The fight over scrapping the Northern Ireland protocol has raised the spectre of Irish reunification.
When did Britain first try to unite Ireland?
The first written record of Ireland comes from the Roman geographer and all-round boffin Ptolemy in around 100AD. He called it Mikra Brettania, or “Little Britain”, but back then there were 16 separate kingdoms on the island. Every so often in the centuries that followed, some big cheese would try uniting them all under the title “High King of Ireland”. One especially valiant effort was made by King Brian in the 10th century, who reigned over 150 other Irish kings and finally ended the marauding dominance of the Vikings. It wasn’t until the Normans pushed on after invading England to conquer Ireland that it finally became a single domain, under the rule of King Henry II of England.
How did the Irish react to being ruled by the English?
Badly. From Tudor times onwards, there were frequent revolts. One especially grisly patch of insurgencies was the 16th-century Desmond Rebellions, which Sir Walter Raleigh’s half-brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert helped to put down with brutal force, killing civilians at random and erecting corridors of severed Irish heads at the entrance to his encampments. The harsh anti-Catholic discrimination of Oliver Cromwell’s subsequent military dictatorship stirred up fervent anti-English sentiment, setting the scene for even more rebellions in the 17th and 18th centuries. By the start of the 20th century, Irish nationalists were waging a full-scale guerrilla campaign against the British.
How was this resolved?
In 1912, a vociferous minority of around a million Protestants, whose forebears had been planted in the northern province of Ulster by Cromwell’s posse back in the 17th century, began arming themselves for a civil war against the island’s three million Catholics. To put a stop to the bloodshed, in 1921 the British government negotiated the partition of Ireland into the Protestant-majority north and the newly independent and almost entirely Catholic south. Ever since, the northern fragment has been governed by a Protestant majority whose sole rationale is staying out of the Republic of Ireland and attached to Britain.
How well was Northern Ireland governed?
Until Edward Heath’s Conservative government intervened in the early 1970s, says Max Hastings in Bloomberg, Northern Ireland’s Protestant rulers lorded over their 42% Catholic minority “almost as harshly as US white segregationists in the old South treated African Americans”. Protestant grandee Lord Brookeborough, Ulster’s prime minister between 1943 and 1963, said “without embarrassment” that, while he knew fellow landowners who employed Catholics on their estates, “he would never do so himself”. Catholic civil rights protests, partly inspired by the victories won by African Americans in the US, finally erupted in 1969 into the 30 years of bloody street fighting coyly referred to as the Troubles.
How bloody was it?
In the three decades of violence between the Irish Republican Army and Unionist paramilitaries, more than 3,500 lives were lost – 32% of them British soldiers or undercover agents, 16% of them terrorists and paramilitaries, and the remaining 52% civilians caught in the crossfire or blown up by bombs. In August 1969, says Hastings, “I witnessed Protestant police hosing down a Catholic block of flats in Belfast with a heavy machinegun, killing a nine-year-old boy”. The IRA, for their part, kneecapped and murdered hundreds of innocent people with pipe bombs and bullets. Both sides had “much to be ashamed of” before, in 1998, an uneasy truce was agreed in the shape of the Good Friday Agreement.
What’s changed since then?
The agreement ended most of the violence but, as Philip Stephens puts it in the FT, “did not heal the wounds”. One tenet of the deal was that the south would give up on its stated aim of a united Ireland, at least until a majority of voters in the six counties that make up Northern Ireland decided they wanted it too. That may come sooner than expected. In the recent elections, Sinn Fein, once the political face of the IRA, won the most votes in Northern Ireland’s devolved parliament. Protestant demographic dominance is being eroded: only two of the six counties still have “significant Protestant majorities”, according to a 2019 report from Ulster University, and within a decade Belfast “will almost certainly have a Catholic majority”.
How has Brexit affected this?
When Boris Johnson pulled Britain out of the EU, he had to do so without erecting a so-called “hard border” between the north and the Irish Republic, its EU neighbour. A hard border would have risked destroying the Good Friday Agreement. So Brexit negotiators agreed the “Northern Ireland protocol”: the north would de facto remain in the EU’s single market so goods could travel around the island of Ireland with no extra form-filling, border checks or inspections. The trouble is, this created an invisible border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the Irish Sea. Theresa May’s original Brexit deal avoided this by keeping the whole of the UK within the EU customs union.
What is there now to prevent unification?
The 350,000 or so Protestant Unionists in the north remain vehemently opposed, believing they would be marginalised in a united Ireland. It is to pacify these Unionists, and their supporters at Westminster, that the government now wants to renegotiate the protocol agreement with the EU. Some southern politicians also worry about the repercussions of absorbing the embittered “Proddies” into a united Ireland. But polls show a slim majority in Northern Ireland are now in favour of a referendum on Irish unity. If that happens, says Hastings, and a majority choose to join the south, few English people would care. And it would serve the best interests of the Irish “save a rump of alienated Protestants, historically out of their time”. When Irish reunification finally does take place, “a historic injustice will be righted”.