly recognise Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom’s sovereign territory, conditional upon the consent for a united Ireland from majorities of the people in both jurisdictions on the island. On the other hand, the language of the agreement reflects a switch in the United Kingdom’s statutory emphasis from one for the union to one for a united Ireland. The agreement thus left the issue of future sovereignty over Northern Ireland open-ended.

While that agreement settled one problem by largely stopping the violence and removing the border restrictions, the UK’s Brexit vote has now opened the border up for debate again.

The simplest solution, in theory at least, would be for Northern Ireland to join up with the Irish Republic to create a united Ireland whose borders would be the borders of the island but that is generally opposed by the unionist majority in Northern Ireland that are largely Protestant descendants of the British colonists. In addition to traditional allegiances to the UK, they had reservations about becoming a minority to Catholics in a united Ireland. After all, there was for a long time a bloody conflict across the border, largely along religious lines, and hard feelings still linger.

I was not aware of a surprising recent development when the Sinn Féin became the largest single party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, receiving 29% of the vote in legislative elections last year. The Sinn Fein now hold at least a plurality in the legislatures of both regions.

Daniel Finn reviews two recent books about the region and the prospects of eventual reunification. Despite the recent developments, there is still a long way to go before there might be a realistic chance of this happening. One of the big blocks is the relationship of Sinn Féin to the Irish Republican Army that carried out attacks against the British security forces and other people and entities in Northern Ireland during the time of the violent conflict and is blamed for many deaths.

Finn says that navigating the historical role of its ally the IRA will be the main challenge for Sinn Féin in its attempts to unify the two parts of the island.

While there is no doubt that in many instances there was a duality of membership and a convergence in discourse and objectives, Sinn Féin was not a mere political front for the IRA. It had its own strategies, agendas and personnel. It wholeheartedly supported the actions of its counterpart, but it also contributed to the political debate within the movement and at large. Ultimately, it was Sinn Féin’s vision that prevailed.

There are other changes underway that undercut the old Protestant/Catholic binary division and may aid the move to unify.

One of the chapters in Northern Ireland a Generation After Good Friday, written before the 2022 Assembly election, explores the social trends underpinning this political shift. Drawing on a wealth of survey evidence, the authors note that society in the region is now “more diverse in terms of communities and identities, and less easy to categorise in binary terms, than it has ever been before.”

This is partly because of immigration, although Northern Ireland’s non-white population is proportionately much smaller than that of its southern neighbor. The big change has been the increase in the number of those identifying as “no religion,” from 9 percent in 1998 to 13 percent in 2008 and 20 percent in 2018. The vast majority of those people were brought up as either Protestants or Catholics.

A 2019 survey found greater support for Irish unity in the “no religion” category than among self-identified Protestants. However, this segment of opinion was still vastly outnumbered by those who supported the constitutional status quo, while many others said that they simply wouldn’t vote in the event of a border poll:

Those of no religion tend to be in favour of the Union but are also more likely to be keen to actively disassociate themselves from a political question that appears to be divisive.

Among Protestants, there is also a significant gap between support for the Union as such and support for unionism as an organized political force: in 2019, 87 percent of Protestant respondents said that they wanted to remain in the UK, yet just two-thirds described themselves as unionists.

It will be interesting to see how this develops.


  1. moonslicer says

    First of all, it’s “Sinn Fein”, not “THE Sinn Fein.” The “the” isn’t necessary.

    Next of course there’s mention (as always) of the IRA, but no mention of paramilitaries on the other side, such as the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). The impression is often given that violence was republican, not unionist, but that is very far from the truth.

    My son and I seem to be in agreement on this issue: while a united Ireland might be desirable, there are plenty of unionists up North that will make you think again. Do we really want to be in the same country as that lot? I myself would consider them an Irish version of the American far right, or close enough. They’re adamantly opposed to a united Ireland, and I myself see no point in forcing the issue. It’s not just divisive, it’s poisonous.

  2. ardipithecus says

    The Tory government in the UK is actively trying to overturn the Northern Ireland Protocol bill that allows the hard Brexit border to be in the channel between Ireland and the British Isle. Thus the EU would want to force a hard border between NI and Eire, contrary to the Good Friday Agreement and could make Irish reunification an economic necessity.

    One immoveable object colliding with another. . . .

  3. says

    @moonslicer: I agree.

    Over here I see the equivalent as putting up border controls and keeping the southerners down in their 3rd world shithole. Where they want to be anyway. Maybe let POC cross the border freely, but keep the southern whites down there until they fix their fail.

