A Divided Country: The Feasibility of a United Ireland

9045991954 7e98bece25 c

The question of Irish unity is a complex and long-standing issue, deeply embedded in the island’s historical and political landscape. In recent years, the prospect of a united Ireland has risen to the forefront of national Irish discourse, making it imperative to reassess the viability of unification. Given its increased salience, this development necessitates a closer examination of the factors that could pave the way for this potential outcome in the future. 

Historical Background: The Divided Ireland

The division of Ireland has its origins in 1922 with the creation of the Irish Free State under the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The agreement partitioned Ireland into two distinct entities: the southern region emerging as the independent Irish Republic and Northern Ireland remaining under British sovereignty. However, the roots of this national split extend beyond mere political and legal distinctions, drawing on deep-seated religious differences—with Protestant majorities in the north and Catholic predominance in the south. The formal partition exacerbated tensions however, leading to clashing conflicts between Nationalist Catholics advocating for reunification and Unionist Protestants who supported their position within the United Kingdom. This opposition culminated in a tumultuous period from the 1970s to the 1990s known as “The Troubles,” an era characterised by political violence and a regrettable loss of life on both sides. Following drawn out negotiations, the conflict was  finally stemmed in 1998 with the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement, ending the violence by establishing a devolved government in Northern Ireland. A pivotal feature of this agreement was the provision for a referendum on unification, contingent upon receiving majority support across the island and thereby acknowledging the Irish people’s right to self-determination. This aspect of the agreement is particularly notable, distinguishing it from other cases of devolution within the UK, such as Scotland, where a referendum for independence requires prior consent from Westminster. Consequently, the legal pathway for reunification already exists, highlighting the unique status of this agreement in facilitating possible future unity.

Barriers to Unity 

While the legal framework presents a clear pathway towards achieving Irish unification, the reality of bringing about such a transformation extends beyond mere legislative readiness. Central to this challenge is the predominant cultural divide, primarily represented by denominational differences which remain a strong barrier to unification. However, this divide should not be viewed as an insurmountable obstacle but rather as a significant hurdle that requires careful navigation. 

Recent trends in public opinion offer a glimpse of changing attitudes, indicating a softening of hardline opposition to the idea of unification, with a noticeable decrease in the number of people who find the notion of a unification referendum ‘almost impossible to accept.’ This shift suggests that even amongst the most staunchly opposed there is a gradual opening to dialogue and reconsideration.

Currently, while a hypothetical referendum would putatively see the south vote in favor and the north against, the absence of an imminent unification referendum should not deter long-term optimism. As identified, the trajectory of public sentiment in the north indicates a diminishing hard-line stance, which could eventually lead to more favorable conditions for a referendum to take place. It is in this long-term perspective that the potential for unification emerges on the horizon, which necessarily requires patience, dialogue, and continued efforts to bridge the longstanding cultural divide. 

The Pathway to a United Ireland

The path to unification is shaped by several compelling dynamics, central to which is the inevitable demographic change that will occur in the upcoming years. Ireland, consistent with Western European trends, is characterized by an aging population and will therefore witness a significant change in demographic composition. Therein, a shift in views is to be expected as younger populations with different experiences and perspectives come of age. Pertinently, younger generations who have grown up in a time of peace (and without experiencing the Troubles first-hand) will conceivably be less constrained by the historical and emotional legacies that have previously acted as barriers to unity. This is not to undermine the significance of these sentiments; the historical context and its emotional impact are vital components of the national conversation around unification and will continue to be for many. These reflections are integral to understanding the full spectrum of opinions on this matter and critical to ensuring that further conflict does not erupt. Despite the undeniable weight of these historical and familial loyalties, however, demographic change brings the prospect of a unified Ireland increasingly within reach.       

