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Perils & Prospects of a United Ireland: Unhappy reading for those in favour of reunification

US academic by Padraig O’Malley argues that the perils are more pronounced than the prospects in any envisaged referendum

Perils & Prospects of a United Ireland
Author: Padraig O’Malley
ISBN-13: 978-1843518518
Publisher: Lilliput Press
Guideline Price: €40

Even if the Stormont Assembly and Executive are restored under the EU-UK Windsor framework agreed last month, there will be “little to toast” at the events planned for next month in Belfast to commemorate the agreement signed there by the Irish and UK governments 25 years ago, warns Boston-based professor Padraig O’Malley in this substantial and comprehensive analysis of the progress and potential of the Northern Ireland peace process.

And if the framework fails to end the stalemate caused by the Northern Ireland protocol, the Belfast events, expected to be attended by US president Joe Biden, might turn out to be “a wake rather than a celebration”, he adds.

While the Belfast Agreement of 1998 is to be treasured because it ended the murderous violence of the Troubles, it needs an immediate and radical reboot, even if the Stormont Assembly is restored after the latest of its frequent collapses, he argues.

As an academic who has been, in his own word, “immersed” in studying Northern Ireland politics for the past 50 years, O’Malley’s draws in this analysis on interviews with 97 political leaders and observers, just under two-thirds of whom (62) were based in Northern Ireland, with fewer than a quarter (22) in the Republic and the remainder comprising 13 academics, economists and former civil servants.


He cites a 2021 Northern Ireland Life and Times survey by Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University to justify his claim that nearly 40 per cent of the people of Northern Ireland define themselves as neither British nor Irish, the two identities the 1998 agreement was designed to accommodate. He says this is creating a democratic deficit, even though the last Assembly elections, in 2022, resulted in the parties most likely to attract neutral voters polling well below 20 per cent of the first preferences.

O’Malley writes that there is no imminent likelihood of unity referendums in Northern Ireland or the Republic, despite the persistent demands of Sinn Féin

He also writes that the agreement “ensured that the political parties would compete for power within their communities, not across them, thus further embedding sectarian politics”, a claim that will rile members of the DUP and Sinn Féin, whom he describes as “the more extreme parties in both communities”. And he says that Brexit has exposed the blunt contradictions in the agreement’s constructive ambiguity – the promise that Northern Ireland would remain part of the United Kingdom while allowing also the possibility of it potentially becoming part of a united Ireland.

Strand one of the agreement (the Stormont Assembly and Executive) has frequently been dormant, most recently since February last year; strand two (North-South bodies) is inactive because it is in lockstep with and dependent on strand one functioning; and strand three (east-west relations) has been damaged by Brexit.

While unionists by and large refuse even to discuss how they might be accommodated in a united Ireland, O’Malley writes that there is no imminent likelihood of unity referendums in Northern Ireland or the Republic, despite the persistent demands of Sinn Féin, which is now the largest party in terms of first-preference votes in both jurisdictions while also being by far the wealthiest party and effectively the only all-island one (the Green Party has no MLA and People Before Profit has only one).

“Interviewees across Northern Ireland agree,” writes O’Malley, “Sinn Féin is the biggest obstacle to a united Ireland. It is an irony that the party whose raison d’être is a united Ireland is perceived as making that goal more difficult to achieve”. Further, if Sinn Féin were part of a future government in the Republic, he asks, how would it square its key priority – a united Ireland – with an electorate for whom it isn’t one, and with coalition partners who will have many more pressing priorities?

Every chapter is densely filled with facts, figures and opinions, while acknowledging that opinion polls are only snapshots in time

Numerous pitfalls await any moves towards Irish unity, even if a UK secretary of state for Northern Ireland decides, as stipulated by the 1998 agreement, to call a unity referendum. What if those in one jurisdiction voted Yes and those in the other voted No? Isn’t the word “concurrent” too imprecise for the timing of referendums in both jurisdictions? Would British citizens living in the Republic be denied a vote in any referendum, as is currently the case?

Seán Donlon, a former top Irish civil servant and ambassador, and Trevor Ringland, a former Irish rugby international who is now UK special envoy to the US on Northern Ireland, agree that Border referendums should not be contemplated for at least another generation.

Prof O’Malley won a Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize for his 1983 book The Uncivil Wars: Ireland Today. In this sequel, every chapter is again densely filled with facts, figures and opinions, while acknowledging that opinion polls are only snapshots in time.

In any envisaged united Ireland referendums, he writes, the perils are many and the prospects are few.