Brexit is turning the UK into a small locked room, one in which claustrophobic inhabitants sneer and prod one another as they get high on the recycled flatulence of lost empire and reactionary delusion. As we subjects of the crown sink into the euphoric haze of national decline, we pass the time by suggesting alterations to the constitutional format of our strange nation.
One sufferer of this light headed reverie is a young English Brexiteer, a clip of whom went viral this week. This young fella was on Question Time, and his stream of consciousness question managed to provide a sort of rolling update of his oxygen deprived brain, stumbling from praise for Boris Johnson, to irritation at Northern Ireland’s insistence on existing, to finally promoting Irish reunification on the grounds that it would at least divest Britons of the responsibility to know anything about the small island to their west.
This young man is not the first English public figure to suggest an odd motivation, or form, for a reunification of Ireland. Fintan O’Toole’s recent book, ‘Heroic Failure’, contains an amusing passage where he lists numerous old Tories suggesting that the Republic of Ireland re-join the United Kingdom. These tory grandees are willing to overlook the island’s brief sojourn into political independence in order to ease the mechanics of Brexit. I am sure I speak for all Irish people when I express my heartfelt gratitude for such benevolence.
These comments on the future of the Irish border all belong to the realm of delusion, but the deluded are far from the only people to offer their thoughts on it. There has been a notable uptake in comments upon the possible future re-unification of Ireland. Sinn Fein are pushing for a new border poll, politicians in the south are musing upon its possibility, and unionists are both categorically ruling out both that Ireland will ever be unified, while also denying that the recent increase in support for it is related to their self-defeating support of Brexit.
Outside of the world of politics, one of the most vocal participants in this growing dialogue is QUB’s Professor Colin Harvey. Professor Harvey has recently released a paper on the legal implications of Brexit for Northern Ireland. He came to the QUB Irish studies seminar last week to give a talk on the subject. Harvey believes that Brexit has increased both the likelihood and logic of a future reunification of Ireland. His paper was interesting. The question and answer session was unfortunately rather testy, as some other QUB academics plainly objected to Professor Harvey’s form of nationalist politics. It was an uncomfortable situation, and an unfortunate end to proceedings.
Professor Harvey and those who agree with him are right to see Brexit weakening the union. The status of Northern Ireland as a non-contiguous part of the UK, and the only part of the UK that will share a land border with the EU, creates problems. Moreover, the tories affection for Northern Ireland and Northern Unionists is lukewarm at best. Boris Johnson’s recent moves in Brexit negotiations display a general willingness to set aside unionist priorities in pursuit of mainland goals. Unionists are therefore in a more precarious position; the union is going to be challenged administratively, and their allies are uncertain.
The unionist position is weakened but the constitutional status of Northern Ireland is not, I think, likely to change. The block on Irish reunification comes from two things. First, the acceptance by all parties involved in Northern Irish politics, that a decision on the constitutional future of Northern Ireland is the right of a majority of the northern Irish population to decide. Secondly, Unionists make up the majority of the population of Northern Ireland. Their opposition to Irish unity is based upon factors that are not vulnerable to sudden change because of Brexit; ethnic identity, history, the legacy of civil violence, the segregation of Northern Irish society, and more. It will be very difficult to convince Northern Unionists through the arguments that can be offered in a referendum campaign to support a unity vote.
What I think Professor Harvey’s talk lacked, and by extension what most nationalist talk of unity lacks, is an actionable political plan by which a sufficient proportion of Unionists could be convinced to vote for reunification. I do not deny that such a politics is theoretically possible, but I have yet to hear an example of it. Until such a plan is presented, I think that the result of a border poll would provide little more than a recapitulation of Northern ethnic divisions.
The more likely change in the short term concerns the positions of the two political blocs in Northern politics. Unionists will feel less confident, even if their position is ultimately secured by demographics. Nationalists will continue to feel emboldened by the chaos of Brexit, and by the repeated inability of the current UK government to deal effectively with Ireland. This slightly more uncertain political mood might open up interesting possibilities for change in some areas of policy, as well as increase the likelihood of entrenchment and regression in Northern politics. This bi-directional possibility, of both progression and reaction, is the outcome of living inside of Brexit’s small locked room.