Demographics and Brexit. These are the two arguments I encounter most often when reading about how a United Ireland is likely to come into existence. On the face of it, they actually compliment each other quite well, demographics are the long term structural change that seem to move at glacial pace while Brexit is the shocking spark, the catalyst to re-invigorate nationalism. The modern-day equivalent of what Easter 1916 did to the Irish national psyche.. Combined, many believe (or hope) that these distinct factors have now put us on course for a United Ireland that cannot be stopped or diverted.
I believe this to be a very dangerous and arrogant assumption. It’s the multiple of the assumed maximum upside of both factors, transpiring as nationalists would hope. Furthermore, no time table accompanies this assumption and it could be twenty years before demographic change translates into a majority of people who want a United Ireland.
According to Section 1 of the GFA above the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will suggest a referendum if it appears likely a majority want a United Ireland. This vague language may prove to be a point of contention in the future. Would one election result in Northern Ireland where the Nationalist vote exceeded the unionist vote be enough? Or would the Nationalist vote have to exceed 50%+1 of the overall vote including Alliance, the Green Party etc? The closest the Nationalist vote has come to the Unionist vote was in March where there were only 1,200 votes between them. By June this had jumped back to 20,000 as the Unionist vote rallied.
There is no doubt that the Catholic population in Northern Ireland is growing faster than the Protestant one. There are many excellent sites that focus exclusively on NI demographics and I have used the voting graph from http://endgameinulster.blogspot.com.mt/. I don’t like to use this metric for much analysis as it is a horribly crude, sectarian headcount. One major challenge with the demographic argument is that over the next twenty years the newly eligible to vote Catholics will be part of the least religious generation in modern Ireland’s history. This generation are a lot less likely to associate their birth at religion with their national loyalties.
The 2021 British Census results will shed a lot more light on the demographics argument timeframe. It is unlikely, but there may not be another election in Northern Ireland until 2022. In that case, it would be four years for nationalists on both sides of the border to work on ideas and make further arguments without the distraction of elections.
The Brexit impact is that many of those who are currently comfortable living in Northern Ireland would become more favourable towards a United Ireland as Brexit divides the island again and wrecks the British economy. Nationalists shouldn’t simply assume this will happen. At the moment, it does look like Brexit is a shambles, however the UK has just reached its highest ever level of employment. Were the British government able to successfully implement a Brexit with minimal interference to their economy and a mostly technological solution to the border then a United Ireland might be further away than ever.
Perhaps less likely is the chance that Brexit would be so disastrous to Northern Ireland that the assumed annual British subvention to Northern Ireland of around 9 billion pounds would shoot up. In this case, there is every chance that the seemingly impregnable majority in the Republic who would vote for a United Ireland currently (based on polls) starts to dissipate.
As someone who would like to see a United Ireland as soon as possible without a return to violence, this article is not meant as a rebuke of nationalism today. It is a voice that wants to see a greater diversification of thought and dialogue. The arguments for a United Ireland must also have emotional appeal to a wide range of voters. It needs to be about building bridges and changing the discussion purely from a numbers game to a holistic approach that draws from economic, cultural and social arguments. There have been attempts at this and I hope to see more of these in the future. Demographics and Brexit have not changed the fact that currently more people in Northern Ireland would prefer to remain in the UK than to leave it. Let’s start changing that today with dialogue and imagination rather than waiting on events beyond our control…