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The ‘inevitable’ vote on a united Ireland – and what it could mean

Northern Ireland could one day vote to split from the UK and join a united Ireland
Northern Ireland could one day vote to split from the UK and join a united Ireland

“If there was going to be a united Ireland tomorrow, would I be still here fighting tomorrow?” asks Doug Beattie.

“The answer is yes, of course I would,” the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) declares from Belfast’s deserted Stormont.

Unionists will need someone to fight on their behalf if Irish reunification happens, said the former Royal Irish Regiment captain. “That has to be me.”

It is a quarter of a century since the Good Friday Agreement ended The Troubles.

The deal owed much to the UUP – which, riven by splits, was overtaken by the more hardline Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in the years that followed.

Now, the question of Irish unification is moving into the mainstream 102 years after six counties in Ulster were partitioned.

The Republic of Ireland’s economy is booming while the North grapples with the aftershocks of Brexit and two historic electoral triumphs for the nationalist Sinn Féin, which is now the largest party in Northern Ireland.

Earlier this month, Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s 44-year-old leader, predicted for the first time that the island would unite in his lifetime.

And on Thursday, U2 frontman, Bono said of a united Ireland: “We might not be at the falling in love stage, but we’re dating.”

John Finucane was a boy when he, his mother, sister and brother, saw Loyalist paramilitaries shoot his father Pat 14 times after using a sledgehammer to smash into the family home.

In 2012, David Cameron, the then prime minister, apologised after a report found Royal Ulster Constabulary officers and a British Army intelligence agent colluded in the 1989 murder of the 39-year-old Catholic lawyer.

Now John Finucane, the MP for Belfast North, is tipped as a potential future leader of Sinn Féin.

An Ipsos poll in December predicted twice as many Northern Irish voters would choose to stay in the UK rather than leave.

Children from a Loyalist area in Belfast in front of a Union Flag mural, 1971
Children from a Loyalist area in Belfast in front of a Union Flag mural, 1971

But a border poll is “inevitable”, according to Mr Finucane, a former Lord Mayor of Belfast.

“Brexit has changed everything because it has brought this conversation well beyond our republican base,” said Mr Finucane – who, like all Sinn Féin MPs, does not take up his Westminster seat.

“People are no longer looking to London for the future.

“They very much see themselves as European and they recognise that the South is no longer a jurisdiction to be feared.

“It’s not an unknown territory. It’s prosperous, it’s progressive. It’s outward-looking and confident.”

Even pro-Union voters had seen England “tear itself apart” since the 2016 referendum, he said.

The time for a border poll

The Good Friday Agreement is no more specific than saying the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland should call a referendum if it “appears likely” a majority would back unity.

The Irish government must also call a border poll, and both must be won.

Mr Beattie, the MLA for Upper Bann since 2016, said the conditions were “nowhere near” being met.

But he admitted more election successes for Sinn Féin could increase the clamour for a vote.

The decorated veteran of three tours in Afghanistan, who became the UUP’s leader in 2021, has been attacked for describing himself as Irish.

But he insists he is as “strongly Irish” as someone from Dublin, while having “that sense of belonging to the United Kingdom”.

“Gaelic Games, Guinness, Irish rugby, the sash, the King, the Irish language, Ulster Scots – all of these things represent me. That’s not going to change in a united Ireland,” he said.

Mr Beattie said he has been contacted by Unionists, describing themselves as “united Ireland curious” and thinking what is now best for their families’ futures.

One confided he would now vote to take the 1.9 million-strong region out of the UK.

Mr Beattie blames the DUP’s 19-month boycott of Stormont over post-Brexit trading arrangements.

He said: “The conversation about a united Ireland has certainly picked up because of Brexit but I think the catalyst for a border poll and for more people supporting a united Ireland is not having a devolved government.”

NHS chaos a gift to republicans

The NHS is one of Unionism’s most powerful arguments for remaining in the UK. Healthcare is not free at the point of delivery in the Republic and prescription medicines are expensive.

But nowhere in the UK currently has worse waiting lists than Northern Ireland, which are twice as long as those in the Republic of Ireland, according to Irish Department of Health research.

In 2021, Mr Beattie’s 18-month-old grandson Cameron died while on a waiting list.

“We don’t have a government able to address those issues so the NHS is no longer the jewel in our crown,” he said.

The UK’s poorest region cannot ignore how well Ireland’s economy is performing, partly thanks to its low corporate tax rate attracting foreign investment, and despite the Republic’s housing crisis.

Just two years after it paid off the £3.2 billion emergency bailout loan it received from the UK in 2010, Dublin will have a budget surplus of £8.6 billion this year.

