Ultimate magazine theme for WordPress.

A united Ireland? Perspectives on a shifting political landscape

0 36
A Sinn Féin sign in support of unification near Carrickcarnon, on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic © New York Times/Redux/eyevine

It is not new for Leo Varadkar to wear his heart on his sleeve when it comes to the polarising question of Irish reunification. The leader of Ireland’s centre-right Fine Gael party, who is set to return next weekend to the office of Taoiseach, prime minister, has said he is proud to aspire to the goal, and wants to see it delivered in his lifetime.

But addressing a 5,000-strong crowd at a recent conference organised by a pro-unity advocacy group, Ireland’s Future, Varadkar did something unusual: he fleshed out detail about how it might be realised, such as keeping Northern Ireland’s institutions within a reunited island.

Varadkar’s remarks are a small illustration of a broader shift in the political landscape across the island of Ireland. Just over a century after partition, traditional standpoints and allegiances are being challenged by a variety of factors, including demographic change, the consequences of Brexit and the rise of Sinn Féin, a nationalist party that has recast itself as a progressive movement alert to the social and economic concerns of a younger generation.

The question of unification has undeniably risen up the political agenda. Less clear is what the answer might be. Opinion polls show strong support in the republic for the rose-tinted prospect of reuniting the island, though there are also concerns about the costs this might entail; in Northern Ireland that remains a minority interest, with just over a quarter wanting unity but half wanting to stay within the UK.

Even those in favour of what Varadkar called the “noble and legitimate aspiration” of unification tend to be light on the detail of how this might be realised. This is especially true for followers of Sinn Féin, the most popular party both north and south of the border.

Book cover of the book entitled ‘Making Sense Of A United Ireland’ by Brendan O’Leary

Against this backdrop, Making Sense of a United Ireland by Brendan O’Leary is a welcome and compelling read, one of a rich crop of new titles that address the issue of unification from a variety of angles and which together provide complementing insights into how and from where change could come.

O’Leary, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and one of Ireland’s most prestigious political scientists, addresses the hard questions head on, including how to hold a (not Brexit-style) referendum; how much a united Ireland would cost; what economic benefits unity could bring; who would pay Northern Irish pensions; and the nitty-gritty of how the newly enlarged entity could actually be governed.

Varadkar suggested that Northern Ireland could keep cross-community power-sharing, its own courts, education system, police and health service — just under Irish, rather than British, sovereignty — and that things could “evolve and deepen in time”.

O’Leary argues that such a transitional solution could lead to inefficient duplications and raise yet more questions. He does not claim to have all the answers, and at times seems overly optimistic — such as his recommendation to establish a government fund to finance the transition to a united Ireland when a more pressing concern for most people in the Republic is a deep housing crisis. But he combs through the practical and emotional hurdles to reunification with thought-provoking thoroughness.

Varadkar returns to the post of Taoiseach on December 17 under a deal agreed between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, the two historical behemoths of Irish politics, in coalition with the Green party. That followed an election in 2020 in which Sinn Féin won the most first-preference votes but was unable to form a government.

Under the leadership of Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Féin has reinvented itself as the party of change rather than the mouthpiece of the republican paramilitary IRA during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. McDonald is now tipped by many to become Taoiseach after the next general election, due by early 2025.

With that in mind, Shane Ross seeks to penetrate the official narrative from a secretive party known for its rigid grip on messaging in his unauthorised biography, Mary Lou McDonald: A Republican Riddle. In it, he charts “Project Mary Lou” — McDonald’s rise as handpicked successor to Sinn Féin’s veteran former leader Gerry Adams, and her drive to make the “small party with a dark past and a doubtful future” she inherited electable and the vehicle to deliver unification.

Book cover of ‘Mary Lou McDonald: A Republican Riddle’ features two women and a man carrying a coffin on their shoulders

Among the questions Ross, a former independent minister, pursues are why it took so long for a privately educated, middle-class girl from Dublin, raised by her mother after her “out-of-work, out-of-sight” father left the family when she was 10, to convert from a Fianna Fáil supporter to ardent republican by the age of 30. McDonald says she was inspired by the IRA hunger strikes of the early 1980s, when she was 12.

