What do Arlene Foster and Leo Varadkar have in common?
Not much, but both agree a border poll on Northern Ireland would be incredibly divisive.
That being said, conversations around a referendum are quietly gaining momentum - between Brexit, the pandemic and the anticipated census results, the future of Northern Ireland is being widely debated and fiercely defended.
With Good Friday marking 23 years since the historic Belfast Agreement, it got me thinking about all the unanswered questions I had.
Below is an impartial look at some of the key points in this conversations - partition, ‘The Troubles’, the Good Friday Agreement, Brexit and its impact, demographics, and the estimated cost of a united Ireland.
I really hope it helps you feel more informed and empowered when discussing this.
*This piece was originally published on April 6, 2021
ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT IDENTITY
When it comes to Northern Ireland, it would be lazy journalism to break down the population into certain ‘boxes’.
A religious background does not automatically denote a political affiliation, nor does it indicate how a person might be inclined to vote were a serious question of a united Ireland put before them.
For example, in the 2011 census 45% of Northern Ireland’s population said they were either Catholic or had been raised Catholic.
That being said, just 25% regarded themselves as Irish only.
Also, in a 2019 Northern Ireland LIFE & TIMES study, the majority of people said they don’t identify as either unionist or nationalist.
This piece refers to a lot of data, and I have tried to keep this in mind as much possible.
HOW DID PARTITION COME ABOUT?
To make a long story short, the island of Ireland was occupied by England, and laterally the British Empire, for centuries. During this time, thousands of settlers were brought to Ireland from Britain. They were largely protestant and deemed loyal to the crown, in what was known as ‘plantations’.
The largest and most successful plantation was in Ulster - the province in the north of Ireland.
In 1801, under the Act of Union, Ireland was brought under the rule of Westminster and had no real form of self-government. This is where the term ‘unionists’ comes from.
While the majority of the country remained Catholic, by 1900 Antrim, Down, Derry and Armagh all had a majority of Protestants. Neighbouring Fermanagh and Tyrone had almost 50% Protestant populations.
Then a century ago, Ireland was partitioned under the Government of Ireland Act during the war of independence. This legislation - passed by the British parliament in Westminster - partitioned the country into two separate states, Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland.
Northern Ireland remained part of the UK because of the population dynamics mentioned above - it was overwhelmingly protestant and unionist.
It was not until 1949 that the south became known as the Republic of Ireland.
For those who might not know - six of Ulster’s nine counties are part of Northern Ireland, while the other three are in the Republic of Ireland.
What are the six counties that make up Northern Ireland? Think of ‘FAT DAD’ - Fermanagh, Antrim, Tyrone, Derry, Armagh and Down.
Anyway, from 1921 to 1972 Northern Ireland was governed from Stormont by the Ulster Unionist Party, in what was termed as a protestant parliament for a protestant people.
During much of this time, around 90% of civil service employees were protestant, and the unemployment rate among Catholics was approximately 200% higher than among Protestants.
Sectarian violence between the late 1960s up until the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 became known as “The Troubles”. During this period, more than 3,500 were killed.
According to a leading academic, republican paramilitaries were responsible for 60% of the killings at the time.
The British Army and RUC were responsible for 10% of killings, while nearly three in every ten deaths were caused by loyalist paramilitaries.
Of those in the Provisional IRA who were killed, the majority were either killed in accidental explosions or by others in the IRA over suspicions of being an informer. Security forces were responsible for around 40% of the killings of Provisional IRA members at the time.
“The greatest danger to you if you were a Provisional IRA volunteer was not the RUC or the British Army – it was your own organisation killing you either accidentally or intentionally” - Professor Liam Kennedy from the Centre for Economic History at Queen’s University in Belfast
In total, 1,232 Catholic civilians and 698 Protestant civilians were killed during the conflict.
Below are some of the most frequently referenced moments during The Troubles;
- Bloody Sunday: On January 30 1972, the British Army fired into a crowd taking part in a civil rights march in Derry/Londonderry. Thirteen people were killed that day, another man died months later from his injuries.
- Bloody Friday: On July 21 1972, the IRA killed nine people after setting off 19 bombs across Belfast.