That is expected to grow to £17.9 billion in 2026 and rise to a £56.3 billion surplus by 2027.

Dublin has invested in Northern Ireland when London is accused of imposing a “punishment budget” to correct a £300 million Stormont overspend.

It announced £1.7 million in funding for Northern Ireland students to continue taking part in the Erasmus+ study and work exchange programme, which the UK left at Brexit.

And in June, Dublin made an unprecedented one-off £8.55 million investment to fund 250 places for student nurses in Northern Ireland.

The undergraduate placements would otherwise have been lost to the unpopular budget cuts imposed by London during the DUP’s boycott of Stormont.

A ‘yes’ vote - a vote for the EU

At a 2017 summit in Brussels, Enda Kenny, the former Irish Taoiseach, secured a commitment that Northern Ireland will automatically rejoin the EU if reunification happens.

A majority – 56 per cent – of people in Northern Ireland voted to Remain in the 2016 referendum.

The DUP campaigned for Brexit, which raised the prospect of a hard land border with EU member Ireland.

To avoid reigniting Troubles-era tensions, London, Brussels and Dublin agreed to the Northern Ireland Protocol, which introduced Irish Sea border checks on British goods entering the UK region instead.

Northern Ireland would follow hundreds of EU rules but gain unique and lucrative dual access to both the UK and European markets.

The DUP said the new border loosened Northern Ireland’s ties to the UK and pulled out of power-sharing in the Northern Ireland Assembly in February 2022.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader, refused to return to Stormont after Sinn Féin, led by Michelle O’Neill, triumphed in Assembly elections in May 2022.

The boycott has prevented devolved action on healthcare and the economy. It also stopped Ms O’Neill becoming first minister in another first for Sinn Féin.

The boycott holds to this day, 19 months later, despite the entreaties of Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, and Joe Biden, the United States president, who visited Belfast earlier this year after the Windsor Framework deal in February.

Sinn Féin won the most seats in this year’s local elections but polls show strong support for the boycott among DUP voters.

Gavin Robinson, the DUP deputy leader, accused nationalists of trying “to manipulate the politics” and use “totemic” issues like Brexit.

“You can understand why it fits their narrative to keep pushing the envelope,” said the 38-year-old MP for Belfast East.

For Mr Robinson, the real threat to the UK is the Northern Ireland Protocol and its successor agreement, the Windsor Framework.

‘Doomed Unionism’

Wallace Thompson, a founding member of the DUP, raised eyebrows this month by declaring Unionism was “probably always in many ways doomed”.

Mr Thompson, a dedicated follower of Ian Paisley Sr, said that there was an “inevitability” about some form of Irish unity and Unionists needed to “talk to people” about it.

Moderate Unionists have turned to the centrist Alliance, which is Northern Ireland’s third largest party and is neither Unionist nor nationalist. It also has no position on reunification.

Meanwhile, younger pro-Union voters are alienated by the staunchly conservative views on issues such as LGBT rights held by some Unionists.

“Unionism as a whole is going to have to change the way it does things and become more centrist in many, many ways,” said Mr Beattie, who admitted that he does not know how long he will remain UUP leader after two disappointing election results.

Sinn Féin’s success frightens Unionists

Last year, a census taken every decade showed that traditionally nationalist-voting Catholics outnumbered historically largely Unionist Protestants for the first time in Northern Ireland.

A total of 45.7 per cent were either Catholic or raised Catholic, while 43.5 per cent were Protestant and other Christian faiths.

The demographic shift is resonant in a region whose borders were drawn to guarantee a Protestant majority and Northern Ireland’s future.

After its triumphs in Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin is now hoping further election wins over the next two years will build a convincing case for a border poll by 2030.

Led by Mary Lou McDonald, the only all-island party in divided Ireland won the popular vote in the 2020 Irish general election

Had it fielded more candidates, the Left-wing party could have formed a government.

Instead it took 37 seats, its best result since 1923.

In a poll this week, Sinn Féin extended its lead over its rivals and remains on course to be comfortably the largest party in the next Irish parliament.

Mr Finucane said a Sinn Féin victory would ramp up the pressure for the border poll, which the new government would seek US and EU support for.

He accused Fine Gael and Fianna Fail of not doing enough to prepare the groundwork for reunification.

What a united Ireland could look like

Long before any votes are cast, Sinn Féin wants citizens’ assemblies to take place, addressing issues such as the future of Stormont and even possible changes to the Irish flag or constitution.

One possibility is that devolution and Stormont could continue, perhaps for a transition period of 15 years, but with ultimate sovereignty transferring from London to Dublin.

