The political landscape in Northern Ireland has shifted out of all recognition. Brexit has disrupted comfortable assumptions. While unionism is weaker than it has ever been, history may not be moving inexorably in nationalism’s direction.
Non-aligned voters are now the key to Northern Ireland’s future. The emergence of a bloc of 15-20 per cent who support such parties as Alliance and the Greens, combined with the inability of either unionists or nationalists to command more than 50 per cent of the vote, means that the outcome of a future referendum rests in the hands of those who do not identify strongly with either faction. The decline of the “two tribes” and the growth of the centre in recent election results mirrors the findings of opinion polls and the census.
Until Brexit, it was a fairly secure assumption that the voters of the centre would be inclined to support the union, if push came to shove. They are not unionists as such; but continued membership of the United Kingdom offered continuity and economic stability, and the EU context and Belfast Agreement gave reassurance to the Irish identity which most non-aligned voters share to at least some degree.
This emergence of a growing bloc of voters of the centre means it is possible that a future referendum for unification could pass in Northern Ireland – but only if three preconditions are met.
The first such precondition is that Brexit must visibly fail the economic interests of Northern Ireland, which of course voted against it and reiterated that opposition in the European Parliament elections. If the British government knowingly implements a policy which hits the North’s economy, the argument for the union as a factor of stability will be destroyed.
Even continued unionist backwoodsmanship, however, may not be enough for the voters of the centre to abandon the status quo
That argument is already weak. The economics of Irish unity have never looked better. According to the latest figures, the UK’s gross domestic product per capita is about $40,000 (€35,700). Northern Ireland’s is $27,000. The Republic’s is more than $75,000 on paper; even if this is exaggerated by creative multinational corporate accounting, the Irish economy has a clear lead. That lead doesn’t matter much as long as everyone’s position is improving. But if Northern Ireland’s voters of the centre are hit in the pocket by Brexit, they will pause for reflection.
The second precondition relates to culture. Most of the voters of the centre have direct personal experience of mixed marriages in their own families and social circles. An increasing number have heritage partly or entirely from outside Northern Ireland. The politics of division does not appeal to them. The vast majority support same-sex marriage and a more liberal abortion law.
More people will take part in this year’s Pride parade in Belfast than in the Twelfth of July Orange Order marches. Unionism will lose a future referendum if its leaders continue to address only their own hardcore constituency by banging the drum, literally and figuratively.
The Irish language debate is critical. Few in the centre care about the precise technicalities, but the poisonous vocabulary used by many unionist leaders to describe Irish reduces unionism to representing only a dwindling section of the community, and discredits the British tradition of pluralism.
Even continued unionist backwoodsmanship, however, may not be enough for the voters of the centre to abandon the status quo. The final precondition for nationalists to win a referendum is that they themselves must outline what a future united Ireland would look like, in terms that will appeal to the voters of the centre – and this must include arrangements to protect all identities and cultures in Northern Ireland, and to continue and value interdependence and power-sharing. Surprisingly little work has been done on this, though judge Richard Humphreys and Senator Mark Daly have made a start.
Before their successful referendums on independence in Montenegro in 2005 and South Sudan in 2011, pro-independence forces were able to paint a convincing picture of what their future state would look like. In contrast, the 2014 Scottish independence campaign failed to answer crucial questions about the monetary and foreign policy of an independent Scotland, and lost the vote. The lessons are clear.
Not everyone in the Republic will welcome the prospect of reunification or a serious debate on how it might come about
A crucial issue will be the future healthcare system of a united Ireland. Even though the performance of Britain’s National Health System is decidedly average by European standards, it is universally appreciated in the UK, including in Northern Ireland where it is also a major employer – and the UK’s health metrics are better than Ireland’s on almost every measure. Can nationalists provide reassurance to Northern Ireland’s voters that unification will be good for their health?
These three preconditions apply in sequence. If Brexit, contrary to expectations, brings economic benefits to Northern Ireland, unionists can continue to live in the past without risking too much. If unionism starts addressing the challenges of the 21st century rather than the 17th, it may not matter how convincing the designs are for a 32-county state. And if nationalism does not communicate any real benefits of unification to the voters of the centre, then those voters could well stick with what they currently have, even if Brexit and unionism fail them.
Not everyone in the Republic will welcome the prospect of reunification or a serious debate on how it might come about. But the facts are that the Belfast Agreement institutions in Northern Ireland have not proven robust, and that the UK as a whole is undergoing a period of profound instability. A point may come where Northern Ireland’s voters of the centre feel they must choose between radical constitutional change or another lost generation. This will have immediate consequences for stability and prosperity in the Republic.
For decades, the future of Northern Ireland has been assessed under the assumption that its voters can be easily divided into Protestants and Catholics, who would vote consistently for the union or for a united Ireland, and that through demographic change the day might come when the latter would outnumber the former. Of course, this was never a completely accurate picture. Now, we are seeing both of the main blocs stabilising at about 40 per cent, and a growing number of voters in the centre who are making their own minds up. Nothing can or should be taken for granted.
Nicholas Whyte is senior director of global solutions at APCO Worldwide's Brussels office, and a visiting professor at the faculty of social science of Ulster University. He advised both Montenegro and South Sudan on their independence processes