- Mountbatten’s murder: On August 27 1979, eighteen British soldiers were killed in two bombings. On the same day, Lord Mountbatten - Prince Philip’s uncle - was murdered by the IRA, who planted a bomb on his boat in Mayo.
- The hunger strikes: In 1981, ten men died after refusing food in Northern Ireland’s Maze prison. They were protesting for the right to be treated as political prisoners. Bobby Sands was the first to die on May 5, 66 days after his hunger strike began. During his time on strike, Sands was elected as a Member of Parliament in Westminster.
- Conservative conference: On October 12 1984, an IRA bomb on the Brighton Grand Hotel killed five people and injured 34. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and members of her Cabinet were staying at the hotel for their Conservative party conference at the time. In a chilling statement, the IRA expressed regret for not killing the prime minister, saying “today we were unlucky… but remember, we only have to be lucky once, you have to be lucky always”.
THE GOOD FRIDAY AGREEMENT 1998
In 1985 - a year after the bombing on Margaret Thatcher’s hotel - the Anglo Irish Agreement was signed.
The agreement marked the first time the British Government conceded the Irish Government could - and should - have an agreed role in the governance of Northern Ireland.
The Belfast Agreement thirteen years later - commonly referred to as the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) - was hailed as another historic step towards peace and stability after decades of sectarian violence.
In 1998, Tony Blair was British Prime Minister and Bertie Ahern was Ireland’s Taoiseach. It marked one of the defining moments of both careers, and is a topic they are often asked about to this day.
In fact, Bertie Ahern recently said a border poll on Irish unity was “not for now,” but should be held in 2028, the 30th anniversary of the agreement.
Anyway, let’s take it back to 1998 for a second;
“The principle of consent is absolute and is throughout the agreement… that is now accepted by all, north and south… those who believe in a united Ireland can make that case now by persuasion, not violence or threats.” - Tony Blair on the signing of the agreement in 1998
Below is a summary of the agreement’s key points;
- The status of Northern Ireland should be based on what the majority of the population wants, whether it be remaining in the union or joining a sovereign united Ireland
- A united Ireland could only be brought about if a majority of the population in Northern Ireland were in favour of it - basically, a desire for unity in the republic does not matter if the majority in Northern Ireland remain against it
- It is the right of the people on the island of Ireland alone to determine its status. Essentially that means there would be a referendum in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, but there would not be a referendum on this issue in Great Britain
- If a majority in Northern Ireland vote in favour of a united Ireland, there is a “binding obligation” on the Irish and UK Governments to legislate to make it happen
- Whichever government is in power (British or Irish) in Northern Ireland, they must exercise that power “with rigorous impartiality”
- Citizens in Northern Ireland have the right to identify and be accepted as British, Irish, or citizens of both. Also, the agreement ensures any future change in the status of Northern Ireland would not affect this
In May 1998, there were two referendums on the same day - north and south of the border - over whether or not to support the agreement.
In the Republic of Ireland, 94% backed the agreement, while 71% in the North did.
The agreement also led to a change in constitution for the Republic of Ireland, as seen below;
“It is the firm will of the Irish nation, in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions, recognising that a united Ireland shall be brought about only by peaceful means with the consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island.” - The Irish Constitution
Worth noting: The signing of the GFA did not result in an end to all sectarian violence. In fact, just four months later, an IRA bomb killed 29 people in Omagh in the county of Tyrone. At the time, it marked the deadliest attack throughout the conflict.
*Note: Here is a link to the full Belfast Agreement
1973 BORDER POLL
If a border poll were to happen, it would not be the first time.
Back in 1973, there was an overwhelming majority of voters who chose to stay within the United Kingdom. However, the poll results were not that newsworthy or unexpected.
Why? Because there was a boycott by Catholic voters. In the end, less than 1% of the Catholic population voted in the referendum. In fact, only 6,463 votes were cast in favour of a united Ireland.
FUTURE BORDER POLL
While the Irish government are often asked about their thoughts on a referendum, a decision on whether or not a border poll should occur would actually come from the UK government.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has the responsibility of deciding whether or not there should be a referendum, if and when they feel a majority would be in favour of unification.
