January 27, 2023

A lorry drives on a wet road, past a sign reading 'Irish Unity: The Solution to Brexit'
A Sinn Féin sign in support of unification near Carrickcarnon, on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic © New York Times/Redux/eyevine

It is not new for Leo Varadkar to put his heart on his sleeve when it comes to the polarizing issue of Irish reunification. The leader of Ireland’s centre-right Fine Gael party, who returns to Prime Minister Taoiseach’s office next weekend, has said he is proud to pursue this goal and wants to achieve it in his lifetime.

But when addressing a 5,000-strong crowd at a recent conference organized by a unity advocacy group, Ireland’s Future, Varadkar did something unusual: He worked out details of how it could be achieved, such as preserving Northern Ireland’s institutions on a reunited island.

Varadkar’s comments are a small illustration of a wider shift in the political landscape on the island of Ireland. Just over a century after partition, traditional positions and allegiances are being challenged by a variety of factors, including demographic change, the fallout from Brexit and the rise of Sinn Féin, a nationalist party that has transformed itself into a progressive movement that is alert to the social and economic concerns of a younger generation.

The issue of unification is undeniably higher on the political agenda. Less clear is what the answer might be. Opinion polls show strong support in the republic for the rosy prospect of reunification of the island, although there are also concerns about the cost this may entail; in Northern Ireland that remains a minority stake, with just over a quarter wanting unity but half wanting to remain within the UK.

Even those who advocate what Varadkar called the “noble and legitimate aspiration” of unification tend to be flippant about the details of how this might be achieved. This is especially true for supporters of Sinn Féin, the most popular party both north and south of the border.

Book cover of the book 'Making Sense Of A United Ireland' by Brendan O'Leary

Against this backdrop, Giving meaning to a united Ireland by Brendan O’Leary is a welcome and riveting read, one of a rich array of new titles that approach the issue of unification from different angles, and together offer complementary insights into how and where change might come.

O’Leary, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and one of Ireland’s most prestigious political scientists, tackles the hard questions head-on, including how to hold a (non-Brexit-like) referendum; how much a united Ireland would cost; what economic benefits unity could bring; who would pay Northern Ireland pensions; and the details of how the newly expanded entity could actually be run.

Varadkar suggested that Northern Ireland could retain inter-communal power sharing, its own courts, education system, police and healthcare – just under Irish, rather than British, sovereignty – and that things could “evolve over time and deepen”.

O’Leary argues that such a transitional solution could lead to inefficient duplications and raise even more questions. He claims not to have all the answers, and seems overly optimistic at times – such as his recommendation that a government fund be set up to fund the transition to a united Ireland, when most people in the Republic are more concerned about a deep housing crisis . . But he combs through the practical and emotional hurdles to reunion with thought-provoking thoroughness.

Varadkar will return to the post of Taoiseach on December 17 under an agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, the two historic giants of Irish politics, in coalition with the Green party. That followed an election in 2020 in which Sinn Féin won the most preferential votes but was unable to form a government.

Under the leadership of Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Féin reinvented itself as the party of change rather than the mouthpiece of the Republican paramilitary IRA during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. McDonald is now being tipped by many to become a Taoiseach after the next general election in early 2025.

With that in mind, Shane Ross tries to get to the bottom of the official story of a secretive party known for its rigid grip on reporting in his unauthorized biography, Mary Lou McDonald: A Republican Conundrum. In it, he charts “Project Mary Lou” – McDonald’s emergence as the chosen successor to Sinn Féin’s veteran former leader Gerry Adams, and her drive to win the “small party with a dark past and questionable future” she inherited vehicle to yield unification.

The book cover of 'Mary Lou McDonald: A Republican Riddle' features two women and a man carrying a coffin on their shoulders

One of the questions asked by Ross, a former Independent minister, is why it took so long for a privately educated, middle-class Dublin girl to be raised by her mother after her ‘unemployed, out of sight’ father left the family when she was 10, only to convert from a Fianna Fáil supporter to a staunch Republican at 30. McDonald says she was inspired by the IRA hunger strikes of the early 1980s when she was 12.