Another line of inquiry leads to that central feature of Irish life today: housing. In particular, the question of how McDonald and her husband paid for extensive renovation of their north Dublin house. “There is nothing to suggest that Mary Lou has ever been involved in anything untoward or has been other than a person of impeccable financial integrity,” writes Ross, “but she ruthlessly demands transparency of others.”

His questions about the couple’s house led to the threat of legal action from McDonald’s husband, but Ross maintains that a politician who made a name as “fearless, refreshingly probing and unimpressed by vested interests” while serving on the public accounts committee in the Dáil parliament cannot duck difficult questions herself.

Ross goes on to challenge McDonald’s convictions and willingness to defend Adams and the party line, tartly describing her in his lively account as having shown herself on occasion not “as Adams’ protégée as but his house-trained poodle”. Yet he notes “a consistency about her desire for a united Ireland” — something she says could happen before the end of the decade. Ross, however, still appears to harbour doubts about whether the “nakedly ambitious” politician is an opportunist.

As O’Leary, who supports unity, argues, however, reunification “should not happen because Sinn Féin advocates it”. For a united Ireland to succeed it will have to be a “multi-party” project, not just that of a party, Sinn Féin, that is deeply distrusted by many both north and south of the border.

Book cover of ‘The Twilight of Unionism’

The difficulties involved in securing such broad support are underscored in Geoffrey Bell’s The Twilight of Unionism. Bell, a Belfast-born writer on Ireland and British attitudes to the Troubles, who is a pro-unity Labour activist, offers a portrait of a community in political and demographic decline — but which will be vital to the success of any future reunification, while having “little to offer but echoes of the drumbeats of the past”. Although less nuanced than Susan McKay’s acclaimed Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground (2021) and sometimes bogged down in too much detail, Bell makes a solid if sombre case that there is no end in sight to “division, prejudice and inequality” in a future united state.

O’Leary is more even-handed. He delves into the detail but boils it all down to straightforward questions about the relative performance of the south versus the north and expectations for how post-Brexit trading arrangements, the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol that left the region inside the EU’s single market for goods, will play out.

“Will the Republic of Ireland, on average, continue to get richer than the UK?” he asks. “Will Northern Ireland benefit from the protocol and will that ease its possible future convergence into the higher-growth economy of the rest of the island? . . . Will the Brexit experiment prove as damaging to the UK’s long-run economic performance as currently suggested by most credible economists?” In O’Leary’s judgment, the answer to these questions is yes. But he goes on to concede that “eight years is a long time in economics as well as politics”.

Book cover of ‘Ireland’s Call’ by Stephen Collins

And the protocol — which Varadkar helped to get over the line in private talks with the then UK prime minister Boris Johnson in 2019 — is far from settled. Northern Ireland’s largest pro-UK party, the Democratic Unionist Party, has paralysed the region’s power-sharing political institutions since May because of its opposition to it, and January is shaping up to be crunch time.

As the EU and UK attempt to reconcile their differences over the protocol, the Irish Times journalist Stephen Collins has written a taut aide-memoire of the machinations that delivered a deal which Northern Ireland’s once dominant unionist community is refusing to swallow. Ireland’s Call provides handy historical context and interesting navigation of Brexit as seen from an Irish perspective. Sadly, he swerves the question of what will happen next.

Best Books of the Year 2022

From economics, politics and history to science, art, food and drink — and, of course, fiction — our annual round-up brings you top titles picked by FT writers and critics

Varadkar will be spending the next two years ahead of the election trying to contain the rise of Sinn Féin, while promoting his own views of a united Ireland as a worthy cause. “What is past is prologue,” he said this week at an official commemoration of the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922. “The events of 100 years ago should inspire us to dream of what can be achieved in the years ahead.”

The expanding library of books on the subject suggests that realising that dream will be anything but easy.

Making Sense of a United Ireland by Brendan O’Leary, Sandycove £20, 384 pages

Mary Lou McDonald: A Republican Riddle by Shane Ross, Atlantic Books £16.99, 396 pages

The Twilight of Unionism: Ulster and the Future of Northern Ireland by Geoffrey Bell, Verso £14.99, 221 pages

Ireland’s Call: Navigating Brexit by Stephen Collins, Red Stripe Press £16.99, 265 pages

Jude Webber is the FT’s Ireland correspondent

Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.