Irish American Unity Conference National Newsletter
Working for Justice and Peace in a United Ireland
“…in Ireland there must not be two nations or three nations but one nation…Catholic, Protestant, and Dissenter must unite to achieve freedom for all.”
-Padraic Mac Piarais (P.H. Pearse), address at the grave of Wolfe Tone, Bodenstown Churchyard, Co. Kildare, June 22, 1913.
Since becoming your President in January, I have been greatly encouraged and energized by the activism and dedication of our members to the ultimate cause for which the IAUC was founded – unification of the island of Ireland and, not incidentally, achievement of true equality in a peaceful North of Ireland which is welcoming to all peoples. I have heard from many of you via email, phone, and text, and you have helped evolve my own thinking. In the past few months, I have had the privilege of attending meetings of chapters to discuss the IAUC’s strategic focus over the next few years. Seeing and feeling the energy of our members has re-affirmed my own faith that the IAUC, in partnership with our many friends and allies here and in Ireland, will help achieve in the near-term the goal that Irish patriots have pursued at great sacrifice for over 200 years.
We have recently been gifted with two historic events that have provided unprecedented momentum towards unification: Britain’s self-destructive decision last June to withdraw from the European Union, and the March elections in the North during which unionists lost their majority rule for the first time and forever, due to their own sordid behavior. With a renewed level of activism by the IAUC and fellow organizations, these two British “own goals” virtually compel the North’s inevitable unity with Ireland.
The first event, Brexit, is a runaway freight train heading straight for the North of Ireland.
Grandstanding proclamations by British politicians notwithstanding, there will be a return to a border. Theresa May’s claim that she doesn’t want a return to “the borders of the past” is utterly meaningless. There will be customs requirements, restrictions, and necessary checkpoints, albeit (hopefully) without the Saracens and British thugs of the past. The EU will require border controls even if the Brits don’t. In addressing the Dáil on May 11th, EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier stated the hard truth that EU customs controls are necessary to protect the single market, food safety, and product standards. Commerce, commuter trips, and the public consciousness will all be severely, negatively, impacted by Brexit.
Commercial trade with Ireland is crucial to the North. According to a recent House of Lords report, 38% of the North of Ireland’s exports of goods and 29-38% of its exports of services are destined for Ireland. In 2015, this comprised over €3B worth of trade. A border of any type will severely disrupt this commerce by the customs restrictions, certification of standards, and resulting long lines to transport goods across the region. The plummeting value of the English pound will exacerbate this effect by raising the price of goods imported by the North and simultaneously depressing the market for Irish goods sold in the North. Tariffs will further depress supply markets as well as purchasing power. The economic wreckage of Brexit will be especially painful to the North, which already has one of the lowest per capita income levels of any region in the UK.
Commuters will likewise suffer. 8,300 citizens of Ireland work in the North, and 6,500 citizens of the North work in Ireland. Each of these must traverse the border twice each day, so there are over 30,000 commuter trips daily, in addition to thousands more family visitors, recreationists, tourists, shoppers and day-trippers. Checkpoints and accompanying lines will severely disrupt such exchanges.
The consciousness of people on the ground may be impacted most severely. In his speech to the Dáil, EU negotiator Barnier noted that the EU helped to remove borders which existed “on maps and in minds.” In touring County Monaghan farms the next day, he said the problem was primarily “human and social” rather than financial or political. According to a report from the International Law Practitioners Association, “to the extent that customs checks applied to goods moving across the border on the island of Ireland, or to traffic between the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain, there would be pressure for controls on the movement of persons as well.” I have read a number of articles and letters from residents of the border region who are still haunted by the bad old days of British aggression and shudder at the thought of any return to restrictions. The images from Seamus Heaney’s The Toome Road (look it up if you haven’t read it) still hang ominously in the consciousness of many Northerners.
The EU has funded €3.5 Billion in cross-border initiatives over the past seven years, and has programmed an additional €3.5 Billion over the next six years. These funds support programs such as peace institutions, rural development, maritime and fisheries, employment and social services, and regional development to improve job prospects. The EU funds for cross-border initiatives are available only for regions between two European Union member countries, so their future availability is highly questionable. In addition, the Republic of Ireland contributes several billion Euros to the cross-border initiatives, and that funding is likewise uncertain. Adding insult to injury, Theresa May’s government has stated its determination to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights and to repeal the Human Rights Act.
The best, most logical answer to the looming negative effects of Brexit is unification of north and south. The “human and social” pain of a border will most obviously be eviscerated if there is no border. Economically, at least two studies have demonstrated the benefits to be accrued to both the North and the Republic through unification. These include “Modeling Irish Unification” by KLC Consulting, which projects that GDP in the North will rise by €2.1 to €2.6 Billion in the first year following unification and up to €25.3 Billion the first eight years. This equates to an increase in GDP of 4-7% in the North. The other study is “The Economic Case for Irish Unity,” by economist Michael Burke, which demonstrates that improvements in the division of labor and expansion of the domestic and international markets would propel growth in both the Republic and the North.
