In the two years since I last wrote a column about Ireland,1 important developments have taken place on the island of Ireland, both north and south.

Enda Kenny, the Taoiseach (prime minister) who led his Fine Gael party into the inconclusive election of 2016, managed to cling to power for a while after the election by putting together a minority coalition government in May of that year. However, his days were numbered and in June 2017 he was succeeded as party leader by Leo Varadkar. The new government was still a minority dominated by Fine Gael, confirmed in office by a vote of 57 to 50 with 47 abstentions. Fianna Fáil, the other major party in the 26-county state, abstained on that vote.

Varadkar, a medical doctor by profession, represents a new generation and a new style of political leadership in Ireland. He was only 38 years old when he took office, the youngest person to lead an Irish government since Michael Collins almost a century earlier. His father was an immigrant from India, although his mother is Irish. He is also openly gay, having indicated as much two years before he became the leader of the government. In January of this year he announced that his government would hold a referendum in May on the question of whether to delete the eighth amendment to the Irish constitution, which “acknowledges the right to life of the unborn.” Added to the constitution in 1983, that amendment made explicit what was already true at the time: abortion in Ireland is illegal. Polls suggest that the deletion of the amendment will be approved by a substantial majority of the voters. Subsequently the Dáil voted in favour of holding the referendum, although most of the opposition Fianna Fáil members were opposed.

Meanwhile, even more dramatic developments were taking place in the six-county state north of the partition line. The consociational executive, a coalition between the Democratic Unionist Party (founded by the late Ian Paisley) and Sinn Féin, collapsed in January 2017 when the two parties were unable to agree on a number of issues, including legislation to protect the Irish language and to legalize same-sex marriage, both of which were opposed by the DUP. This has left Northern Ireland with no executive, although the assembly and the public service continue to exist. Martin McGuinness, the deputy leader of Sinn Féin and deputy first minister of the executive, was in poor health at the time and resigned his leadership, to be succeeded by Michelle O’Neill. McGuinness died two months later.

Sinn Féin also experienced a change of leadership south of the border when Gerry Adams, the party’s national leader since 1983 and leader of the Sinn Féin members in the Dáil since 2011, retired from both positions in February 2018 and was succeeded by Mary Lou McDonald. Thus the two most important positions in Sinn Féin are now held by women. McDonald – in contrast to Adams, McGuinness and O’Neill – is a Dubliner who has never lived north of the partition line. Sinn Féin has been for some time the third most important party in the 26-county state, and has recently stated that it would be willing to enter a coalition government with one of the two major southern parties.

However, dramatic as they are, these developments have all been overshadowed by an issue that has grave implications for both parts of Ireland: the decision by British voters in June 2016 to withdraw the United Kingdom from the European Union.

Being formally a part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland participated in that referendum. Like Scotland, it disagreed with the decision of the English-dominated majority: 56 per cent of the Northern Irish voted to remain in the European Union, and 44 per cent voted to leave. The geographical distribution of the votes for and against makes it clear that Catholic and Nationalist voters voted overwhelmingly to stay in Europe while Protestant and Unionist voters, still a majority in the six-county state, voted mainly although not as overwhelmingly for Brexit. This outcome reflects the position of the two main parties on the issue, with Sinn Féin in favour of remaining while the DUP is in favour of Brexit.

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which ended three decades of the “troubles” north of the border, contains a provision that no change can be made in the constitutional status of the six-county state without the approval of a majority of its people. The GFA also includes references to the European Union. Irish nationalists argue, correctly, that withdrawing Northern Ireland from the European Union would be a major constitutional change that a majority of its people explicitly rejected in the Brexit referendum, and thus would violate the terms of the GFA.

Irish interest in Europe is not new. Ireland tried to join the European Community at the time of the first British application to join in 1962. Ireland withdrew its application after President de Gaulle vetoed the British application, since Ireland at that time was heavily dependent on its economic ties with the United Kingdom. Ireland and the United Kingdom finally joined the European Community in 1973. Ireland felt confident enough in 1979 to break the link between its currency and the British pound. Ireland also adopted the euro currency in 2000, discarding in the process the attractive coins (designed by William Butler Yeats) that it had used since the foundation of the state in the 1920s. If the British had accepted the euro, both parts of Ireland would have used the same currency, but this did not happen. Ireland obviously felt that the advantages of using the euro nonetheless outweighed the disadvantages.

Originally, Ireland’s entry into Europe may have been a purely pragmatic decision, following in the wake of the large neighbour that, at that time, accounted for most of its external trade. But ties with Europe soon became much more meaningful than that, for a variety of reasons. For a country that was still mainly rural at that time, the European Union’s agricultural policy was a source of major benefits. Access to the whole European market and, later, adoption of the European currency also made it possible to attract a lot of foreign (especially American) direct investment by firms that wished to sell their goods and services in different parts of that market, stimulating the economic boom that made Ireland a rich country, the so-called “Celtic Tiger” of the 1980s and 1990s. As it became rich, Ireland, whose population had scarcely increased in size during the 20th century because of emigration (mainly to the U.K.), began to attract immigrants, especially from other parts of Europe, so that the inflow of population exceeded the outflow for the first time in centuries.

Moving out from under the shadow of its large neighbour, Ireland increasingly perceived itself as a proud part of a larger entity called Europe, rather than merely an appendage of the United Kingdom. The National 1798 Visitor Centre at Vinegar Hill, the site of the bloodiest battle in the unsuccessful rebellion that marked the emergence of Irish republicanism, opened in 1998 to mark the bicentennial of that event. The commentary that visitors to the museum can read asserts that the European Union today represents the same ideals that the Irish rebels of 1798 were fighting for.

