The Irish Question: from partition to reunification?

Map of Ireland

The outcomes of the referendum which led to Brexit are not yet exhausted as the UK exits from the EU. A century after the Ireland’s War of Independence, it is not impossible that the reunification of the island will ensue, although it is still divided by politics and religion.

1. Even after nearly five years, we cannot yet to make out clearly all of the implications of the referendum held in 2016 which led to the exit of the UK from the EU. We know the terms under which the two sides will relate in future, since they were agreed last December in The Commercial and Cooperation Agreement, but the reach of Brexit in its multiple facets will become apparent only with time. In Britain’s internal politics, Northern Ireland (and equally Scotland) is one of the points at which the chain of events could have strong repercussions. Today’s Irish question presents a curious parallel with that of a century ago, when Ireland emerged from the British Empire. The Dublin Easter Rising of 1916 preceded the Irish War of Independence, which broke out in 1919, during the administration of David Lloyd George, and continued until the end of 1921.

2. 1920 and 1921 were crucial years in the partition of Ireland. Northern Ireland remained in the United Kingdom with 13 500 km2 of territory and 1.8m inhabitants, mostly Unionists and Protestant. The area was also called Ulster, one of the four historic provinces of Ireland. The independent Republic of Ireland covers 70 000km2 and has 5m inhabitants, 80% of whom are Catholic. The Irish question should be understood in the context of the religious and political struggles in the British Isles, of modern nationalism and of a British Constitutional model with diverse territorial and national components (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland). In 1920, the British Parliament approved the Government of Ireland Act, which set up two governments on the island, with delegated but limited powers. The one in Dublin with authority over the South was rejected by the nationalists and their principal armed group, the Irish Republican Army (IRA); the other in Belfast had authority over the six counties of the North (Londonderry / Derry, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Armagh, Antrim, Down) and was implemented by the mainly Unionist population.

3. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 6 December, 1921, negotiated by the Lloyd George administration, formed the basis of the Irish Free State, which had a constitutional status similar to that of Canada and the other territories of the Commonwealth. The Treaty came into force on 6 December, 1922, and it had the effect of dividing the Irish nationalists and this division led to the Civil War (1922 – 1923). Michael Collins, the first President of the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State was soon assassinated. After WW2, the Fine Gael government of John A. Costello passed the Republic of Ireland Act, which came into force the following year and Ireland broke away from the Commonwealth. Later, for thirty years, Northern Ireland was the scene of nationalist and sectarian violence, which was brought to an end only with the Belfast Accord (the Good Friday Agreement) in 1998.

4. It will be a profound historical irony if the Brexit referendum, with its slogan of Take Back Control and its aim for the British Parliament to reassume sovereignty over the UK from the European Union, leads to the loss of British sovereignty over Northern Ireland. The idea of a united and independent Ireland did not die in 1921, and it has always been the aspiration of Irish nationalists in Ulster and in the Republic. Mary Lou McDonald, the current leader of Sinn Féin (the party with the highest popular vote in the Republic) expects that the island of Ireland will be united by the end of this decade. Only time will show whether hers is a realistic vision, but the intention to exploit the opportunity presented by Brexit is clear. In its future relations with the EU, Northern Ireland will be the British exception, as it aligns with the customs union of the united Europe and not with that of the United Kingdom. And so we shall see if Boris Johnson will be remembered in history as the man who reclaimed sovereignty over the United Kingdom, or the politician who lost Northern Ireland (and/or Scotland).

© José Pedro Teixeira Fernandes, tradução para língua inglesa do artigo originalmente publicado na revista JN História nº 30 (2021)

© Imagem: Wikimedia Commons / Realpolitik

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