Another line of inquiry leads to that central feature of Irish life today: housing. In particular, the question of how McDonald and her husband paid for the extensive renovation of their north Dublin home. “Nothing indicates that Mary Lou has ever been involved in anything undesirable or other than a person of impeccable financial integrity,” Ross writes, “but she relentlessly demands transparency from others.”

His questions about the couple’s home led to threats of legal action from McDonald’s husband, but Ross claims a politician who made a name for himself as “fearless, refreshingly insistent and unbothered by vested interests” when he was a member of the Public Accounts Committee in the Dáil Parliament cannot evade difficult questions itself.

Ross goes on to challenge McDonald’s beliefs and willingness to defend Adams and the party line, sharply describing her in his lively account as if she occasionally pretended not to be “Adams’ protégée but his house-trained poodle.” shown. Still, he notes “a consistency in her desire for a united Ireland” – something she believes could happen before the end of the decade. However, Ross still seems to doubt whether the “nakedly ambitious” politician is an opportunist.

However, as O’Leary, who supports unity, argues, reunification “should not happen because Sinn Féin favors it”. For a united Ireland to succeed, it must be a “multi-party” project, not just that of a party, Sinn Féin, deeply distrusted by many both north and south of the border.

How difficult it is to gain such broad support is underlined by Geoffrey Bell The Twilight of Unionism. Bell, a Belfast-born writer on Ireland and Britain’s attitude to the Troubles, who is a pro-unity Labor activist, paints a portrait of a community in political and demographic decline, but which will be vital for the success of any future reunion. while having “little to offer other than echoes of the drumbeats of the past”. Though less nuanced than Susan McKay’s Northern Protestants: On Changing Ground (2021) and sometimes bogged down in too much detail, Bell makes a solid if bleak argument that there is no end in sight to “division, prejudice, and inequality” in a future united state.

Book cover of 'The Twilight of Unionism'

O’Leary is more balanced. He dives into the details, but ultimately boils down to straightforward questions about the relative performance of the South versus the North and expectations about how post-Brexit trade arrangements, the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol that will keep the region within the internal market of the EU left for goods, will play.

“Will the Republic of Ireland continue to be richer on average than the UK?” he asks. “Will Northern Ireland benefit from the protocol and will it facilitate possible future convergence to the fast-growing economy of the rest of the island? . . . Will the Brexit experiment prove as damaging to the long-term economic performance of the UK as currently suggested by most credible economists? According to O’Leary, the answer to these questions is yes. But he goes on to admit that “eight years is a long time, both in economics and politics”.

And the protocol — which helped Varadkar cross the line in private talks with then British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2019 — is far from firm. Northern Ireland’s largest pro-British party, the Democratic Unionist Party, has crippled the region’s power-sharing political institutions over its opposition to it since May, and January will be a time of crisis.

Book cover of 'Ireland's Call' by Stephen Collins

As the EU and UK try to reconcile their differences over the protocol, Irish Times journalist Stephen Collins has written a stark memoir about the machinations that led to a deal that Northern Ireland’s once-dominant trade union community refuses to swallow . Ireland’s call provides useful historical context and interesting navigation of Brexit from an Irish perspective. Unfortunately, he deviates from the question of what will happen next.

Varadkar will spend the next two years leading up to the election trying to contain Sinn Féin’s rise to power while promoting his own views of a united Ireland as a worthy cause. “What is past is prologue,” he said this week at an official commemoration of the founding of the Irish Free State in 1922. “The events of 100 years ago should inspire us to dream of what we can achieve in the years to come .”

The growing library of books on the subject suggests that realizing that dream will be anything but easy.

Giving meaning to a united Ireland by Brendan O’Leary, Sandycove £20, 384 pages

MaryLou McDonald: A Republican Conundrum by Shane Ross, Atlantic Books £16.99, 396 pages

The Twilight of Unionism: Ulster and the Future of Northern Ireland by Geoffrey Bell, Verso £14.99, 221 pages

Ireland’s call: Navigating Brexit by Stephen Collins, Red Stripes £16.99, 265 pages

Jude Webber is the Irish correspondent of the FT

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