Reunification is inevitable and the EU can help
Brexit opened a can of worms that can never be shut but Ireland needs to be in the union
Bernie Duffy: ‘With an EU passport and a smattering of languages, I have been able to live and work in five European states.’
All this week, The Irish Times has been exploring Ireland’s future post-Brexit, and the possibilities, the challenges, the divisions. Will the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union accelerate the demand for a united Ireland? Or will it reverse the work since the Good Friday Agreement and drive both parts of the island apart?
We put a call out to readers abroad for their views. The piece below from Bernie Duffy in Hamburg is one of the responses we received.
I left Ireland in 1991 at the age of 17 and have been living between the United States and continental Europe since then. I’ve always maintained a close connection to my homeland, involving myself in Irish organisations abroad and even founding one here in Hamburg, Germany. These activities have brought me into more contact with Northerners than I ever had growing up in Dublin and made me appreciate that the Irish identity goes far beyond any petty regionalism or politics.
I have, however, noticed a striking difference between the attitudes towards “home” of Irish expat communities on either side of the Atlantic. In the US they tend to be sentimental and strongly republican; in Europe the tend to be more cynical and cosmopolitan. Those living on the Continent feel close and take that proximity for granted, and it’s not just the advent of low-cost airlines that led to this.
There is a certain disregard for the European Union, even among those who directly benefit from it. This is dangerous and should not be ignored. The EU is misunderstood as a concept, although it has been the key factor in the peaceful transition of much of Eastern Europe from communism and has brought us all much closer together.
While the EU was not directly involved in the Northern Irish peace process, it was the idea of a fair and borderless Europe that brought the initiative forward. The European Union as a supranational organisation is difficult to grasp for many and has become at odds with countries where nationalism is returning to centre stage. Britain’s referendum on membership of the union has opened a can of worms that can never be closed again, but it needs to be confronted in order for Europeans to understand the importance of their political union.
The Brexit decision is especially shocking because of how the British voting public were duped, and continue to be duped, in the interests of a tiny business and aristocratic elite. Rule by peerage and a class-based society does not fit with a democratic Europe and many of the UK’s institutions, such as the House of Lords, are lumbering under the weight of their obsolescence. Paddling backwards from the promise of a fairer and more transparent EU, this elite is steering itself to a safe position free from pesky tax, human rights and employment regulations. Brexit is an act of self-harm that the British working class – should they wake up – will rue for generations to come.
A united Ireland will probably not be propelled by Irish nationalism, but by the necessity made by a crumbling and outdated UK. The most peaceful path to healing the long and painful division of our island is to just let it happen. Reunification is an inevitability, and no economic concerns should detract from that. It can and will work.
German reunification was swift and relatively painless, and a 5.5 per cent “solidarity tax” helped in paying for the transformation and inclusion of the former socialist states. Nor should we wring our hands over the sentiments or allegiances of a dwindling Ulster Unionist base, which has been left out in the cold by London-centric politics. The natural place for unionists is the land they are standing on. They belong and are part of Ireland – and that must be accepted on all sides.
Of course things are not so simple and no system is perfect for everybody, but some systems are better than others. To see arguments for Ireland’s exit from the EU is worrying. That would rule out any chance of a united Ireland and would leave the country vulnerable to British influence, which has been historically woeful. With an EU passport and a smattering of languages, I have been able to live and work in five European states and have had doors open for me that I would not have been able to access otherwise.
I believe that the majority of the Irish public, still looking westwards over the ocean, have yet to realise or fully appreciate the potential and possibilities available to them by virtue of their membership of the European Union. I think this needs a serious re-evaluation, and not just on a macro level, but the little things too – roaming fees, parental leave, energy and recycling policies – that make a difference to our standard of living.
Out of the loop
Perhaps as outsiders we Irish abroad have the benefit of more objectivity on matters, or perhaps we are too far out of the loop to comment. But the millions of us who left are attentive to what happens back home and often feel cut out of the discussion.
A hard border with Northern Ireland would be painful, would bring back bad memories, and nobody wants to see a return to the dark old days of the Troubles. It is unthinkable.
If a closer partnership with an independent Northern Ireland is the way to avoid this, then so be it. Its people voted to remain in the EU. It would be in their interests to stay and there would be no need for a border. My partner is Scottish and we look forward to the inevitability of Scotland becoming an independent member of the EU. I have promised to move there when it happens, making it six EU states in which I will have lived.
Bernie Duffy is a computer games author and lecturer living in Hamburg. He founded the Hamburg-Irish Friendship Association in 2015