However, it is not clear how that conclusion would be reached, as the GFA doesn’t mention one specific development that would need to occur.
If a border poll does happen, regardless of the outcome at least seven years must pass before another could occur.
There would be a referendum in both the north and south of Ireland. Again, there is no specific outline in the GFA on when these would happen.
The Institute for Government said the wording of the agreement is “widely interpreted to mean that future border polls must be held in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland at the same time”.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has repeatedly said he thinks a border poll - where a simple majority of 51% of the votes would decide its future - could be incredibly divisive in Northern Ireland.
The UK’s Brexit referendum - where 52% voted to leave and 48% to remain - caused bitter divisions in British society.
A lot of the recent chatter about this topic has highlighted some of the many unanswered questions that remain - would a minimum turnout be required for the referendum vote, does the Northern Ireland Assembly continue as a devolved government with ties to Dublin rather than Westminster, would the British-Irish Council (created by the GFA) continue to exist, and how long might a transition period be?
IS THERE AN APPETITE FOR A BORDER POLL?
Sinn Féin has been front and centre in putting the spotlight on this topic.
Last month, Friends of Sinn Féin (a fundraising group based in the US) placed half-page ads in both The Washington Post and The New York Times, saying the people should “have their say” on a united Ireland.
The ad suggested there was a “clear” choice between “a united Ireland and membership in the European Union, or a divided island at the mercy of the British Government”.
Calling for an “inclusive, informed and respectful discussion,” the message said a united Ireland would be a “welcoming home for all”.
Days later, Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster reiterated her view that she would feel obliged to leave if a united Ireland were to occur.
“What is the point in staying in a place where you don’t feel comfortable, and where your identity would not be something that would be respected?”
Foster - who is head of the Democratic Unionist Party - also said “rationally and objectively there is no argument for a united Ireland”.
In the republic, the coalition government has expressed caution on the topic - both Martin and Varadkar said while they are in favour of unification, they don’t think the question should be asked at the moment.
In terms of ordinary citizens, a Sunday Times poll in January showed a slim majority (51%) in Northern Ireland were in favour of having a border poll within five years.
Interestingly, 47% said they wanted to remain in the UK, while 42% expressed support for a united Ireland. A significant proportion of 11% were undecided on the matter.
That being said, in the same poll a majority said they believed Northern Ireland would leave the UK within a decade.
Worth noting: In terms of the political dynamics in Northern Ireland, the 2017 elections marked the first time unionists did not have an overall majority in Stormont.
The DUP won just one seat more than Sinn Féin, in what Gerry Adams described as a “watershed” moment at the time.
DEMOGRAPHICS IN NORTHERN IRELAND
The population of Northern Ireland is around 1.89 million, according to the most recent statistics.
That represents less than 3% of the population of the UK, and more than a quarter (roughly 27.5%) of all of the people on the island of Ireland.
Every ten years there is a census in Northern Ireland. The most recent one was carried out just weeks ago, but the results won’t be available until the summer of 2022.
One of the reasons some say a united Ireland is “inevitable” is because of the changing demographics in Northern Ireland.
Many are also speculating that the results of the most recent census will show a Catholic majority over Protestants for the first time.
The 2011 census showed 48% were either Protestant or brought up Protestant, which marked a 5% drop from the 2001 census.
Meanwhile, 45% of the population in 2011 were Catholic or had been raised Catholic.
When the population is broken down into age categories, majorities become much more apparent. For example, a 2018 survey showed 57% of those over the age of 60 were Protestant, while 35% were Catholic.
When it came to younger people, 51% of schoolchildren were Catholic, and just 37% were Protestant.
While there could be a Catholic majority, that’s not to say there would necessarily be a majority in favour of unification.
In fact, a 2019 study showed while 94% of Protestants support the union, just 54% of Catholics supported Irish unity.
BREXIT AND THE BORDER
Northern Ireland voted against Brexit, and the region unsurprisingly became one of the toughest aspects in negotiations.
Back in 2016, UK voters were asked whether or not they wanted to leave the European Union. A majority in England and Wales wanted to, while most in Scotland and Northern Ireland were against it.
