Enda Kenny, the Irish prime minister, said on Sunday (18 July) that Northern Ireland could vote to become part of a united Ireland if they want to stay in the European Union. But the topic is highly divisive. EURACTIV’s partner La Tribune reports.
For the first time since the 23 June Brexit referendum, the Irish prime minister, also known as the taoiseach, has raised the possibility of a referendum on the reunification of Ireland.
At a meeting of the country’s political leadership at the MacGill summer school in County Donegal on Sunday, Kenny said, “The [Brexit] discussions and negotiations that will take place over the next period should take into account the possibility, however far out that it might be, that the clause in the Good Friday Agreement might be triggered.”
Good Friday Agreement
With the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998, the UK and Irish governments agreed to “recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status, whether they prefer to continue to support the Union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland” (article 1.1).
This is followed by the provision that “by agreement between the two parts respectively”, the people of Ireland could be asked “to exercise their right of self-determination […] to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish” (article 1.2).
A decision to reunify the island must be supported by the majority of the Northern Irish population. If such a vote takes place, “it will be a binding obligation on both G-governments” (article 1.4).
In the footsteps of East Germany?
55.6% of Northern Irish citizens voted to remain in the EU on 23 June. The prime minister has taken this as a sign that a majority might prefer to leave the United Kingdom and join the Republic of Ireland in order to stay in the EU.
“If there is clear evidence of a majority of people wishing to leave the United Kingdom and join the Republic, that that should be catered for in the discussions,” he said.
Kenny went on to explain to journalists the parallels between Irish situation and the reunification of Germany. Northern Ireland could stay in the EU by joining the Republic “in the same way as it was possible for the former East Germany to be associated with West Germany, and not to have to go through a very long and tortuous process to join the European Union”.
This was the first time Kenny had raised the possibility of a referendum on Irish reunification. But the debate in the country has become so important that the head of the Irish government could no longer ignore it.
Immediately after the Brexit referendum result was announced, Sinn Féin called for a referendum on Irish reunification. Once the political wing of the terrorist organisation the IRA (Irish Republican Army), Sinn Féin has abandoned armed struggle and is now the only political party on the island to make reunification a major part of its programme. It led a strong anti-Brexit campaign in Northern Ireland.
To respond to this situation and avoid damaging the government of Northern Ireland, Kenny invited the Northern Irish First Minister Arlene Foster to set up an “all-island forum” to discuss the future of the two countries.
But Foster is a member of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a pro-UK party that campaigned to leave the EU. She is only interested in discussions with the United Kingdom and rejected the taoiseach’s proposal to discuss a joint post-Brexit strategy.
On Sunday, Micheál Martin, the leader of the centre-right opposition party Fianna Fáil, also lent his support to the idea of a referendum on reunification, if it becomes clear that a majority of the population want an end to the partition of the island. He believes the pan-Irish forum is a real possibility, despite the Northern Irish government’s veto.
Dublin’s stance on the negotiations
Ireland has asked Brussels for “special treatment” in the Brexit negotiation process, given its close geographical, political and economic ties with the United Kingdom. London’s potential exclusion from the single market would present serious challenges for the Irish economy, which currently sells 16% of its exports on the British market.
Free movement on the island is guaranteed by a bilateral treaty, and as both countries are outside the Schengen area, the end of free movement between Schengen and the United Kingdom would not necessarily concern Ireland.
But if the UK leaves the single market, controls will have to be established on goods crossing the border. Theresa May, the new British prime minister, said this was a possibility. But it would be a highly unpopular measure, particularly among Northern Irish Catholics.
Gauging the feeling in the North
It will be Dublin, not Belfast, that will place the issue of a referendum on the discussion table. Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Féin, has already called for a referendum date to be set.
Martin and Kenny have been more reserved. Both have said they will organise a referendum only if it becomes clear that a majority want reunification.
But there is currently no evidence that this is the case. Kenny believes Northern Ireland’s attachment to the EU and the importance of the north-south trade link will outweigh any attachment to the United Kingdom in the reunification debate.
In reality, this is anything but certain. The UK is Northern Ireland’s biggest trading partner. As Martin said on Sunday, the only thing that is certain is that the majority of Northern Irish citizens want to keep the borders open and stay in the European single market.
For the UK, Northern Ireland may turn out to be just as thorny an issue as Scotland during the Brexit negotiations. The possibility of a referendum, which is making headway in the Republic, as well as the disagreement over Brexit between Sinn Féin and the DUP, has created a potentially explosive situation in Northern Ireland. The European Union will have to handle the situation with great care and not use it to put pressure on London, for fear of igniting a tinderbox of separatist feeling in Scotland and further afield.