Irish Unity: A persuasive opportunity structure, a dissuasive reality

Guest post by Dr Anthony Costello, lecturer in EU policy-making, Comparative European Government and Politics, Conflict and Conflict Resolution, and Irish and Northern Irish Politics at the Department of Government, University College Cork.

Ireland is well equipped to negotiate Brexit successfully due to its deep-rooted relationship with the United Kingdom. However, this relationship alone will not be enough. Ireland must bargain effectively to achieve concessions. The strategic use of opportunity structures within negotiations are imperative. Opportunity structures are loosely defined as factors that member-states use to substantiate their claims to concessions during negotiation processes. A United Ireland would indeed make for a persuasive opportunity structure if mediated strategically and tactfully. However, it would make for a dissuasive reality if it was ever to fabricate.

The notion of Irish unity has strategic potential to lighten the negotiation stance of the British government, and even soften the outcome of Brexit. Combined with the prospect of Scottish Independence, it challenges the continuity of the UK in its current state and the economic viability of a post-Brexit Britain. Therefore, it may have potential to encourage British pragmatism in the Brexit negotiations. The Good Friday Agreement provided a narrow opening for a United Ireland. However, until recently, the reality of such a development was unlikely. Political rhetoric in the Republic, (with EU backing), makes the possibility considerably more real. Such a reality could be quite consequential.

Irish unity could significantly challenge the Northern Irish peace process. In a new state arrangement, the current nationalist minority in the Northern Region would effectively become part of the national majority. In turn, the current unionist majority, would become the new established minority on a land long believed to be their political and economic birth-right, where they enjoyed considerable power and influence. This has the potential to construe deeply entrenched negative feelings against the new state arrangements and its socio-structural and socio-political alterations. At present, the vast proportion of peace between the communities is observed in elite circles. At the ground level, tensions are still high with sporadic bouts of inter-communal violence driven by identity based tensions. Thus, it is difficult to conceive how a powerful unionist majority turned minority with potential feelings of otherness and loss of identity and statehood could transition under new State arrangement(s) without challenge.

From an economic standpoint, Northern dependency on the South during the initial stages of political transition must be considered. Irredentism brings with it major structural implications. Northern Ireland’s economic potential is relatively weak. It’s EU and global market share derives indirectly from its membership of the UK. Despite historic growth rates in recent years, it still has a long away to go to be a true competitor. In a united Ireland, economic adjustment aided by sensible economic policies can correct this issue over time. However, this would be a very costly endeavour for the Irish state. As sovereign, the Republic will have to foot the bill for inheriting Northern public services such as schools, hospitals, prisons etc., as well as vital social welfare services and housing demands. These structures already place heavy pressure and demands on a very tight national budget. The likelihood of post-unity recession would be high. Especially if Irish trade is hit hard due to a post-Brexit recession in Britain. A united Ireland will become even more difficult to manage under such conditions.

From another political perspective, one must consider the structural and cultural changes to Irish parliamentary politics under a new state arrangement. A two-state solution would be the most likely outcome. However, a Northern State could not reasonably enjoy too much distance from the Southern administration. Either Northern representatives must be accounted for in Leinster house, or a new national political forum must be constructed to deal with high political issues such as fiscal, security and defence policies. This brings with it great concern, due to the divergent political cultures that exist between North and South. The addition of Northern parties to either the existing structures down South, or new constructed federal structures would see a strengthening in conservative political representation in Irish politics. National politics would inherit a more pronounced sectarian dimension rooted in competing nationalisms on the island; partially attributed to a sense of unionist marginalisation and demands for greater representation. Additionally, great difficulty would be experienced in relation to Northern acceptance of Irish constitutional matters such as the legality of same-sex marriage and indeed in relation to abortion where there is a possibility that a more liberal regime will emerge. In the absence of acceptance, regional asymmetries in citizens’ rights would occur on the island.

Irish unity is not politically certain. In fact, it is unlikely that a united Ireland will come to fruition. However, as the possibility exists in the Good Friday Agreement and with EU backing in the event of a bad Brexit deal, the potential consequences of such an occurrence needs much deeper analysis. This piece merely aimed to draw attention to some potential developments as to encourage thought and dialogue. It is important that genuine dialogue emerges around this notion to ensure that romanticism does not replace pragmatism in political circles. Whilst Irish and European leaders alike should be aware of the potential political opportunities that the notion of Irish unity holds for Irish preferences in the Brexit negotiations; they must remain fundamentally aware of the consequences of its reality for both Ireland and the wider EU. If the vision is used as an opportunity structure, it must be channelled in a careful and strategic manner. If leaders fail to mediate it in a way that achieves a softer Brexit, then Irish unity (and its consequences) may just become a reality.

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