Brexit has reopened the centuries-old question of how Ireland should be governed. And the Irish question in turn will play a significant role in determining what form Brexit takes.
The island was partitioned in 1922, with six of its 32 counties forming Northern Ireland, which stayed in the United Kingdom, and 26 winning independence as the Republic of Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement that ended three decades of violent conflict in 1998 seemed to have preserved that separation for decades to come. In it was enshrined the principle of consent, under which no change to Northern Ireland's status is possible without the approval of a majority of voters there. And by a large margin, Northern Irish voters want to stay in the U.K.
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The agreement also offered those who were opposed to partition a way to live their lives largely unaffected by that constitutional status. They were citizens of the European Union, could travel on a Republic of Ireland passport, could casually move back and forth across an invisible border and had a say in governing the province.
But the U.K.'s June 2016 vote to leave the EU made the issue of governance live again.
"The whole foundation of the Good Friday Agreement is joint membership of the EU," said James Hughes, a professor of politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science. "So Brexit was clearly going to destabilize all of these arrangements."
There are two problems. While the U.K. as a whole narrowly voted to leave the bloc, Northern Ireland by a wider margin voted to remain. And it is clear that if the U.K. left the EU's free-trade area, as Prime Minister Theresa May has said it will do, a possible consequence would be a physical, visible border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
For the Republic of Ireland, a "hard" border threatens significant economic damage given the degree to which businesses and careers have over the past two decades been built around the unhindered movement of goods and people between the two states.
But there is another, deeper problem. In the decades after partition, successive governments in the Republic of Ireland effectively abandoned those in Northern Ireland who opposed the split, known as nationalists. The existence of Northern Ireland was viewed as an embarrassing compromise that undermined the heroic version of how independence was achieved, and leaders showed little interest in protecting the people they continued to claim a right to govern.
As a result, Northern Irish nationalists felt powerless in the face of half a century of discrimination at the hands of a state that was run by and for unionists, and some eventually turned to violence in the late 1960s, precipitating the 30 years of conflict that ended with the Good Friday Agreement.
To the Republic of Ireland's political establishment, conceding a "hard" border would repeat that mistake, cutting off nationalists, with possibly similar consequences.
The EU and the U.K. agreed to divorce terms on Friday that included a pledge to avoid re-imposing the border in Ireland. "You will never again be left behind by an Irish government," the Republic of Ireland's Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told nationalists after the decision was announced.
However, unionist political leaders in Northern Ireland are opposed to any Brexit arrangement that treats it differently from the rest of the U.K., which they see as a weakening of the bond that ties them to London.
What they saw in the Republic of Ireland's efforts to avoid a hard border was an attempt by the Irish government to get around the consent principle by stealth. Sammy Wilson, a unionist lawmaker who sits in the U.K.'s House of Commons, told the Republic of Ireland's state-owned broadcaster that Mr. Varadkar had "tried to drive a wedge between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom." He added that Mr. Varadkar had been "cynical, aggressive, green and partisan" in his handling of the talks.
Mr. Varadkar has denied that charge.
"The Irish government has no hidden agenda," he said. "There's no question of us exploiting Brexit to achieve a united Ireland without consent."
There are few signs of overwhelming support in the Republic of Ireland for an immediate end to partition. According to an opinion poll conducted by Amárach Research in early December, 49% of voters did want a united Ireland, a slight increase from late 2016, but 29% were opposed and 22% were undecided. But support for unification rises to well above 50% among those aged 18 to 44.
Underlying unionist fears are two uncomfortable facts. The first is that a majority of people in Northern Ireland want to stay in the EU. A hard border that impeded access to the bloc would therefore make unification with the Republic of Ireland more attractive as a means to regain EU membership. According to an opinion poll conducted by LucidTalk in early December, 47.9% of Northern Irish voters would seek to remain in the EU by joining the Republic of Ireland if there were a hard border, while 45.4% would stick with the U.K.
The other problem is that the Republic of Ireland is in a much stronger negotiating position than it has ever been. Unionists have always counted on the support of the U.K.'s Conservative Party, which is as committed to preserving the U.K. as it is. And as long as the U.K. was a member of the EU, the bloc had to remain strictly neutral. But unionists must now worry about the intentions and capacities of a Republic of Ireland government that has the full and undiluted backing of 26 other European governments.
In short, the balance of power in what is a muted and restrained contest over the future of the island has shifted in favor of the Republic of Ireland. Worried unionists and newly confident nationalists will seek to ensure that they get what they want as the Brexit talks progress, and neither has been in the habit of backing down in one of Europe's longest-running political disputes.
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
December 14, 2017 14:26 ET (19:26 GMT)