  4. moonslicer says

    @ #3 Marcus Ranum

    Are you calling the Republic of Ireland (“Southern Ireland”) a 3rd world shithole? I think you’ve got a lot to learn about this country.

    Note this from the above article: “This is partly because of immigration, although Northern Ireland’s non-white population is proportionately much smaller than that of its southern neighbor.”

    And what “fail” are you talking about that southern whites need to fix? It’s a bit ironic that Northern Protestants fear being dominated by a Catholic majority, because the influence of the Catholic Church in the Republic has pretty much disappeared. Catholics in this country at this point are pretty much CINO. And what other country in the world do you know of where LGBT people come close to having equal rights in society?

    Not saying this country is perfect, but if it’s a choice between this one and the USA, I’m delighted to be in this one.

  5. mnb0 says

    “The simplest solution, in theory at least …..”
    The best solution would be Scotland becoming independent and Northern-Ireland/Ulster joining it. This new country can become member of the EU (again). Then the Good Friday peace accord can remain exactly the same.

  6. Mano Singham says

    moonslicer @#1,

    I think there is a simple explanation for why the violence of the Ulster paramilitaries was not referred to in the article. The violence by the Ulster paramilitaries would not be significant to the question of Irish unity since I am pretty sure the Republic of Ireland would welcome unity with Northern Ireland despite that history. It is Northern Ireland that resists unity and hence the reasons for it are the ones mentioned.

  7. sonofrojblake says

    @moonslicer -- not to put words in mjrs mouth, but I read it as saying the north is the shithole. That’s where the nutty right wing fundies are.

  8. Tethys says

    I read Marcus as comparing the dirty south of the USA to the religious Irish people who are claiming their violent past was not due to asinine religious views.

    Sort of how an ass in Florida is jiggering education because they don’t want their precious white children to learn about racism or how America was built on slavery.

    I’m not sure they are analogous situations except for the penchant for erasing unsavory truths.

  9. moonslicer says

    @ Mano @ #7

    OK, I see your point and of course I haven’t read the two books in question. But for a long time when it comes to the question of violence up North, the focus has been on the IRA and not so much on the Protestant paramilitaries.

    And this leads to your second point, the notion that the Republic would welcome unity with the North. I suspect I’m in a pretty small minority, but it is the question of Protestant violence that raises doubts in my mind. Suppose, e.g., that there was a referendum up North on the question of a United Ireland, and the result was 52% to 48% in favor of unity and so unity goes ahead. I would see this as a recipe for disaster. There would be renewed violence.

    For unity to be successful there needs to be a clear majority up North supporting the idea, which implies diminished influence among the hard-core opponents headed by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). It’s simply very hard to see that happening any time soon. The article is talking about increasing diversity and the fact that traditional groupings are beginning to change. This is what’s needed. Cultural change up North is needed for the idea of unity to be successful, and that will be a gradual process, if it happens at all. There’s no point in trying to push anything on a very strong faction, even if they are a minority.

    The whole situation now is hugely ironic. In the last election the DUP supported the Tories because they thought the Tories would take a hard line with the EU. But then the Tories signed an agreement with the EU that provided for the Northern Ireland Protocol, which has driven the DUP into a frenzy. Precisely the opposite of what they would have wanted. And now the Tories are agitating/negotiating for a modification of the protocols. I.e., they sign a treaty agreeing to something and straightaway they want it modified, and they often accuse the EU of negotiating in bad faith, and really what can you do?

    The DUP have expressed their dissatisfaction by shutting down the legislative assembly up North (because that assembly requires co-operation among all parties), which means that the North has been without devolved government for quite some time now, and what do you do? You’re talking about people who are pretty much impossible to deal with.

    This is why I personally hesitate over a United Ireland. I’d like to see it myself, but I think we’re going to need a big change in some people’s attitudes for that to be possible.

  10. moonslicer says

    @ #8 & #9

    It has occurred to me that perhaps I very badly misread Marcus Ranum’s post. It’s not entirely clear to me. Maybe he’d want to put me back on track.

    And to Tethys: this question of how much of the violence up North was motivated by religion and how much by politics, that is a quagmire that I would not want to get into myself. Both factors were present, and how to assess their comparative contributions would be beyond me.

  11. consciousness razor says


    The best solution would be Scotland becoming independent and Northern-Ireland/Ulster joining it. This new country can become member of the EU (again). Then the Good Friday peace accord can remain exactly the same.

