In 2002, the BBC World Service held a competition to find the world’s favorite song. What do you imagine was the winner of this global competition? Something by The Beatles or Led Zeppelin? Or maybe something from India or China, the world’s most populous countries?
No, nothing of the sort. The winner was a song that I had never heard of before, and I wager, not one that is well known to many people this side of the Irish sea. It was an nationalist ballad called ‘A Nation Once Again’ and its lyrics tell the story of a political aspiration that too many have assumed to have be withering away:
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When boyhood’s fire was in my blood
I read of ancient freemen,
For Greece and Rome who bravely stood,
Three hundred men and three men;
And then I prayed I yet might see
Our fetters rent in twain,
And Ireland, long a province, be.
A Nation once again!
The Good Friday agreement is 20 years old. And during that period there has been, if not peace exactly, then certainly a huge diminution of the sort of violence that claimed the lives of over 3,500 people in the Troubles, as they have come to be euphemistically described. These days, the news is not dominated by images of men in black hoods firing guns around the grave of some fallen comrade.
Yes, there is still bother when men in funny bowler hats want to march around Belfast baiting Catholics with their grimly assertive Protestant identity. But things are different now. Former leaders of the IRA have toasted the Queen at posh banquets. And the Queen herself pointedly wore a green dress when she visited Ireland in 2012, and shook hands with former IRA commander Martin McGuiness. Prince Harry and Meghan Markel were greeted by cheering crowds when they visited Dublin back in July. And farmers drive though a nominal border as if it weren’t there.
One of the arguments against Brexit is that it puts all this at risk. Establishing any sort of border on the island of Ireland, it is said, will unpick all the progress of the past 20 years and risk a return to the sectarianism of the 1970s. How could we be so stupid to put all this in jeopardy?
This is true, of course. There must never again be a hard border between the North and the South. But the idea that the present situation in Northern Ireland is a stable one, and the Good Friday has solved the Irish question, is a fantasy. It’s wishful thinking on the part of the British establishment that, for a long time, has only ever wanted the whole Northern Irish problem to disappear.
The truth is, outside the terraces of Hampden Park or aside from a few Unionist ultras like Norman Tebbit, the British don’t really care for Northern Ireland. It’s that bit on the weather map up the top on the left. The Tories may still officially class themselves as passionate Unionists, in theory at least, but even they have lost their love for the north and its bolshy unionist politicians. And power sharing clearly isn’t working. There hasn’t been a functioning government in Northern Ireland for nearly two years.
Demographically, the north of Ireland is becoming more and more Republican. When Northern Ireland was invented, nearly a hundred years ago, it was 65% Protestant and 35% Catholic. Now it is 48% Protestant and 45% Catholic. And that direction of travel is set to continue.
Within a decade, maybe sooner, there could well be a majority opinion favouring Irish unity. Brexit has accelerated this shift. The pro-EU unionist young are beginning to wonder whether it is better for them to be a part of the economically vibrant Irish republic, with its membership of the free market and customs union, than attach themselves to old sectarianisms that caused so much bitterness and economic despondency.
The Irish Republic has gay marriage and abortion rights. Ireland is no longer in hock to the Catholic church, and young increasingly liberal minded Protestants have nothing to be afraid of. In 2016, 56% of Northern Ireland voted to Remain. Polls show support for Remain now stands near 70%. Even hard-core unionist Ian Paisley Jr urged his constituents to apply for their Irish passports as a response to Brexit.
Brexit is the anguished cry of the post-industrial towns of the north and midlands of England – it’s an English and Welsh issue. The Irish largely skipped all that heavy industry stuff, and so were better placed to move to a knowledge-based economy, attracting investment from all around the world. If a united Ireland were to come about, it won’t be through the actions of men in masks with guns, but because of demographics and the sheer economic good sense of a single land mass like Ireland trading freely with itself, unencumbered by political divisions.
A united Ireland has always been the long-term goal of the Left. “It’s an aspiration that I have always gone along with” is Corbyn’s view. And earlier this week, John MacDonnell “I long for a united Ireland”. The Left has come in for a lot of stick for fraternising with former IRA terrorists. And because of the moral problem of being seen alongside those who used to wield guns, many in the British establishment remain afraid of openly supporting Irish unification – at least, in the media. But things are changing. Since the Good Friday Agreement, much of the heat has gone out of the Irish question and so it becomes possible for the subject to be discussed relatively dispassionately. And if there is a Prime Minister Corbyn, expect the subject to return to the top of the agenda.
Using the border issue to attack Brexit is a failure to see the big picture. Because far from creating a problem, Brexit points in the direction of a long-term solution to the centuries old three-dimensional political chess that the English colonial involvement in Ireland has created. Brexit isn’t the problem. It is an opportunity.
Under the Good Friday agreement, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must call a border poll if he or she thinks there is a majority for unification. That’s day is not far off. Long term, this is the future of Northern Ireland: green not orange. A nation once again; not through boyhood fire, but by the calm logic of democracy. Brexit has merely accelerated the inevitable.