Vladimir Lenin once said, “there are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen”. If such is true, the weeks that have passed between Ireland’s February election and the formation of a government represent the realisation of a decades-long political movement. By entering into government together, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have drastically altered Ireland’s political landscape. Weeks of negotiations have ended the century-long Civil-War rivalry in any substantial way and made Sinn Féin the largest opposition party. However, the political alliance between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael formalised by their coalition is significant for much more than the conclusion of Civil-War politics. Regardless of any programme for government or policies implemented by the coalition, this government will go down in history as the one that paved the way for a United Ireland and not through any intentional actions of their own.
For a United Ireland to occur requires two basic events – a majority voting for reunification in a referendum in the Republic of Ireland and in a referendum in Northern Ireland. Under the 1998 Northern Ireland Act, a referendum can occur in the North if it appears to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that “a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form a part of a united Ireland”. This is out of the control of any Irish government and while the specific appointment of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland might influence British attitudes to the North, it is much more likely that the occupant of Downing Street would have the greatest say over British policy towards the six counties.
On the Irish side, a referendum can transpire after being approved by the Oireachtas. What is essential in this situation is political capital. There has to be support in the Republic’s political arenas for a referendum on reunification to be held and this support has so far been lacking in the Oireachtas. Although Fianna Fáil purports to be the “Republican” party and Fine Gael’s so called “secondary name” is “the United Ireland Party”, in the 100 or so years that the two parties have interchangeably governed the South, they have done little to advance the political agenda of Irish reunification. Both parties may be nominally in favour of a United Ireland, but when it comes to the substance of achieving reunification, both are found wanting. Alluding to the potential for citizen’s assemblies on the matter, commissions, committees and all sorts of bureaucratic preparations, the true attitude of the two parties is closer to a “kick the can down the road” policy that is mirrored in their approach to national debt, rural depopulation and a litany of other issues that have gone ignored for decades.
For quite some time, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have been content on ignoring the changing political reality. Understandably, for most of the century that the duopoly governed Ireland, the prospect of reunification was merely a far-off fantasy, confined to the margins of Irish political discourse – namely hardcore Republicanism. Even into the second decade of the 21st Century, a United Ireland was something that most would not have expected in our lifetimes. Accordingly, this implausible development was once again side-lined in the agenda of Ireland’s political mainstream.
Two things have changed this status quo. Firstly, the underlying demographics of Northern Ireland have been gradually shifting away from a Unionist majority. The 2019 UK General Election was a watershed moment in the history of the island. DUP losses meant that for the first time ever, Unionists did not hold most of Northern Ireland’s Westminster seats. A combination of underlying changes in the population and voter discontent with the DUP resulted in this considerable dent to the Unionist grasp on the instruments of power in the North.
The second development is Brexit. Whatever you’re opinion of Brexit, the reality is that so long as Ireland maintained its membership of the European Union, freedom of movement across the island of Ireland could not be maintained at the same time that Britain “took back control” of migration and treated Northern Ireland as it had previously been treated. Brexit prompted the question – which is more important, freedom of movement on the island of Ireland or between Britain and Northern Ireland? The reality that took the British Government nearly four years to accept was that for the maintenance of peace on the island of Ireland, no hard border could ever be enforced. This acceptance ultimately relegated the Unionist sensitivities towards any infringement on Northern Ireland’s place in the Union to the side.
The demographics have changed and continue to change in favour of a United Ireland. Brexit has propelled conversation surrounding the prospect of a United Ireland to the fore of mainstream political discussions. Then the 2020 Irish General Election happened. Sinn Féin’s surge and the electorate’s rejection of the binary Fianna Fáil vs Fine Gael showdown saw a party that is looking for a reunification referendum in the next five years gain the most votes. However you feel about Sinn Féin, it is now almost ludicrous to imagine that during the election campaign, RTÉ proposed to host a debate with only Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, two parties that now find themselves in government together.
Sinn Féin have pulled off a decisive coup in that they now find themselves as the largest opposition party in the Dáil. This is why our new government makes a United Ireland inevitable. By going into government together, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have handed Sinn Féin a monumental chance at being in government in the next decade. The law of political coalitions shows that when coalitions eventually end, the junior partners end up worse off. Whether it was the Irish Labour party’s electoral obliteration in 2016 or the Liberal Democrats being destroyed in 2015, not all coalition members exit government intact. If it will be Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael that face devastation at the polls, it is yet too early to say. But all Sinn Féin have to do is maintain the operations of a legitimate opposition and present themselves as a viable alternative to our current coalition.
When this government runs out of steam, whether it is at the end of this term or sometime during the life of this government, Sinn Féin should have gained enough support from discontent voters that would put it in such a position to play a seminal role in whatever coalition follows the current one. It is difficult to imagine that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will be able to remain in government for the next decade, with Fine Gael having been in government since 2011 and Fianna Fáil having supported Fine Gael’s time in government from 2016 to 2020 through the Confidence and Supply Agreement. In such an event, Sinn Féin’s central demands of holding a reunification referendum would likely be met by its coalition partners, significantly advancing the prospect of a United Ireland. Even if the UK’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland refused to call for a unity referendum in the North, if the administration of the South held a referendum and actively advocated reunification, Ireland would have crossed the Rubicon in terms of policy towards the North, of which there would be no going back.
It would be a great irony of history if the self-indulgent and reactionary eruption of British nationalism that was Brexit helped deliver a United Ireland. Brexit, a cause championed by many of the titans of the Conservative “and Unionist” Party and the Democratic “Unionist” Party has done more to undermine the sanctity of the Union and Northern Ireland’s place in it than any event since the end of the Second World War. Alongside Brexit, the domestic politics of the Republic have unintentionally created a climate for the furtherment of reunification. One thing that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil hold in common is their shared desire to keep Sinn Féin out of government. Ironically, by entering into government together, the two parties have nearly guaranteed that the Dáil’s largest opposition party will enter into some government in the near future.
The demographics are shifting towards reunification. Brexit has jeopardised the North’s position in the Union. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have paved the way for an actively pro-reunification party to enter into government. As Gandalf proclaims in JRR Tolkein’s epic – “the board is set, the pieces are moving.”