    Or they could just cancel Brexit, since it’s really dumb. That’s better than your “best” solution, because nobody has to suffer a Brexit in this scenario.

    Even less realistically, which is alright since we’re playing fantasy football here anyway: they could all simply decide to join the Republic of Ireland (and with it, the EU) and just toss that old UK nonsense into the dustbin of history. It’s almost unthinkable, I know, but not actually unthinkable and probably still better than Brexit.

    Better yet, the EU (or at least part of it) could become a real country, with all of the people in it having to peacefully coexist (more or less) with one another, as in other countries. At the very least, we could all agree that this sort of solution has some real teeth on it. And it isn’t just about some (hard to interpret and maybe near-meaningless) current polling results given the things current pollsters like to ask about their subjects.

  12. AndrewD says

    I think, that as an English person, the best solution for the Irish problem is for the Great Britain to leave Ireland completely as an exercise in decolonisation. Those areas which wish for reunification should be allowed to join the Irish republic,the rest would be sent on their way as an independent Northern Irish polity which could negotiate a border agreement with the South and Europe.

  13. says

    #3 Marcus Ranum
    #4 Moonslicer

    I thought Marcus Ranum was referring to the southern US states, not the Republic of Ireland. I did an 8 day tour of the Republic in 2018 and returned the next year for a hiking adventure thru the Wicklow Mountains. For sure, the Republic is not a third world shithole and I do not think Marcus Ranum was suggesting that -- he was (IMO) talking about the racist southerners in the US of A.

  14. says

    I was referreing to the north in terms of the US south. Sorry I was not clear.

    You’re right that my experience in Ireland is limited. A total of a month of driving about in the south, over three occasions. Never enough time to get a feel for such a lovely place and people.

    I have about the same amount of experience in the US south, too.

    Overgeneralizing about people is never a good idea though isn’t this topic really all about that?

  15. says

    PS --
    The advice “stay out of the north” affected me similarly to my disinterest in ever visiting Mississippi.

    An American view of the troubles is probably as inaccurate as an Irish view of the US south’s racial politics. I admit I tend to be dismissive of religious politics and supporters of imperialism.

    My mother’s side of the family are from a few hours north of Dublin. I drove up looking for grandpa’s place and asked at the pub. “Oh you’re looking for the danes?” Apparently my ancestry was a bit nordic on both sides.

  16. moonslicer says

    @ Marcus Ranum #15 & #16

    Hi, Marcus! My apologies. I should undoubtedly have read your post more carefully and then I wouldn’t have misunderstood it so badly.

    I will say that I think it would be impossible for someone who doesn’t know this country well to appreciate the changes/progress that have occurred here over the last 30 years or so. The Irish people finally got sick and tired of the abuses of the Church, and that’s when they started listening to themselves rather than the priests. I can remember back in the 80s when a bishop came out condemning the opening of supermarkets on Sunday. (This was the same bishop who was later discovered having fathered a son by an American woman.) People just laughed at him.

    But they really got the ball rolling in 1995 by at last approving a referendum providing for divorce. In more recent times there have been referenda providing for same-sex marriage and abortion and removing blasphemy from the books as a criminal act.

    Oh, and we transgender people have gained a large measure of freedom as well--which is why the backlash against trans people in the US and UK is especially sickening. Over here for the last 7 years we trans people have just been going about our lives in peace, and Irish society isn’t falling apart over this issue. But you try and explain that to the far-right types.

    The country has liberalized to a great extent (another reason why the hard-core DUP up North don’t want to join us), and over my son’s lifetime (37 years) has become totally unrecognizable. I think the Irish people have discovered that it’s a nice thing to be able to breathe.

  17. Dunc says

    Or they could just cancel Brexit, since it’s really dumb.

    Even if we wanted to, it’s not something we can do unilaterally -- for us to rejoin, all the EU member states would have to agree, and at this point I really don’t think they would.

  18. consciousness razor says

    Yeah, I know, although looking at it from the outside as I am, I’m not sure I really understand why they wouldn’t agree to it, if there are genuinely good reasons for that or if it’s mainly just out of spite.

    I mean, sure, the Brits do kind of smell funny and whatnot, but other Europeans already had to deal with that for a long time before this whole mess, no? I figured they had basically gotten used to it by this point.

