During the Brexit negotiations, the question of a hard border between Northern Ireland (NI) and the Republic of Ireland was answered time and time again with the word “peace”. The message from the Irish government and from Northern Irish Nationalist leaders was simple and consistent; establishing border infrastructure on the island would imperil the Good Friday Agreement, which committed the UK and Ireland to “the removal of security installations” from NI. Though rarely explicitly stated, the tacit implication was that republican paramilitaries would react violently to the imposition of a hard border that would further divide north from south. Those same Nationalist leaders have over the last year repeatedly called for a “border poll”, a referendum on the reunification of NI and the Republic, without once considering the potential of such a poll to threaten peace in the North.
If Northern Irish Republicans are expected to react violently to the imposition of a border, would Unionists not react violently to a threat to the eponymous Union with Great Britain which they are anxious to maintain? People seem to forget that it was Loyalist Paramilitaries who fired the first shots and planted the first bombs of the Troubles in 1966. A civil rights movement, which called for an end to discrimination against Catholics and an end to the gerrymandering which had guaranteed Unionists an absolute majority in government, was met with violent resistance from Loyalists. They saw the movement as a threat to their privileged position in society and as a front for the IRA with an eventual goal to reunify Ireland. The IRA re-emerged only in response to the Battle of the Bogside, in which the Royal Ulster Constabulary attacked a civil rights march and terrorized the local Catholic community. Loyalist paramilitaries like the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) were only less active than the Provisional IRA during the Troubles because they had the RUC and the British Army fighting their battles for them.
Unionists have already reacted badly to the post-Brexit imposition of a trade border between NI and the UK. They see it as an erosion of the Union with the UK, effectively creating an “economic United Ireland”. Graffiti has been found all over NI threatening Irish Deputy Prime Minister (Tánaiste) Leo Varadkar, as well as customs staff at the ports. Unionists feel betrayed by Boris Johnson, who promised them in 2018 that no such border would be put in place. In January last year, Johnson once again promised that there would be no checks on goods traded between the two states, only to have that suggestion quickly rebuffed by Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator. Unionists are in an unenviable position, they are unwelcome in Ireland, the only thing standing between the Irish and a United Ireland, while also being an inconvenience for the UK. The UK exchequer subsidizes the NI budget to the tune of £10bn a year, and NI has been a huge stumbling block for the UK in its Brexit negotiations, and it appears they will continue to be a hindrance to the UK’s post-Brexit relations with the EU. A United Ireland would be a relief for the UK, and Unionists know it. “Britain would dump us in the morning if the circumstances were right,” Jackie McDonald, former UDA Brigadier, has said. An animal backed into a corner with no support is a dangerous beast indeed.
Unionists as a population are still a small majority in NI, accounting for 48% of the population in the 2011 census, compared to 45% for the Nationalist population. Two recent polls on Irish reunification have shown a dead heat between yes and no, and a no vote by a five point margin. Considering that polls are skewed against Unionists, because Unionists are less likely to vote in political elections, these polls would suggest that a border poll within the next five years would return a result against reunification. However, in five years’ time things could change. If NI continues to be a thorn in the side of the UK’s post-Brexit progress, they may well turn their backs on Unionists for good. If the UK fail to resolve Unionist concerns, the sense of betrayal might turn a few Unionists towards the concept of a United Ireland. Worryingly, all that is required for a United Ireland in a border poll is a bare “yes” majority. That would leave hundreds of thousands of Unionists forced into a United Ireland that is antithetical to their history, identity, and culture. Are we to expect these people to just shrug their shoulders and accept it? Do we expect those who are ardent to remain Britons to move to England? Or will they do what the IRA have done, fight for what they believe is rightfully theirs? As a young Loyalist activist, Wayne Gilmour said last year, “If it does fall backwards, you are going to have to do what you can to protect your people’s birthright. If the state can’t do it, you do it”.
The young may be more idealistic than the old, but that only makes them more dangerous. The young and particularly the unemployed were the IRA’s primary source of recruitment. Winston Irvine, a Progressive Unionist Party member and former UVF member, fears that those without the experience of the Troubles may romanticize the history of the fight against the IRA, and seek their own glory if the Union is once again put under threat. Rob Williamson, a Unionist community worker, puts it more bluntly: “Fifty per cent plus one [in a border poll] would probably be civil war”. It is irresponsible to push for a United Ireland while Northern Ireland remains as divided as it is. A United Ireland may be a dream for many, but it is not worth another drop of Irish blood.