Old divisions in the north of Ireland have taken second place in the priorities of many to the threat that Brexit now poses to the economy of Northern Ireland. Once upon a time it was “Ulster says No!” Then it was “Maybe.” No it is “Let’s think about this.”
Great Britain’s “grand strategy” through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was the continued division of Europe by whatever means were at its disposal. Since the threat of Spanish invasion during the last decades of the 1500s England has worked tirelessly, both militarily and diplomatically, to keep the other great powers of Europe squabbling with each other so as to prevent the conditions which would bring about a unified Europe that would effectively encircle the British mainland. Ireland, the “back door” to England, was central to this strategy. Over three centuries the Spanish, French, and German empires have all attempted to defeat Britain by coming through Ireland.
The numerous plantations – the settlement of English and Scottish settlements on the island of Ireland – were integral to London’s strategy of keeping this door shut. This together with the planted loyalist population and the industry of Ulster played a not insignificant part in the partition of Ireland in the twentieth century; with 26 counties gaining Home Rule and eventual independence and another 6 remaining part of the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland.
Okay, there is much more to it than this potted history would suggest, but the result of the whole process has led to innumerable injustices, and the suffering and death of millions as a consequence of Britain’s ongoing colonial projects in Ireland. Bitter political and sectarian divisions have resulted in a cultural and social stalemate in which the unification of the north with the Republic has seemed, until recently, to be impossible. The “No Surrender” rhetoric of Ulster Unionism has softened over the years, and this has been helped along by a number of factors. The Good Friday Agreement brought about an imperfect peace in which other things could happen, the threat to Northern Ireland’s agricultural exports posed by foot and mouth disease in 2001 helped many northern farmers identify with the “Irish” brand, and now we have the economic threat posed by Brexit.
The people of Northern Ireland, like Scotland, rejected leaving the European Union at the polls and now, with Scotland, are faced with the prospect of being dragged from the EU against their will. From the moment the Brexit referendum result was announced there has been a phenomenal demand in the province for Irish passports – a sign of at least a pragmatic willingness to bury the hatchet. Being Irish now means remaining European, and being Irish-European for many British passport holders in the north is good for business.
Let’s not get over excited. The divisions in the north of Ireland run long and deep, and the prospect of a swift unification of both parts of the island may not be on the immediate horizon. Yet that does not preclude a workable solution in which some form of power sharing may be possible between London and Dublin. There is, as we have seen, a growing appetite for a united Ireland in the north, and there has been talk in the past about power sharing. The unionist hard line is shrinking thanks to the realities of Brexit and the utter abandonment of the loyalist working class by the unionist establishment in Belfast, and a whole new middle ground has opened up.
Gerry Adams says Brexit could lead to Northern Ireland leaving the UK