Wider implications for Ireland of Brexit need to be brought into the open

Kenny and Martin comment on border poll are welcomed as a stimulus for debate

That Northern Ireland's future in the United Kingdom is subject to Brexit's constitutional logic has this week come squarely on to Ireland's mainstream political agenda. Micheál Martin and then Enda Kenny said they would support an Irish reunification referendum under certain conditions.

This is an important shift of attitude, since the Border poll issue has been monopolised by Sinn Féin and discussion of reunification resisted by other parties as unrealistic or undesirable. It should now get the wider debate and research it deserves.

The UK's dual sovereignty question links EU membership to its own integrity as a united state. After the decision to leave the EU that decisional logic assumes crisis proportions since it embraces Northern Ireland and Scotland, whose votes to remain were overridden by an English majority.

Speaking at the MacGill Summer School, Martin said a Border poll should happen if support for the EU Remain option shifts Northern opinion towards reunification; but he acknowledged the only evidence so far is that the majority there “wants to maintain open borders and a single market with this jurisdiction and beyond that with the rest of Europe”.


Preserving those very substantial rights against more closed visions of Brexit is a major challenge. It was taken up the next day by Kenny in his remarks at the school. He said in his prepared speech that "the closer the UK is to the EU the better for all of us, and above all, for Ireland". If that is not what emerges from the British debate, he later told journalists, Ireland must prepare for a shift of view in the North towards Irish unity by ensuring Northern Ireland could be absorbed into the EU like East Germany was in 1990-91 rather than through a "tortuous and long process" of separate application.

Unique role

This European context of possible reunification plays into the special or unique role the Northern Ireland peace process has in that setting, according to Irish diplomats. Kenny stressed this aspect with Angela Merkel and François Hollande.

Judging his remarks only by the competitive logic of domestic politics – whether with Sinn Féin or Fianna Fáil – underestimates the dual sovereignty question Ireland also faces over European integration and national reunification. Its logic could play out much more rapidly than is presently imagined or desired, according to the dynamics Lenin observed in 1917: "There are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen." We are arguably living through such an accelerated time period in international affairs. In that perspective, it is high time these wider implications of Brexit for Ireland were brought out into the open.

Realistic evaluation

Sinn F

éin’s cack-handed call for an immediate Border poll after the Brexit referendum certainly deserved the criticisms it got from other nationalists and unionists, based on a realistic evaluation of recent polling in the North which decisively rejects Irish unity. Martin and Kenny’s case is more long-term, anticipating a possible decisive shift in unionist attitudes confronted with a certain Brexit scenario linked to UK break-up.

Sinn Féin’s own evolution from a sceptical sovereigntist opposition to the EU towards a left-critical stance, accepting it with a different form and policies, is more significant than its reversion to slogans about unity. It has yet to come to terms with the possibility that a united Ireland is more likely to arise from wider British and European tensions than from purely Irish ones. And its hopes to supplant Fianna Fáil in the last election were frustrated by Micheál Martin’s determination not to allow that to happen. Thus the supplanting of the Civil War political cleavage by a new left-right one has not occurred. Irish politics remains polarised around the two main centrist parties.

The UK crisis may not be resolved by break-up. It may alternatively hold together in a new federalised fashion, linked more closely to the EU than many Brexiteers want. Ireland must live with whatever outcome emerges. Irish policymaking should not accept that passively but should seek to shape it according to Irish interests. These are contested politically between those who want closer or looser European integration, a more social or a more neoliberal EU.

Inescapably, too, such choices involve Irish attitudes to the UK and a united Ireland. They need to be researched and debated much more than they have been, perhaps along the lines of the New Ireland Forum in 1984. In that perspective, this week’s remarks by Martin and Kenny should be welcomed.