    More seriously, I get that the UK has had years now to try to avoid throwing itself off this cliff, so it wouldn’t be fair at all to put the burden on the other EU member states. It’s totally understandable for them to have lost all patience a long time ago. It’s just that Brexit is not (or at least not clearly) beneficial for any of them either, so it seems like they ought to be fairly open to undoing it, if the UK finally came to its senses and decided it’s a bad idea. That’s obviously a big “if,” but just assume it did happen, purely for the sake of argument. To me, that sounds like a relatively good result for the EU, better than the alternative would be, so they may not exactly be happy about the whole ordeal — I wouldn’t be — but nonetheless shouldn’t be opposed to that outcome either. Because it’s either that or something worse, so you just take the better deal if you can get it, no?

  19. flex says

    While I’m certainly not an expert, I think any attempt by the UK to re-enter the EU will be stymied by the question of sovereign currency. When the EU first formed, it bent over backwards to allow the UK to retain sovereignty over it’s currency. I’m pretty certain that, now that the UK has left the EU, if the UK petitions to rejoin one of the conditions to rejoin will be to retire the pound and move to the Euro. I don’t see the UK agreeing to that.

    There are actually some good arguments on both sides of that debate, but in the end a common market cannot exist if there is not a common currency. The best you can reach is removing barriers to trade, taxes on imports, and allow the free travel of citizens. I suppose you could remove the difficulty by pegging the currencies against each other, say 1 Euro = 0.9 Pounds, and require it to stay there for a fixed period of time (5 years may be a good time between resets). That would create an effective common currency. But I really don’t see the UK agreeing to that; the oligarchs in the UK make too much money by maintaining a sovereign currency. If the people of the UK want to rejoin the EU, they must first create incentives for the oligarchs in the UK to join the EU, and some significant dis-incentives for the UK to remain separate. This can be done, but it takes a lot of political will and probably a change in culture. It will also be fought, tooth and nail, by the oligarchs.

    A similar change in culture may also be required for Northern Ireland to re-join Ireland. But as Ireland is becoming more attractive to live in, more inclusive and less repressive, that may be occurring already. There may come a time when the citizens of Northern Ireland decide that the cost and effort of remaining part of the UK, and separate from the country they share their only border with, is higher than they really want to pay. That will only happen if the reactionary culture in Northern Ireland, which became fixed in place, a component of their identify, dies off and is replaced by a culture which isn’t afraid of religious persecution. As it’s only been 25 years since the Good Friday peace accord, I would give it another generation, another 15-20 years, before it starts being seriously discussed. Even then there would be a portion of the population which would sooner resort to violence than re-unite. But it should be much smaller than the proportion of that population today.

  20. sonofrojblake says

    @Tethys, 9:

    the religious Irish people who are claiming their violent past was not due to asinine religious views

    The idea that anyone in Ireland has ever pretended that this is not mainly about religion* is absolutely hilarious. Do you even know where Ireland is?

    @consciousness razor, 12:

    they could just cancel Brexit

    Too late to cancel. Never too late to reverse. It’s conceivable I’ll live to see it. I think it more likely I’ll live to see a united Ireland. Also, everything flex said.

    *By “about religion”, I mean the rights in the six counties of Catholics, who have long been second class citizens compared to Protestants. I mean, they’re the same fucking religion, it’s strictly speaking about denomination, but that’s religion as far as anyone sensible is concerned. If Protestants and Catholics had all the same rights and privileges, there’d never have been violence.

  21. Dunc says

    #cr: One thing you have to remember is that we spent much of our time as members being as awkward and obstructionist as we could get away with, so there are some very good reasons for at least some in the EU to be glad we’ve left. Then there’s the fact that we’ve conducted the Brexit negotiations and their aftermath openly in bad faith, which can’t have won us any friends -- we’ve repeatedly demonstrated that we simply can’t be trusted to honour our agreements.

    But I think the most important factor is that they won’t want to let us back in unless they can be sure that we’re not going to change our minds again. Once was bad enough.

    @flex: I don’t think the Euro is actually that big a deal. Yes, EU members are technically supposed to commit to joining the Euro in principle, but there’s no timeline or enforcement mechanism, and there are several current members who clearly have no plans to actually do so in the foreseeable future.

  22. Tethys says


    Do you even know where Ireland is?

    Do you know how to read? Context is key to comprehension.
    Are you claiming that stupid religious beliefs do not underlie most of the asinine politics of the southern US, in the same way that religion based political violence caused Ireland to be divided?

    Civil war here was about Slavery, though plenty of fools will claim it was primarily due to states rights vs federal rights.

    Sinn Fein. I’m far more interested in Irish apparently sharing the plural pronoun use of sein with Germanic languages. Vikings is a logical mode of transmission.

