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A united Ireland was once perceived as a nationalist dream. Today it’s about the economy, opportunity and returning to the European Union, writes Emma DeSouza.
Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government has been reinstated, with pro-Ireland parties now holding both the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition positions.
Unionism – the political force that supports Northern Ireland remaining in the United Kingdom – is in steady decline; How close are we to a united Ireland?
Looking at the current political landscape, in every electoral seat the vote share for political unionism has declined, while the nationalist party Sinn Féin has grown to become the largest party in both local and national government.
In contrast, Northern Ireland was founded with an innate Protestant majority and with trade unionism as the dominant political power for much of the century.
Former Northern Ireland First Minister James Craig once referred to the Northern Ireland government as a “Protestant parliament for a Protestant people”.
Political change is a manifestation of broader changes in demographics. In 2021, for the first time in history, Catholics overtook Protestants in the census.
The census itself provided some interesting insights into identity with an 8% decline in British identity over 10 years, going from 722,400 to 606,300, while Irish and Northern Irish identity increased.
This means that today, in terms of political, demographic and national identity, Northern Ireland appears to be less British and less unionist than ever before.
The kingmakers are already there
How this plays out in polls is mixed; In 2022, Northern Ireland-based polling firm LucidTalk showed that today 41% of respondents would vote for a United Ireland, for those aged 18-24, that number has increased to 57%.
In 2023, an Institute of Irish Studies/Social Market Research poll showed that 47% would vote to remain in the UK.
The polls did not show majority support for a united Ireland, but they also did not show majority support for remaining in the UK. There is a considerable part of the electorate who “doesn’t know” and who will ultimately be king in the event of a vote.
There has been a sharp increase in preparations for a border survey on the ground. On the academic side, University College London now has a working group on unification referendums on the island of Ireland, the University of Ulster in Belfast is researching gender perspectives on constitutional change, and l ‘University College Dublin is examining the constitutional future after Brexit.
Universities in the UK and Ireland are carrying out extensive studies on a border survey, accelerated by increased public debate.
Politics is changing too
At the civic level, the beginnings of pro-union and pro-unity campaign groups are already there.
Former prime minister Arlene Foster launched the Together UK Foundation, a pro-union group that is working to “proactively inform and start the debate about what benefits all parts of the UK”.
On the pro-united Ireland side is the civic group Ireland’s Future. Founded in 2017, the group has published several publications and held conferences across the island of Ireland.
Political parties are also preparing for the change. In 2020, the Irish Government launched the Shared Island Unit, which works to build reconciliation, understanding and cooperation on the island, while the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP) launched the New Ireland Commission, a participatory structure that seeks to engage people on the shape of a New Ireland.
Sinn Féin has also been working on the ground, hosting a series of so-called People’s Assemblies, while Ireland’s second chamber, Seanad Eireann, has launched a public consultation on constitutional change.
Times are changing
Ten years ago, the idea of a United Ireland seemed fantastic; it was just a side note in the political debate and not part of everyday discourse.
Today, not a week goes by without an event, radio report or newspaper article about United Ireland.
The polls may not confirm this yet, but all other indicators suggest that Northern Ireland is changing at a rapid pace and that, rather than a possibility, a vote is now firmly on the horizon.
Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill’s tenure as Northern Ireland’s highest office will be crucial and, if she is joined by her counterpart Mary Lou McDonald, who polls suggest could be the next Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland, the times could even accelerate. further.
One of the greatest gifts of the Northern Ireland peace process was that it eliminated identity as a contentious issue, providing people with the space to see their identity and belonging through multiple prisms.
A united Ireland was once perceived as a nationalist dream. Today it’s about economics, opportunity and a return to the European Union – which alone will attract more than just traditional nationalists.
The Good Friday Agreement established the democratic means to respond to a question that has plagued Northern Ireland since its inception; should Ireland be? An answer is on the way.
Emma DeSouza is a writer and political commentator based in Northern Ireland.
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