The Case For Irish Unification
By Dylan Gunn
I’m up atop my family’s land, in county Monaghan, Ireland—the land of hills. Wet and a little chilly—Ireland usually is. Growing up, no adventure compared to the hours spent romping around in the fields and climbing the forest’s trees. It’s about 9:30 but the sun lingers, a finger or so above the western horizon—gold on green, a sliver of cloud splits the center. My father points to the churches that break the hills and the people of their parishes—our friends and family. But perhaps more lies in the unseen. Somewhere, between the bookends of our hills, about 4 miles out, lies a dotted lie—invisible to my eyes. She snakes through the steads, devoid of rhyme and reason; cuts the countryside as she cuts the lives of some thousands short. The border. She stands for the still ongoing 800 years of imperialism and oppression inflicted upon my people.
I do not live in Ireland anymore and I likely will never again. For people like me, the Irish diaspora, reunification is endlessly appealing. For one, the many Irish who make their new home off the island do so in some part because of the imperialism the border stands for. Whether it be manufactured famine, political conflict, or economic despair, there’s a certain universality at the source of our exodus. But further, upon leaving, our relationship gradually drifts into the realm of abstraction, as we become disconnected from the everyday lived realities of Irish people. We will not have to deal with the complications a political restructuring of Ireland would require, so we can offer uncritical support.
Everyone in Monaghan has their story, subject to expected nuance, but all trying back to the border. Kieran Moore, my uncle: he’s originally from Galway, a much more touristy and serene part of the country. He’s a Garda, an Irish cop. When he was first assigned to Monaghan, his family despaired. Policing near the border was a dangerous job: you could be the target of Republican and Unionist paramilitaries alike. Perhaps worse, you had to pick up the often literal pieces of their brutality—responding to the bombings and fetching blackened bodies from the bogs. Niall Gunn, my father: at the age of 9 got his first taste of the violence that has long marked his home. He nearly lost his life in a car bombing—one that many tie to the British security apparatus. But as luck would have it, the Christmas tree caught the shrapnel and glass. Many of his countrymen—friends—were not as lucky, cut down by British bombs and guns, or caught up in the failed, often perverse fight to get them out.
The violence rightfully grabs the headlines but the problems run far deeper. By any metric the Republic of Ireland is a successful, wealthy, and modern nation, the legacy of British rule has left her Northern counterpart far worse off. By some estimations, the Republic is now 2.5 times wealthier per capita than the North; the gulf between East and West Germany was only 1.6 times. This is reflected in every quality of life measurement: the North boasts an 8 percent higher poverty rate, three times the suicide rate, and over 1.5 years lower life expectancy. Much of this blame falls on the explicit actions of British governance—which long preferred to treat the region as a source of cheap industrial labor. But the economic damage of imperialism and border stretches North and South alike. While atop our hill I can see no signs of the border, the same cannot be said for the impersonal forces of market factors and government policy. As Matt Carthy, a Teacha Dala for Monaghan-Cavan (analogous to American Congressmen) explained to me, thanks to the border many have come to see the counties on either side of her edge as representing the end of their respective entities, and correspondingly pushing them to the periphery of the economic and political conversation. Despite harboring many urban centers on either side, only one rail line crosses the border and the motorways aren’t much better. Crossing on any route other than Dublin-Belfast (the cross-border largest cities) requires tracing meandering and inefficient roads—not the most conducive to economic prosperity. Most intuitively, Carthy observes the current economic and bureaucratic layout of the island is grossly inefficient. Despite a population of only 6.8 million people, the island bears two distinct health services, education services, transport networks, and economic development agencies; the redundancy of this is bad enough, but it’s compounded by a sense of competition that often inhibits the cooperation needed for success.
An even more severe consequence of partition is the complexity and chaos wrought on Northern Irish politics. Since the signing of the Good Friday agreement, which brought an end to the aforementioned mass violence dubbed “The Troubles”, in 1998 there has been relative peace in the region. Sectarian killings and flare-ups in tension are not unheard of, but the situation is incomparable to the large-scale social conflict that marked previous generations. However, stability is never guaranteed under the status quo, and politically, it is currently far from the case. The Northern Ireland government is split between Unionist and Republican parties that often put cooperation on the backburner. Correspondingly, over the last twenty years, Northern Ireland has been marked by incessant periods of government collapse. Most notably a poorly thought out Renewable Energy initiative snowballed into over 1000 days without government between 2017 and 2020. A region simply cannot succeed—or even function—with such a chaotic political climate. While since January 2020, Northern Ireland has ~enjoyed~ an existent government, the British government’s recent threats to nix the Northern Ireland agreement could result in yet another collapse, or even worse. Ultimately, it is this ambiguity and the possibility for escalation that seems to hold over the region’s present and future political situation, a concoction that historically rendered violence a viable choice to the proponents of Republicanism and Unionism.