Nobody wanted Ireland’s new million-strong minority of those identifying as British to suffer the same discriminations Catholics had in the past, said Mr Finucane.

“I don’t want to be part of an era that would strip anybody of a British passport, for example,” he said.

Northern Irish citizens are allowed to apply for Irish passports and, if the UK Government agreed, that Good Friday Agreement arrangement could be adapted for those wanting British passports.

“I would want the Irish flag, as it is, to stay. But if we are serious about this conversation, then we all have to advocate and put forward our argument for that,” said Mr Finucane.

Voters in the Republic of Ireland would support unification by a majority of four to one, an Ipsos poll for the Irish Times revealed in December.

But support dips if voters are asked whether they are willing to change the national anthem or the Irish flag.

‘Glorious Twelfth should be celebrated’

Gerry Carlisle, chief executive of Ireland’s Future, has suggested that Dublin makes July 12 – “the Glorious Twelfth” or “Orangemen’s Day” – a public holiday before a border poll takes place.

The day is celebrated annually in Northern Ireland and commemorates Protestant King William of Orange’s pivotal victory over the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne.

“We need, when the opportunity presents itself, to be generous, not just to the Orange Order, but broader Unionist culture,” said Mr Carlisle, a Falls Road-born football agent turned campaigner.

Matthew O’Toole is the leader of the opposition in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) MLA for Belfast South.

Northern Ireland reunification
Northern Ireland reunification

John Hume, the former SDLP leader, and David Trimble, the former UUP leader, won the Nobel Peace Prize for their work on the Good Friday Agreement.

The nationalist party, which always opposed violence to gain unity, has been battered at the ballot box after losing swathes of support to Sinn Féin.

“I want there to be a sovereign, new united Ireland and to unlock its potential but that’s different from saying there won’t be any connection with Britain,” said Mr O’Toole, who resigned as a Downing Street adviser over Brexit’s impact on the island of Ireland.

“First of all, Britishness should be and will have to be legally protected.”

Role for the royals

The 40-year-old suggested the Irish constitution could be amended if the country reunified.

The UK flag could have some legal recognition and a new all-Ireland flag was also a possibility.

“My party’s vision is for a republic. But why not, for example, have a role for the royals in terms of patronages and civic society?” he added.

Prof Brendan O’Leary, in his book Making Sense of a United Ireland, has suggested a united Ireland could rejoin the Commonwealth, although that is deeply unpopular with Irish voters.

Spectre of violence after reunification

Jim Allister, the leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), wears a red badge on his jacket lapel with the motto “No Sea Border” picked out in white.

He accused “our overlords in Westminster” of having “no thought or regard to the Union”.

“Unionists have lived a large part of their lives fearing constitutional change, by virtue of the fact that we had very brutal terrorist campaigns towards that end,” he said in his office in Ballymena, approximately a 40-minute drive from Belfast.

“But the reality of today is that we’ve had constitutional change. The Protocol has achieved what the IRA couldn’t achieve. It pushed the border to the Irish Sea.”

“And we’ve had that without consent, which is a very sinister thing indeed.”

The King’s Counsel barrister quit the DUP for the second time in 2007 over the party’s decision to enter power-sharing with Sinn Féin and founded the TUV.

Could a border poll or reunification escalate into a new campaign of terror led by a loyalist insurgency?

“A scorched earth policy at its worst?” he answered. “If it came about, and is seen as a great conspiracy aided by things like the Protocol to edge us out of the Union.

“If that strategy was seen to have succeeded, I think that will leave such a bad taste that one couldn’t rule out there would be some factions, which would give vent to their outrage.”

“I wouldn’t be in the business of organising violence about anything but it’s not impossible there would be some sort of violent reaction. I’m not advocating for or condoning that.”

Prof Padraig O’Malley, an international peacemaker specialising in divided societies, told The Telegraph that paramilitarism is “alive and well” and peace is fragile in Northern Ireland.

Dissident Republican and Loyalist gangs are involved in organised crime and drugs in Northern Ireland, where the terror threat is currently “severe”.

“It’s a small number but it’s a small number of people embedded in both communities and it makes Northern Ireland an abnormal place,” said Prof O’Malley.

Mr Allister predicted there would be large-scale emigration to Britain and further afield of  Unionists resentful of being “shunted off under an Irish tricolour” after reunification.

“If Irish Republicanism, which is by nature a non-forgiving animal, had that ultimate upper hand, I think they couldn’t help themselves but settle scores,” he said.

Would he stay on in Northern Ireland after reunification?

“I would find it very difficult to live under the flag that wrapped itself around the coffins of IRA terrorists who are still glorified for having murdered my kith and kin.”