The political status of the two Irelands may be up for grabs, mostly because of Brexit, and they will prove an important test case for some of the major fault lines in the world today, namely how strong national and ethnic ties are likely to prove.
Having been born into an Irish-American family in what was then a heavily Scots and Irish New Jersey town (Kearny), I somewhat irrationally associate Ireland with the past. But attention is suddenly turning to the future, as the political status of the two Irelands may be up for grabs, mostly because of Brexit. Although this may seem like a small issue, the Irelands will prove an important test case for some of the major fault lines in the world today, namely how strong national and ethnic ties are likely to prove.
Brexit could forcibly push the two Irelands away, because it may end up reimposing a border control and greater trade barriers, this time through European Union law. That would be a change from prevailing trends. Most of the recent political earthquakes in Europe have been in the ethno-nationalist direction, including Brexit itself, as well as the current campaigns in the Netherlands and France, not to mention Donald Trump’s election in the U.S. But for the two Irelands, will the weight of treaties prove stronger than the traditional ties of sharing the same island and history?
The two Irelands have been creating a very comfortable arrangement since the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. There has been a fully open and mostly invisible border, other than the road signs changing from miles to kilometers, and perhaps the initiation of roaming charges on your phone. Trade and other ties have flourished, yet the messy negotiation that might prefigure closer political union has been kept from disrupting the rise in cooperation. And because the two Irelands have become both wealthier and more secular, some of the earlier disputes have seemed less important and perhaps even manageable.
But now that the possibility looms of a new border between the two Irelands, the fear is that new practical and most of all psychological barriers will be created. Furthermore, any concrete manifestation of a border control could become a target for attacks.
Nonetheless, the impression I am receiving from my current visit to both Irelands is not to expect a new and binding border, as I suspect the force of historic ethnic unity — even with some degree of religious division — will outweigh international treaties. Ideas have great force in the world, and many people believe in ethnicities and nations, but few believe very deeply in treaties, even if they usually find it convenient to respect them.
It’s not that I expect the two Irelands to formally reunite, at least not anytime soon. First, by no means does everyone in Northern Ireland consider themselves Irish rather than British. Second, current forces in political economy don’t seem to be encouraging such fusions. Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union splintered, and South Sudan is the new country on the block, but how many smaller territories have come together in full national unions over the past few decades? The two Germanys are the main example, as the union of the two Yemens has not avoided civil war.
The general barrier to more unifications is that national political coalitions and elites are more cemented in than before; furthermore, global conquest has been on the decline. Why join a larger national unit if your current peaceful existence is assured, and if your party might have to give up power, or at least radically restructure its campaign strategies? Even if we imagine Sinn Féin coming to power in Northern Ireland (in a recent election it was surprisingly only one seat away being from the largest party), as a ruling party its incentives and tactics will be more oriented toward the preservation and extension of its own power.
Still, the U.K. seems to be in a crisis of ideas, as outlined by author Michael Moran in his recent book, “The End of British Politics?” He points out that the earlier Protestant, imperial and social democratic rationalizations for the political union largely have fallen away. Scottish separatism — now very much back on the agenda — is one manifestation of this problem. In such a setting, it’s possible to imagine a slightly different legal status for Northern Ireland, where the border check — if there is to be one — is done for flights to London rather than for ground transport to the Republic of Ireland, such as on the ground in Donegal County.
I once remarked to an Irishman that Northern Ireland felt “more Irish” to me than did the Republic of Ireland; his rejoinder was that to him Northern Ireland felt more British. Still, if you associate the notion of Ireland with the past, Belfast doesn’t have the glitz or Europeanization of (parts of) Dublin or for that matter London. In that regard it feels more like an older Ireland.
I’m seeing a world where the past is emerging as stronger than we had thought, and where nationalism has arguably been the most influential idea since the 17th century. That probably means the two Irelands still have some surprises in store for us.