By Ryan S. ’22
Ireland’s existence for the entirety of its history has been a recurring theme of being invaded and conquered by neighboring empires. As early as the 8th century CE, Ireland was conquered by the Vikings and the British Empire held control from the 15th century for nearly 500 years. A critical issue that Britain faced when taking control of Ireland, was that Britain is mainly Protestant, while Ireland was staunchly rooted in Catholicism. This difference in religion caused major instances of violence for centuries, so Britain attempted to spread Protestants into Ireland to raise the popularity of their religion. However, this plan largely did not succeed, except for some parts in the Ulster province in northern Ireland.
In the early 20th century, Irish nationalists who were Catholic campaigned for a system titled “Home Rule” which would make Ireland its own sovereign state. After WWI, a waning British Empire would grant independence to Ireland, however, the remaining problem was that the Northern province of Ulster predominantly consisted of Unionists who were Protestant and at this point ingrained into British culture. Eventually, Ireland was divided between The Republic of Ireland, an independent country, and Northern Ireland in the Ulster province. Many presumed that the violence and anger from the Irish nationalists would disappear, but this was far from the case as Irish nationalist groups claimed that Northern Ireland should be included in the Republic of Ireland, as around half of the population was Catholic. Following a few decades of hostility between the nationalists and unionists, the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1988, removing the hard border and affording Northern Ireland the opportunity to join the Republic of Ireland at any time through a referendum.
In 2016, the United Kingdom shocked the world when their populace voted to leave the European Union. Even five years after this referendum, the United Kingdom is still in a transition period in leaving the European Union. The essential reasoning for this decision was that Britain wanted more control over their borders and to follow an independent trade policy. A problem left, however, was that the bulk of the populace in favor of Brexit resides in England, whereas 56 percent of Northern Irish constituents voted to remain. This begs the question of what to do with the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, as without both being a part of the European Union, the soft border enabling stress-free travel between states might cease to exist. However, a hard border could not exist either, due to the Good Friday Agreement, leaving a possible option to unite the two Irelands. This is not actually as ludicrous of a proposition as it may seem, as in a recent poll in Northern Ireland, 51 percent of people claimed that they would vote for unification.
Although a potential unification of Ireland sounds very convenient, many economic, political, and cultural problems would certainly arise. The Republic of Ireland is silently one of the richest countries in Europe, having a GDP 10 times that of Northern Ireland and a GDP per capita of $50,000 more than their northern neighbor. The principal cause for this large disparity stems from the violence in the area in the late 20th century, which frightened potential investors and made most jobs be determined by religion rather than merit. When many think of this potential unification, oftentimes the unification of East and West Germany gets brought up, as even after thirty years the western side is more developed and generally wealthier than the east. Furthermore, many changes will be made to Northern Ireland, as the currency would be the Euro instead of the pound, the main religion would be Catholicism, and the unionists would be a small minority.
Ultimately, Northern Ireland potentially joining the Republic of Ireland carries colossal importance in the history of Ireland, however, on a larger level it illustrates the sustained decline of the United Kingdom in world affairs. Ever since leading the world in the Age of Exploration and notably colonizing one-fourth of the Earth’s entire land area, Britain’s power has been waning since the early 20th century. If Northern Ireland were to leave the United Kingdom, Great Britain would appear as a diminishing world power, isolated from the rest of Europe. A Northern Irish exit would also likely give rise to an independence movement in Scotland, a place that many in the British political realm would claim is closer to leaving the United Kingdom than Northern Ireland. Thus, the United Kingdom will not be welcoming to the idea of a Northern Irish exit, however, due to the Good Friday Agreement, all that needs to be done is a referendum in which over 50 percent of voters say they want to join the Republic of Ireland, which may well happen this decade.