In Ireland, talk has noticeably increased about a possible unification of the island of Northern Ireland (Ulster), which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland. Experts believe the UK's exit from the European Union (Brexit) earlier this year and the unexpectedly high performance of the Sinn Féin party advocating the unification of the island in the Irish Republic's recent election have raised the probability of such a course of events. Moreover, the number of Ireland unification supporters is growing in both parts of the Old Emerald Isle.
Currently, stressful party negotiations on the ruling coalition are underway in the Republic of Ireland. Let us recall that the February 8 early parliamentary elections yielded a generally unexpected outcome, even for the experts. Over the last few years, power in the southern part of the island was shared by two parties – Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, with Sinn Féin staying sort of in the background. But following the last election, it unexpectedly broke out in second place and got 37 seats in the Parliament. The winning Fianna Fail has 38, while Fine Gael of the country's still-serving Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has slipped to third position with 35 seats.
There is no doubt that Sinn Féin's unexpectedly high performance may be considered a wake-up call for those opposing the Irish unification, since its program is directly appealing for a referendum on making the island a cohesive whole, as it was before 1921. The problem has been long alleviated by the fact that within the United Kingdom, both the Republic of Ireland and Ulster were part of the European Union, making the border between them almost unfelt.
However, when London started Brexit, the issue of the Irish border became one of the main stumbling points at negotiations with Brussels. As a result, in order to prevent a resumption of the conflict that had been raging in Northern Ireland for 35 years until the Good Friday Agreement of April 10, 1998, London resorted to a controversial move. As agreed with Brussels, Ulster will keep being subject to the European Union's general trade rules after Brexit, while the rest of the United Kingdom won't. However, having solved one problem, such an agreement with the EU has immediately created another one: as supposed by experts, it will be more profitable for Northern Ireland to trade with the Republic of Ireland than with the country it is part of. Against this backdrop, a growing number of residents of the island's northern part contemplate a de jure merge with the Republic of Ireland.
It is worth noting here that in the UK's early parliamentary election last December, which handed a landslide victory to the Conservatives led by Boris Johnson, the total number of Northern Ireland nationalists elected to the central British parliament has exceeded the number of unionists. This fact may indicate that the trend of Ulster's secession from the United Kingdom and unification with the Republic of Ireland is only going to pick up.
In turn, official Dublin has not yet publicly declared its desire to unite with Ulster, even though it is just a matter of time. Much of what happens next will depend on the outcome of coalition talks between the Irish parties following the February election. It must be recognized that the two main political parties of the Republic of Ireland – Fine Gael and Fianna Fail – also advocate the unity of the island, but more cautiously as compared to Sinn Féin. And until they call the referendum their priority, there will probably be no specific progress along this track.
However, it is not implausible that the future rhetoric on the unification issue will only get a tougher edge. The Brexit agreement between Britain and the European Union is believed to have increased the number of reunification advocates. Indeed, one has to admit that since the Good Friday Agreement, tensions between the catholic South and the protestant North have smoothed out noticeably. Besides, the power of the Catholic Church over all the spheres of life in the Republic of Ireland has weakened a lot: abortion and same-sex marriage are allowed, with country even headed by an openly gay Leo Varadkar. So, every single year provides more and more reasons to consider unification of the two Irelands. Moreover, the population, particularly Ulster's, sees an economic benefit here.
It is no coincidence in this regard that influential British magazine The Economist has recently called the secession referendum more attractive for Northern Ireland than for Scotland. The latter, if it declares independence, will have to undergo long formal procedures of joining the European Union. During this time of transition, its actually isolated economy will have a really tough time. And Northern Ireland will be able to join the EU right after merging with the Republic of Ireland which is already part of the Union. This possibility was previously stated by Brussels representatives. In other words, this process will be as painless as possible.
It should be emphasized that the issue of Scottish independence has dominated the British media after Brexit. But today the time seems to have come to recognize the probability of another scenario: Northern Ireland's secession from the United Kingdom. The election success of the Sinn Féin party in the Republic of Ireland is yet another reason to ponder the fact that the prospect of the two Irelands' unification does not seem as utopian as it did just a few years ago.
It remains to be seen how events will actually develop. But even as we speak, most analysts tend to believe that the next decade will possibly witness the unification of the two parts of Ireland. It has already become a fact to be reckoned with.