This is supported by the rapid pace of social transformation in the 21st century, notwithstanding a comparatively measured rate in Northern Ireland. A key factor in this evolution is secularization, which plays a critical role in the historical context of religious division as the most significant barrier to unity. Though some relatively recent scholarship has reemphasized the role of religion as a strong cultural identity that cannot be underestimated, it simultaneously acknowledges its diminishing influence in recent times. Therefore, while the religious heritage of both the north and south will undoubtedly remain a vital part of their respective identities, the shift towards a secular society indicates that these religious distinctions will play a less determinative role in the future socio-political landscape, thereby no longer representing the primary obstacle they once were. Consequently, as secular principles begin to bridge the gap created by historical denominational divides, the path to a united Ireland becomes more feasible. 

In addition, various structural forces can be expected to progressively tilt public opinion in favor of the unification process, with Brexit at the forefront. The United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union has inadvertently become the most successful campaign for Irish unity ever, surpassing over a century of advocacy by the nationalist party Sinn Féin. The implications of Brexit, and particularly its economic consequences, are likely to further cement its position as a driving force behind the movement for a unified Ireland. This unexpected development in the Union highlights an additional layer of complex interplay between geopolitical events and national aspirations, suggesting that the path to unification will be shaped by external circumstances in addition to internal desires and political efforts.

Notably, and in light of this development, the North would significantly benefit from transitioning to a unified national market, with the economic burden of reunification costs falling primarily on the Republic. Historically, Northern Ireland has faced neglect from the UK government, a situation recently exemplified by a two-year governmental deadlock that only ended when Westminster acceded to economic demands from the North. Naturally, Westminster would not be favorable to Northern Ireland leaving the Union. Nevertheless, with the central Government’s constant disregard, the North is arriving at a crossroads where the direction of unity becomes increasingly attractive for direct accessibility to the European single market. Despite representing the sharper turn, access to the world’s largest single market could result in an equally sharp turnaround for the Northern Irish economy. Akin to the Republic, membership could attract significant Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) to the region while also introducing the possibility of directly receiving EU cohesion funds to help address the oversight by Westminster. Needless to say, however, this is a major decision that will require long deliberation on both sides of Ireland to draw out all economic implications. 

The Feasibility of Unification

Taking into account the legal, cultural, and economic dimensions that permeate and influence the dialogue on Irish unity, it is evident that the concept of a unified Ireland increasingly stands as a viable aspiration. The changing public opinion, the social transformation, and the structural dynamics on the island coupled to the mechanics of unification —requiring a simple majority in referendums held in both the north and south— suggest that the underlying opposition could sufficiently decline to the degree whereby it no longer represents the majority view and makes unity possible. This assertion does not imply that unification is either imminent or simple given the issue’s inherent complexity. Yet, as societal norms shift and cultures evolve, the vision of a united Ireland progressively comes into focus. 

There will invariably be skeptics who indefinitely argue against the feasibility of such a transformation. However, history offers compelling precedents that challenge the inevitability of the status quo. A notable example is the reunification of East and West Germany. Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the majority in both states could scarcely conceive of reunification as a realistic outcome. Yet, the fall of the Iron Curtain catalyzed a reunification process that unfolded with remarkable swiftness; culminating in less than a year. 
Although this division was more artificial by virtue of existing symbolic national unity, the historical analogy underscores the importance of maintaining an open perspective on the prospect of Irish unity. It importantly serves as a caution against the premature dismissal of unification as an impossibility. Instead, it advocates for a thoughtful and thorough exploration of the pathways that could lead to such an outcome, reminding that preparation through projects such as the Shared Island Initiative is key when recognising that the future holds clear and uncertain developments that can transform what is currently considered an ideation into reality.


Featured/Headline Image Caption and Citation: Murals of the Troubles | Image sourced from Flickr


Dylan is a Law and Political Science student at Trinity College Dublin, The University of Dublin. He is currently serving as a Member of the International Correspondents Program at the Yale Review of International Studies. His interests include the European Union, International Law, Comparative Politics, and Constitutional Law.