While the case to be made is compelling, there is much to be sorted in the interim. Some of the hard questions, as posed by Tom McGurk in the Sunday Business Post, include:
- If Britain is determined to stop EU migration how can [Ireland] continue with our mutual free travel area?
- If Britain leaves the customs union, will a lorry of product from Donegal bound for Paris need to negotiate customs at Derry, Larne, Stranraer, Dover and finally Calais?
- What on Earth is a friction-less border and where else does it operate successfully?
- How can our huge cross-border agricultural and food industry survive a hard border?
- What happens to cross-border medical treatment?
- What if the next three million refugees decide to come to live here or perceive of Ireland as a back-door to Britain? Could we have a Calais-like crisis at Dundalk or Monaghan?
There are no easy answers to any of these questions. In fact, the most likely answers are all undesirable. However, raising such questions advances the discussion in favor of a united Ireland.
The second event, the March 2 elections to the Stormont Assembly following the Assembly’s collapse, is equally significant. 65% of eligible voters went to the polls, and the results were truly historic. For the first time in the 100-year history of Northern Ireland, Unionist candidates failed to win a majority of seats; rather, they won only 40 out of 90 seats (44%). The Nationalist vote increased by more than 57,000 on last year’s elections. Although the Assembly is eighteen seats smaller due to redistricting, Sinn Fein is down only one seat, to 27 and the SDLP held steady at 12 seats. By contrast, Unionists lost 16 of the 18 stricken seats. The DUP’s representation dropped from 38 to 28, and the UUP was reduced from 16 to 10. Significantly, the DUP fell short of the 30 seats needed to kill legislation unilaterally. Much of this was down to the DUP’s nasty, bigoted, negative campaign. Triumphalism, at least in the body politic, is dead once and for all.
In the wake of the elections, the public mood concerning unification – in Ireland, in the North, in the EU, and even in the UK – has shifted dramatically. I have previously noted the post-election surge of interest in the Irish media, with journalists from the Irish Times, the Business Post, the Irish News and even the Irish Independent now writing about the need to focus on unification. Unification has remained a regular topic of discussion in the media for the past three months, and the commentaries have addressed substantive aspects such as economic concerns and emotional/psychological impacts. Senior Irish figures across the political spectrum, including Michael McDowell and Leo Varadkar, have expressed support for unification, and Michael Martin of Fianna Fail jumped on the bandwagon last month, releasing a 12-point program for unification.
The European Union has also endorsed the concept of unification, by specifying that Northern Ireland would be admitted to the EU in the event of unification. Enda Kenny’s government is patting itself on the back for negotiating this, which is understandable, but this was a given – Northern Ireland will become part of the EU seamlessly upon unification because Ireland, including all its regions and counties, is already a member of the EU. Nevertheless, the acknowledgment by the EU and the Irish Government is significant because it reflects that those two bodies recognize the need to provide for unification.
There are also signals from England that the UK is increasingly preparing to let go and accept unification. In late March, May’s Brexit secretary David Davis conceded in writing that in the event of unification pursuant to a referendum, “Northern Ireland would be in a position of becoming part of an existing EU member state, rather than seeking to join the EU as a new independent state.” Kevin Meagher, an advisor to a former Secretary of State to Northern Ireland, has written that “Brexit is an accelerant. All the underlying issues will inevitably lead to a united Ireland.” Even the House of Lords has published a damning report on the effect of Brexit on the North.
These events and reactions are very encouraging, but much work needs to be done, including most of all educating people north and south about the effects, both benefits and challenges, of unification. The necessary education includes addressing the legitimate concerns of Protestants and Unionists over culture, religion, and identity. The IAUC has an important role to play in understanding different views and educating the public about the many benefits of unification.
Over the past twenty-five-plus years of intently studying the history of Ireland, visiting the land of my forebears many times, being personally harassed by the bristling British military presence, and engaging with Irish people and institutions north and south, it has become clear to me that so long as England controls the North, it will never, ever enjoy equality for all peoples, including equal justice, educational equality, fairness in employment, and impartial allocation of resources. The only way to achieve such a society is through unification with the Republic of Ireland, a relatively liberal, open democratic society not trapped in some arrogant false notion of superiority. Unification is Ireland’s destiny.
My experience with our members in New Jersey and Pittsburgh has confirmed my conviction that the IAUC can have a positive impact on the discourse and direction of the North at this crucial moment it its history. George, Sarah, Kevin and I welcome and appreciate all of your support and encouragement as we actively pursue the IAUC’s founding raison d’etre – political unification of the island of Ireland.