Northern Ireland’s experience was somewhat different, if only because it continued to use the British pound sterling instead of the euro and because many of its people regarded themselves as “British.” But even there joining Europe represented a sort of opening to the world. Major firms including Bombardier, the Canadian manufacturer of aircraft and other transportation equipment, opened factories in the six-county state to serve European markets. The European Union allowed both goods and people to move freely between the two parts of the island, so that the partition line between north and south became almost as invisible to travellers by car, train or bus as the border between Quebec and Ontario. As the “troubles” subsided, the six counties also became attractive to immigrants. Following the Good Friday Agreement, when the northern government made a serious effort to attract Catholic recruits to what had been an overwhelmingly Protestant police force, it found that many of the people who applied were actually Polish!

For most people in the 26-county state, and for those northern Irish who had voted against Brexit in the British referendum, the outcome of the referendum was a shock and a source of great anxiety for both economic and political reasons. The British recession that quickly and predictably followed the referendum might spread to Ireland, both north and south. Also, Brexit would drive the two parts of the partitioned island of Ireland further apart. (Presumably most DUP voters, who still wave the Union Jack and regard southern Ireland as a foreign country, supported Brexit for that very reason.) In particular, it seemed almost unavoidable that if Brexit took place the almost invisible partition line would become a “hard” border like that between Canada and the United States, with customs and immigration controls on both sides. When the subsequent British election left the DUP holding the balance of power at Westminster and propping up Theresa May’s precarious government, it soon became apparent that the British government would have difficulty supporting any effort to make the border less visible.

Efforts at damage control began when the Irish cabinet, still headed by Enda Kenny at the time, held an emergency meeting within two days of the counting of the referendum ballots. North of the border a cross-community coalition of interest groups filed a request for a judicial review of the legality of Brexit in the High Court of Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin suggested that a referendum on Irish reunification should be held on both sides of the border, which is allowed under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. In April 2017, in the Council of the European Union, all 27 member governments other than the U.K. supported a statement that if Northern Ireland voted to join the rest of Ireland it would automatically be allowed to stay in the European Union rather than having to seek admission as a new member. However, Prime Minister May had already stated in March that her government would not allow a referendum on either Irish unification or Scottish independence to take place.

Meanwhile the British Conservatives were struggling with their own problems, since the party and the government were seriously divided on whether there should be a “hard” or a “soft” Brexit, or something in between, or perhaps no Brexit at all, as some of the cooler heads in the party were beginning to suggest. Could the United Kingdom enjoy free trade in goods and services with the European Union without being part of it, as Switzerland and Norway do, albeit in slightly different ways? Could it continue to harmonize all its regulations with those of the EU and thus save itself the trouble of changing them, but still terminate its membership? Could Brexit be made compatible with its obligations under the Good Friday Agreement? Could it be made compatible with a “soft” (i.e. invisible) border between the two parts of Ireland, and if so, how? Could Northern Ireland have some kind of special status or associate membership where it remained in the EU while being part of a former member state that would be a nonmember? “Squaring the circle,” as Leo Varadkar aptly described these intellectual exercises, has occupied a lot of time as the clock ticks inexorably towards the planned date of British withdrawal.

In December 2017, agreement seemed near on a joint United Kingdom–European Union statement that reaffirmed the commitment of both entities to respect the Good Friday Agreement, called for “regulatory alignment” between British and European laws, and promised a “soft” border between two parts of Ireland while continuing to give Northern Ireland full access to the United Kingdom market. Whether the last two commitments were compatible with each other was perhaps questionable, but the question became an academic one when at the last minute the DUP, which holds the balance of power at Westminster, prevented Parliament from endorsing the agreement.

A month later, in January 2018, a public opinion poll in the 26-county state asked voters to choose between two evils: following the United Kingdom out of Europe by having its own “Irexit” or accepting a “hard” border between north and south. The response was overwhelming: 78 per cent would sacrifice the “soft” border with the north in order to stay in the European Union, 10 per cent would not and 12 per cent were undecided..

It is possible, however, that the choice will not have to be made. To the chagrin and apparent surprise of the British, the European Union and its principal member states are sympathetic to Ireland’s dilemma and are insisting on the preservation of a “soft” border as part of any Brexit agreement. For the British government this is bad news, because a “soft” border means that Ireland could be a back door for unwanted immigrants to enter the United Kingdom. The only way to prevent this would be to harden the border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, which would be unthinkable for a British government that depends on the half-dozen DUP members of Parliament to stay in office. On March 19 Prime Minister May reluctantly conceded that the text of the draft withdrawal agreement would include the so-called “backstop,” or a pledge that Northern Ireland would remain under EU rules whether or not Brexit takes place. A legally binding plan to this effect, including the promise of a “soft” border, will be worked out through negotiations in Brussels.

The proclamation that Patrick Pearse read on the steps of the Dublin post office during the Easter Rising of 1916 referred to “gallant allies in Europe” who were allegedly supporting the Irish struggle for freedom. At the time it was written this reference was, to say the very least, an exaggeration. Today it seems that the “gallant allies” may at last be giving Ireland some real support.


1 A Century after the Rising, Ireland is Deadlocked, Inroads, Summer/Fall 2016, pp. 18–21.