In light of these myriad problems, the actions of radical sectarians—Republican and Unionist alike—work to make the situation worse for all involved. However, Ireland is now presented with a historic opportunity for peaceful change and betterment. While the Republic has long polled overwhelmingly in support of reunification, over 40% (and rising) of the North now follow suit. Every year Irish Catholics —who support reunification—become a higher percentage of the North’s population. Further, Northern Ireland voted against Brexit and its cataclysmic unfolding seems to be proving that judgment right. This means that reunification is now also being viewed from the nonsectarian lens as a way to reverse Brexit and reenter the EU. I believe this is not simply the best choice for the people of Ireland, but the only way to resolve the issues of past and present and foster a prosperous future for all the island’s inhabitants. No other solution—not that there are any seriously proposed—has the same potential for economic growth, ensuring political stability, and finally ending sectarian violence and the dangerous culture it fosters.
Reunification could provide an unprecedented and miraculous boost to the economy of Northern Ireland and the border region. While proof of the status quo’s failings is easy to find, many supporters of reunification fear that it would entail economic complications. They’re certainly not without cause: the UK currently funds expensive social Services in the North and the public sector accounts for a large swath of employment. With a potential sudden loss of jobs and government funding, a United Ireland might suffer a rocky start. But, TD Carthy astutely observed a reunified Ireland would be a honeypot for international goodwill and support. Despite never having an empire (let alone a state until 100 years ago) the Irish people and their culture have become loved as underdogs all around the world; many might think it would be nice to see them “win.” The EU (and other organizations and countries) would likely want to support the new entity—treating its success as demonstrative of the power of peace and world order. In conjunction with widely predicted increases in trade—the natural conclusion of finally ending trade-hostile uncertainty—the longer-term economic growth sounds promising. Further, given the Northern counties would play a far larger role in the new Irish government than they currently do in the UK, they could be more successful in assuring this growth benefits those who need it most.
Historically, political ambiguity has created violence; and now it similarly fosters anxiety. I hope that reunification would provide closure and end this uncertainty. Both Unionists and Republican forces were inspired to fight by causes they considered achievable—although not strictly through the ballot box. While these feelings still exist in significant ways, they are held in check by the Peace Agreement. Nevertheless, a certain precarity will always hold over this peace as long as the status quo holds: the root question of reunification and imperialism is unanswered. Finally concluding this saga of history through a referendum resulting in favor of a United Ireland would give a final definite answer to this historical question. While some observers believe that in the leadup to a contentious referendum, Unionists may feel threatened and turn towards violence, this is quite unlikely. For the Unionist population to be led to violence, there must be some aim to achieve. But these referendums are guaranteed under international law: local violence will be unlikely to stop it, and perhaps further prove the necessity of rule of law. Further, given the British government’s weakened status since the 1990s, they are not in the position to oppose these conclusions—especially not through violence. Following a referendum guaranteed under the agreement and international law, it seems the only conclusion would be for the Unionist population to accept the result and adapt to a curious new role in Irish politics. This is all to say that the chance of reunification being met with widespread violence is very unlikely.
I do not mince words when I say that the chief problem in the border region is the lingering effects of imperialism. Reunification being the final end to this struggle against imperialism, would indeed ensure that violence could never again flair up. But it is important that this peace and conclusion comes through a referendum, implicitly chastising the often toxic legacy of Republicanism. The ideology has driven people to do terrible things, commonly hurting the people they claim to protect. The IRA and adjacent Republican paramilitaries were responsible for most of the deaths during the troubles—some 400 of which were Irish Catholics themselves, and countless other protestant civilians with no stake in the conflict. My parents can vividly recount the schooling of their childhoods and the seemingly harmless songs latent with praise for murder. But this culture, that raised generations on the belief that violence was the way, has left scars. My grandfather and uncle spent my parents’ wedding in jail. Why? Because a “family friend” of ours—who was involved with the Republican Militant groups—hid armaments on our land against our knowledge. And my uncle, despite being cleared of all charges, was denied a visa to bring his kids to Disneyland because of this. My dad further recounts a visit he made to a friend in Long Kesh—a prison in Northern Ireland—when his friend told him: “if I could guarantee a United Ireland by killing someone, I would do it in a heartbeat. But the people we’re killing, they don’t deserve to die.”
Reunification is not perfect: 800 years of exploitation and complication simply cannot be fixed in a day. The reality will be complicated and difficult. Even on the economic front, it will likely take years for cross-border cooperation to provide material improvements to the lives of Irish people. And the political considerations will always carry some risk of upsetting the balance or encroaching on unionists’ sense of security. But failure to act would simply leave the people helpless in the face of a clearly broken status quo or risk plunging them back into a violent past. But the reuniting of Ireland would fundamentally be a tale of hope and inspiration—a tale of how elections, not violence, brought peace and prosperity. Finally gone would be the forces that killed friends and family, and anew would come the United Ireland, a symbol to the world.
Dylan Gunn is a first year in Pauli Murray College. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.