25 July 2016

Terry Glavin: How the Brexit vote could lead to a united Ireland

Terry Glavin 
July 20, 2016
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DUBLIN — At Eason’s book shop on O’Connell Street, at the Gutter Bookshop in Temple Bar and at Hodges Figgis on Dawson Street, the windows are filled with all the new titles on the Easter Rebellion of 1916. And for €20, you can take a guided whirlwind tour, in a truck fitted out in military style, of the key landmarks of the insurrection that marked the birth of the Irish Republic and have yourself photographed with “authentic period replica weapons and equipment.” The 1916 Freedom Tour takes about an hour.

Then there are the innumerable academic symposia, the television documentaries, the solemn commemorative ceremonies and the parades. This year in Ireland, everything was supposed to be about history, but now, out of the blue, the United Kingdom’s June 23 referendum on the European Union has dragged the thorniest questions about Anglo-Irish relations, and Irish national unity, straight out of the past, directly into the present, the possible and the political. On Tuesday, this was the banner headline in the Irish Independent: Get Ready for a United Ireland.

Of the many unanticipated consequences of Britain’s vote to leave the EU, none was so ill considered as the potential damage a Leave vote would do to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the settlement that ended decades of sectarian violence and reconciled a 26-county Irish republic with British sovereignty in the U.K.’s six Ulster counties. The agreement, which allowed for shared citizenship and eliminated all the heavily guarded checkpoints on the absurd border between North and South, was predicated in no small measure on shared EU membership. Now, everything’s up in the air again.

In Northern Ireland, where a majority voted to remain within the EU, there has been such a run on requests for Irish passports that Ulster’s General Register Office, which handles births, deaths and marriages, has had to suspend its ordinary operations to handle the spike in applications. Unless some other legal route opens up, there is only one way for those in the U.K.’s six Ulster counties to get back into Europe, and it’s through the Irish Republic.

In the hours immediately following the surprise EU referendum result, Britain’s Conservative government was quick to dismiss it when Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, warned that Westminster could no longer claim a democratic mandate to represent Ulster in negotiations with the EU and should prepare for a referendum on reunification with the rest of Ireland. That view has now been expressed in only a slightly more modulated form by Ireland’s taoiseach (prime minister), Enda Kenny, and by the official opposition leader, Micheál Martin.

“If there is a clear evidence of a majority of people wishing to leave the United Kingdom and join the Republic, then that should be catered for in the discussions that take place,” said Kenny, leader of the Fine Gael party.

Markus Schreiber/The Associated PressIrish Prime Minister Enda Kenny

Martin, leader of the Fianna Fail party, says Britain’s decision to leave the EU could end up being a “defining moment” in Irish history and, in any case, Britain and Ireland will have to “rethink” the arrangements underlying the Good Friday agreement. “I hope it moves us toward majority support for unification and, if it does, we should trigger a reunification referendum,” he said.

While the British government gave no particular forethought and devoted no obvious resources to contingency planning in the event of a Leave victory in the EU referendum, Kenny’s Fine Gael government in Dublin established a small unit more than a year ago to scope out scenarios, although there was little Dublin could do beyond trying to drum up business for Irish exporters (roughly half of Ireland’s exports go to the EU, and a fifth of that trade is with the United Kingdom).

With the U.K. out of the EU, just one monumental entanglement to sort through is the Anglo-Irish Common Travel Area agreement, which has been in force in one form or another since 1923. Just how a post-EU Britain would reconstruct and maintain its only land border with Europe — a 500-kilometre winding line on Ireland’s map between Lough Foyle in the northwest and Warrenpoint, barely more than 100 kilometres north of Dublin — is anybody’s guess.
The Associated PressIrish prisoners march along a quay under British guard during the Irish Republican Army's armed rebellion against British rule in Dublin, Ireland, on April 4, 1916.

Then again, Ireland stands to benefit a great deal in the event foreign firms relocate in droves from Britain in order to hold onto their seamless trade arrangements with the EU’s 27 remaining member states. It’s a bit mean to say so out loud, but it is nevertheless tempting to recall the rallying cry of the Easter Rising: “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity.”

Dubliners seem to be going about their business as though nothing much will come of it, but there is an anxiety about the EU referendum’s implications that’s beginning to seep in. “We’ve been complacent. We’re all stumbling into this on the assumption that things will hold together,” Pat Burke, a theatre company manager at Saint Patrick’s College in Dublin, told me over pints at The Barge pub on the Grand Canal the other day. “The English didn’t have a clue what they were getting into. They don’t seem to have a clue why Northern Ireland is the way it is.”

Northern Ireland is, most importantly, at peace with itself. The on-again, off-again sectarian warfare that was a legacy of its exclusion from the Irish Republic all those years ago was brought to an end by the Good Friday Agreement and everything it entailed. “I don’t think we’re going to see any of that again,” Burke said, “but my fear is that in the north we could be seeing a return of some of the old animosities.”
Justin Tang/The Canadian PressKevin Vickers

Kevin Vickers, Canada’s ambassador to Ireland, is of more or less the same view. “Wherever I go in Ireland, whenever I talk about the times of The Troubles, there is no appetite to go back to the way things were,” Vickers told me. “My intuitive sense is that this is an ongoing process between the Northern Ireland government and the government here, and from everything I observe they work very well together. They’re very co-operative. There is a very close relationship, and I am optimistic that things will sort themselves out.”

One hopes. Still, you don’t need to be especially attuned to the peculiarities of Irish humour to find it just the tiniest bit amusing that in 2016 the British are treading perilously close to accomplishing by mistake what the heroes of 1916 failed to accomplish on purpose — a united 32-county republic. It is far too early for talk along those lines, of course. But still.

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