In Northern Ireland, 55.8% voted to remain in the EU. Of the 18 constituencies, 11 voted to remain. All seven leave constituencies were in the east of Northern Ireland, where the majority of unionists live.
Just a day after the referendum, the late Martin McGuinness said the “case for a border poll is also strengthened by the outcome of this vote”.
A big part of bringing peace to Northern Ireland was the commitment of having no hard border on the island of Ireland. Brexit meant the border was not just between two countries, but now represented the UK’s only land border with the EU.
Adding to the complexity of the negotiations, the 2017 election saw Theresa May’s government relying on the support of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), while a political deadlock in Northern Ireland’s power sharing lasted more than three years.
While Brexit has happened and the transition period is over, in many ways the issues it has caused for Northern Ireland are only just beginning.
Issues around the Northern Ireland Protocol has made an already fraught relationship between the EU and UK all the more fragile.
The Northern Ireland protocol basically means Northern Ireland remains in the EU’s single market for goods. This means goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland should be subject to checks.
Unionists, who don’t want any difference between them and the rest of the UK, have argued against this, saying the protocol creates a border in the Irish Sea.
In March, it also led to a loyalist group withdrawing their support for the Good Friday Agreement and accusing Prime Minister Boris Johnson of reneging on “the clear promises he made to the people of NI that there would be unfettered access” between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
COST OF UNIFICATION?
Well, how long is a piece of string? Estimating the cost of a united Ireland is based on widely disputed numbers and plenty of speculation.
That being said, nearly two thirds of followers on a recent Instagram poll said the cost of unification would impact their stance on the issue, so I’ve compiled some of the most credible data I could find.
Northern Ireland receives a subvention of about £10 billion a year from the UK government. Without it, the region would not be able to sustain itself and its standard of living.
In fact, Northern Ireland represents the highest spend per ahead in all of the UK - £11,590 per person, in comparison to England’s £9,296.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean the region would cost the Irish government £10 billion a year if there was a united Ireland.
Sinn Féin argues the subvention figure would actually be “substantially lower” once some costs were gone. Spending on military budgets was one example given. They go on to claim “the true value could be as low as £2.5 billion,” but that estimate has not been mentioned by many others.
Below is an excellent line from a study I highly recommend reading - The Political Economy of a Northern Ireland Border Poll
“In summary, it is extremely difficult to be definitive around the costs of re-unification to the RoI tax payer, as this will be dependant upon a number of unknowns including negotiations around debt interest, the length of any transition period, the relative role and contributions of the UK, RoI and EU in managing such a transition and the success of any policies aimed at improving NI productivity levels.”
In comparing Northern Ireland to the Republic, a major study from a few years ago found disposable incomes were, on average, 12% higher in the republic.
In 2019, economist and podcaster David McWilliams published a fantastic piece about the financial aspects of this debate.
At the time, Northern Ireland was exporting €10 billion worth of goods annually. The Republic of Ireland was exporting €283 billion worth.
In Northern Ireland, the average income was €22,000. In the republic it was €38,000.
Very interestingly, McWilliams spoke about how he sometimes judges the prosperity of a place - by the people who want to move there.
In the Republic of Ireland, one in five people are foreign born. In Northern Ireland, it’s about 1 in 20.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
If you want to know more about Northern Ireland in general, or specifically about the idea of unification, here are some of my top recommendations;
- Book: Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe documents the IRA during The Troubles and the disappearance of Jean McConville. It is quite simply the best non-fiction book I’ve ever read, an absolute page turner.
Article: People in Northern Ireland have moved on, even if the politics have not - this was published in The Irish Times today, but you might need a subscription to read it.
“Referring to the people of the North as merely nationalist or unionist does not reflect the diverse society that exists today – rather, it is a misleading oversimplification that creates a division not only between people within Northern Ireland, but between the North and the South as well.” - Emma de Souza
- TV Debate: Claire Byrne Live recently did a fantastic programme on this, giving a platform to all sides. Ireland’s top three political figures - Taoiseach Micheal Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald all participated. You can watch it on RTÉ Player in both Ireland and the UK.
Podcast: Below is a link David McWilliam’s podcast from 2019. It’s a fantastic look at the different economies north and south of the border, and explores the potential costs involved in a united Ireland.