Just a few months ago in December, many were celebrating the centenary of Northern Ireland’s existence and its place within the United Kingdom. The BBC exhibited a range of articles depicting its history, politics, and culture. Yet, in just over a month’s time, the people of Northern Ireland will head to the polls and the result may decide whether that long history will come to an end.
Ulster’s election on 5 May to elect 90 members of Northern Ireland’s Assembly come after some of the most turbulent years in the country’s history. Whether you’re a unionist or republican, protestant or Catholic, Northern Ireland’s place in the union has, historically, been far from secure.
After its creation in 1921, Ulster has experienced bitter division and bloody violence in the name of both religious and political movements. It was thought that the Good Friday Agreement would cure the country’s ills. However, since the Brexit referendum six years ago, Northern Ireland’s political instability and anger at Westminster have become more apparent.
In the referendum, 55.8% of the Northern Irish electorate voted to remain inside the European Union. Like in Scotland, Northern Ireland is home to a large re-join movement and parties like Sinn Fein have moulded their position to such policy. The 2019 election proved that anti-Brexit sentiment is growing as the liberal Alliance party doubled their vote as the pro-Brexit vote decreased. The UK has a union problem. Both England and Wales voted to leave, but not Scotland and Northern Ireland. The latter, however, is more problematic.
Since Northern Ireland borders the Republic, an EU member, it has created a problem that the government has effectively ignored. “We will make sure that businesses face no extra costs and no checks for stuff being exported from NI to GB”, Johnson said in the final days of the 2019 election campaign. It was utter nonsense.
The Northern Ireland Protocol was created out of legal necessity to ensure trade continued, but Johnson’s treatment of the region is completely irresponsible. They’re trapped in the middle of an uncomfortable trade negotiation which only damages the union and its people. It’s often forgotten now, but it was only a year ago that riots took place in Ulster as the loyalist community fought back against the government’s plans.
Brexit has only made a United Ireland more possible. At the start of the 2010s. the margin of victory for Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK reached as high as 57% in polling. Today, that lead is in single digits. However, this has been a long time coming and it’s down to both lazy government and the DUP, the unionists who opposed the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
It’s impossible to argue that the peace agreement was bad for the people of Northern Ireland. Any suggestion of such a thing, with the bloodshed of the Troubles long in the past, would be entirely wrong. However, like the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014, the unity of the centrist parties for peace resulted in their demise.
The Northern Ireland Assembly and the position of First Minister were created after the peace agreement was ratified by a referendum, supported by 71% of the population. However, in the years that followed, the mainstream Ulster Unionists and Social Democratic and Labour parties collapsed. Peace had been achieved, but religious fear remained strong.
Peace in Northern Ireland made way for Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA which took credit for much of the bloodshed of the Troubles. The rise of Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists was a reaction against not so much the agreement of peace but the prospect of Sinn Fein becoming a serious and peaceful political force. After peace, war was replaced with fear.
The DUP has been the primary party of government since 2007. But since then, the party has been power-sharing with Sinn Fein in a very unstable partnership. Little progress has been made during their time in office aside from keeping the parliament afloat, something which is becoming more challenging.
Their division over the leadership of Arlene Foster led to a farce. Edwin Poots lasted just four weeks as leader and Northern Ireland has been without a First Minister for nearly two months after Paul Givan’s resignation over Johnson’s hashed Protocol agreement. The DUP has acted out of fear and clumsily so. Hard-line Protestantism is dying as those who lived during the Troubles no longer see it as useful in the modern political world.
In both Northern Ireland and the Republic, Sinn Fein has been just one seat short of becoming the largest party in the last elections. Recent polling in both countries has placed Sinn Fein in the lead by varying distances. If they win the most seats and form the next administration, Northern Ireland will enter new political territory and so will the Republic and the rest of the UK.
Unification is no longer a matter of speculation. Since 1998, the Republic and Northern Ireland have grown closer and the latter’s anger against the UK government could be the final straw. It’s now a matter of when. The events of the last few decades and perhaps even millennium have made it inevitable that Northern Ireland will one day reunite with the south.
Generations are growing up in a post-Good Friday Agreement world. Unity isn’t shown through religion or politics anymore, but through desired peace. Brexit is doing all it can to render that peace moot, but in the end, the people of the Republic and Northern Ireland will have to decide their fate.