  23. sonofrojblake says

    Do I know how to read… let’s see:
    “I read Marcus as comparing the dirty south of the USA to the religious Irish people who are claiming their violent past was not due to asinine religious views”

    You have it that Marcus is comparing to things, (a) and (b).
    Item (a) is “the dirty south of the USA”.
    Item (b) is “the religious Irish people who are claiming their violent past was not due to asinine religious views”

    And I am observing that item (b) does not exist, and to even suggest it does sounds, to be diplomatic, let’s say uninformed. Nobody in Ireland is trying or has ever tried to pretend that their differences are anything other than primarily religious. Give them that credit at least.

    Are you claiming that stupid religious beliefs do not underlie most of the asinine politics of the southern US

    Interesting question. I’d have to say yes, I’m claiming exactly that. The asinine politics of the southern US -- of the whole US, frankly -- seem to this outsider’s eyes to rest primarily on a bed of violent racism, nationalist exceptionalism, murderous colonialism, classism and misogyny. Religion is just what they use to justify it, it’s not what it’s about.

    Ireland, by contrast, was until relatively recently pretty racially homogeneous -- no ancient indigenes, no imported slaves, no waves of immigrants from their massive global empire, just barely-distinguishable white people, some of them slightly more recently arrived than others from just across a sea you could literally swim across. The only thing dividing them is what flavour of Christianity they follow, and how that relates to how recently they arrived on the island and whether they fundamentally consider themselves as belonging to the island they live on, or to the larger archipelago. And in the bit of Ireland that England hung onto in the divorce, the Proddies were on top and made sure the Catholics were second-class citizens… then acted all surprised when they didn’t just sit down and take it. You might, possibly, argue that it’s not really about religion in Ireland either, it’s about Irish nationalists vs. British loyalists, and that’s true… but it’s very difficult to separate the two.

    As has been said further up -- the left-footers in the south have in recent decades begun a climb out of their historic backward obeisance to the Pope towards their present and future as a progressive, forward looking nation, legalising all kinds of things that make people living in England think “eh? That was ILLEGAL until last week???”. Meanwhile the Proddies in the north don’t want anything to do with any attitudes that smack of being dragged into the disgustingly debauched 1960s. There was a brief time, back when one of our recent Prime Ministers, I forget which (sarcasm: it was May) promised them the moon on a stick in return for their support following a disastrous election result. The next PM had an election of his own a while later and thanks to the opposition persisting in fielding a joke candidate he won handily and didn’t need them any more, and he threw the Proddies under a bus so quickly he didn’t even have time to print a massive lie on the side of it. They’ve since thrown their toys out of the pram so the north is still governed by the adults in London.

  24. consciousness razor says

    The asinine politics of the southern US — of the whole US, frankly — seem to this outsider’s eyes to rest primarily on a bed of violent racism, nationalist exceptionalism, murderous colonialism, classism and misogyny. Religion is just what they use to justify it, it’s not what it’s about.

    Just worth pointing out the obvious, that the “dirty south” stuff is all classism, at least when it’s not also racism.

    Of course, that kind of shit is said, without irony and without giving it a second thought, as is tradition, by sanctimonious hypocrites all over the country, although they wouldn’t mention this point to you themselves, since they’re totally oblivious about their own relentless shitheadedness, every single time, no matter how many times they may have been corrected about it in the past.

    To top it off, that shit comes almost invariably while they’re acting like they’ve put their finger on what really ails the US — namely, the one part of it that has the least amount of economic or political control over what actually happens in this fucking trash heap of a country, unlike the more wonderfully benighted parts of it where they must live.

    Why does it basically only happen when they think they’re doing that? Because outside of that context, they usually don’t give enough of a shit about the people there to even mention them in the first place, unless they dream up an interesting new way to exploit them.

  25. birgerjohansson says

    BTW, since Ireland is an English-language member of the EU, if you move there you are subject to the same worker protection legislation as other EU countries.
    The subject came up during a discussion at Pharyngula, about the shortage of genuine time off for University staff.
    If you don’t mind the weather, working in Ireland must be a great step up after the “Reaganized” work conditions in the US. 🙂

  26. sonofrojblake says

    working in Ireland must be a great step up after the “Reaganized” work conditions in the US

    I started mentally composing a list of reasons why living and working in Ireland would be better than living and working in the US, but it’s Wednesday morning already and I’m going away on Saturday evening, and I only type 60wpm so I haven’t got time to type them all out.

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