The Irish question has been lingering for nearly 900 years. Since the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland began in 1169, the certainty over who controls Ireland has perpetually been debated and fought over until someone has caved on a particular issue. That moment most poignantly came on 18th of April 1949 when the Irish Republic was legally brought into existence, ending all British oversight of the country. A large bulk of the eternal conflict had its curtain call that day – yet the situation in Northern Ireland has remained an infuriating issue for Belfast, Dublin, London and now, Brussels.
For the European Union, the Northern Ireland border via sea, is an enormous bargaining chip and could potentially be quite disruptive for post-Brexit Britain ambitions. The UK government has threatened to break international law when the ‘grace’ period ends; that is where regulations are not actually in force yet. After September, the EU can effectively inspect certain goods and even ban others from being sent from Britain to Northern Ireland via sea despite being part of the same country.
In effect, this has added a new layer to a delayering process that has been over 100 years in the making as Northern Ireland still legally retains elements of the single market, due to their shared border with the European Union in the Republic of Ireland. For Unionists, the pro-British sect of Northern Ireland, this is a nightmare. For those more sympathetic to a unified Ireland, this is a step in the right direction as public opinion of the British government could potentially plummet if it leaves Northern Ireland adrift. The history of Ireland has shown us that the one who backs down, not only has to step aside but is effectively steamrolled out of existence for an undisclosed period.
By the end of the 17th century, Catholics in Ireland, who made up much of the native Irish population and still do, were subject to constant land losses to protestant planters emigrating from Britain and Scotland. After multiple famines and the replacement of the ruling classes in Ireland to Protestant Brits, often by force, the Catholic population became second class citizens even in majority catholic areas. By 1800, the absorption of Ireland into the Untied Kingdom, was almost inevitable as the power balance was dominated by the British and their growing empire.
The infamous potato famine lasting 7 years (1845- 1852) might have been the final nail in the coffin with millions of Irish emigrating to the ‘new world’ and at least 25% of the population perishing amidst food shortage and disease. To this very day the population of Ireland has not recovered to pre-famine levels yet Irish (Gaelic) culture remains strong and there is genuine desire for unification with Northern Ireland, although to say the Irish, both Northern and Southern, will have the final call, is naïve. looking at the European Union in relation to Britain, the power balance has once again shifted and looking back at history, the significance of that must not be dismissed.
We often view the conflict in terms of Catholics vs Protestants or Unionists opposing Republican’s, but this narrative is largely rooted in the minds of those that live on both sides of the Irish border, not those who have determined its fate over the last 900 years.
Since 1998, when the Good Friday Agreement came into existence, it was the U.S. who mediated negotiations, at a time when the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and America was arguably at its strongest. Despite the clarity it gave on the future of Northern Ireland, it was largely crafted outside of the European gaze and instead, favoured the interests of the U.S. first who singlehandedly dominated world affairs at the time. Britain took the backseat with the agreement leaving the question of a unified Ireland in the hands Bill Clintons Irish envoy, who watched negotiations progress.
The outcome of the GFA left Britain in a position where it will effectively hand over Northern Ireland as public opinion shifts towards unification. Had the British stuck to their hard-line position and resisted resolution, a fully unified Ireland would not be a possibility today.
A shrinking international status and an overriding culture that seeks to right any wrongdoing from Britain’s colonial past is a recipe for fragmentation with humans instinctively looking to see if the grass is greener on the other side. The protestant population of Northern Ireland is reducing and with that, the draw of Irish unification is becoming a very real possibility, but it must happen without external influence.
The split began in Ireland and the determination of their future should stay within Ireland and their communities. EU diplomacy favours unification whilst the British, for obvious reasons, want them to remain in the union; a diplomatic spat seeks to reignite tensions on an island that already has the necessary framework to make a final decision on unification. If the European Union would like to get involved in the sea border, they must realise that they are hindering any attempt at a peaceful reunification and coexistence, by stoking partisan tendencies that were significantly calming before Brexit.