From today until the 9th of March, Dublin City University students will be asked to vote on whether or not they want their Students Union to support Irish reunification.
The campaign is being run by ‘DCU4Unity’ and has cross-party support from the DCU branches of Ógra Fianna Fáil, Ógra Shinn Féin and Labour Youth. I was delighted to be appointed to the committee of the campaign as chair of the DCU Ógra Fianna Fail. As a member of Fianna Fáíl, Irish reunification is very important to me. The cross-party nature of ‘DCU4Unity’ is one of its strengths. Despite party policy differences, Irish unity is something all parties involved in this campaign can all agree on. For all of us involved, this issue is more important than party political point scoring.
There is a growing movement for Irish unity across third level campuses, starting in NUIG and being continued in UCC, UCD and UL. Luke Mac an Bháird who is chair of the campaign was part of the successful NUIG unity referendum. Referring to ‘DCU4Unity’ Luke has stated that “The driving force behind the student-led movement that is ‘DCU4Unity’, is to mainstream the debate on Irish unity. By calling this SU referendum, we hope to engage as many students as possible about the many benefits of Irish reunification for students and the public at large, especially in the wake of Brexit”.
This raises an important point. Irish unity has been a long term goal for most Irish people. However, with Brexit and the uncertainty it brings, this distant prospect is now a very real possibility. No one can say definitively what type of Brexit will occur. It is clear that Prime Minister Theresa May and her infighting Tory party do not even know themselves. What makes matters even more complicated is that May leads a minority government, supported by the Democratic Unionist Party. If all of the UK leaves the customs union and the single market, I see no scenario unfolding that will not lead to the creation of a hard border on this island. The consequences of this can only be disastrous. Irish reunification would guarantee that no hard border could actualise on this island again. Moreover, the pro-EU mandate given by a majority of people in the six-counties during the Brexit referendum will rightfully be respected by a thirty-two county Ireland. Some critics suggest that reunification would be too complex to achieve. However, the successful precedent of German reunification in the 1990s shows that unity is achievable, but only through political will on both sides.
There is no organised opposition to the ‘DCU4Unity’ campaign. However, a common query from students is “How does this issue affect us?”. I understand the student apathy towards SU elections and referendums which exists in certain quarters. I have been guilty of this myself. However, Irish unity is in the interest of every person on this island, particularly young people. A hard border would cause huge difficulties for university students from Ulster counties, many of whom travel home most weekends. Theresa May has indicated that British involvement in EU programmes such as Erasmus will continue until at least 2020. However, post-2020 the Erasmus programme may not be available to students from Britain and Northern Ireland who wish to study in Irish universities, or for EU students who wish to study in Queen’s University Belfast. This is not scaremongering, but genuine realities we must face in the wake of Brexit.
The Northern Ireland Assembly collapsed over a year ago with the most recent attempts at restoring power sharing ending in vain. There is a high chance that Northern Ireland will again come under Direct rule from London. Northern Ireland was under Westminster’s Direct Rule from 1972-1998. Direct rule gives the people of the six counties virtually no democratic say over their laws. It would be naive to think that this does not suit the agenda of the DUP. Power sharing means they must work with their arch rivals, Sinn Féin. Instead, they can sit on their hands, with the security of knowing every move by the British Government regarding Northern Ireland must be sealed by DUP support.
The Good Friday Agreement was arguably the most important piece of legislation ever enacted on this island. It laid the foundations for power sharing, which in 2007 lead to the historic moment that Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness became Northern Ireland’s First Minister and Deputy First Minister respectively. Twenty years on, it is easy to take the peace process for granted. This is especially true for college students, most of us did not grow up with news reports of the latest bombing or murder in Ireland or Britain as our parents did. The Good Friday Agreement brought about a legal mechanism for a peaceful route to Irish Unity. The ballot has replaced the bullet. The ballot will speak soon.
We cannot afford complacency at this crucial juncture in Irish history. The prospect of this issue being voted on in the near future is very real. Too many people want to ignore that ‘troublesome’ counties of Ireland. The Brexit result came as a shock to the governments of Britain and Ireland, let alone the EU itself. There was clearly no preparation or understanding of what a UK outside the EU would look like. We cannot afford for the same level of complacency to occur regarding the reunification of Ireland. This is why ‘DCU4Unity’ wants to start this debate sooner rather than later. Young people, untouched by the violence of the Troubles, will play a key role in this national movement.
The demographics of the North is changing. The Northern Ireland Statistical Research Agency (NISRA) completed the ‘Labour Force Survey Religion Report’. This examined workforce changes between 1990 and 2016. In this period, the proportion of people over 16 years old who identified as Protestants decreased from 56% to 44%. In the same period, the proportion of Catholics increased by 38% to 42%. This survey tells us the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland has been steadily declining and ageing. In 1993, significantly less Catholics had qualifications than Protestants. In 2016, the reverse was true. Today, there are more Catholic students than their Protestant counterparts.
The crucial point to take from this survey is that between 1990 and 2016, the number of ‘non-determined’ people, those who don’t identify along this green and orange sectarian spectrum, has trebled . This is the crucial middle ground where a border poll will be won or lost. In 2012, the then DUP leader Peter Robinson warned that the DUP must chase votes from this increased Catholic demographic. Under the leadership of Arlene Foster, this advice has been ignored. Robinson’s advice works both ways. A border poll is unlikely to pass without a certain level of unionist support. This cannot simply be a numbers game. Unity will only occur peacefully through dialogue and co-operation with both nationalists and unionists. We must communicate to unionists that even if they oppose Irish unity, they have nothing to fear from it. London rule has always failed to represent the nationalist community of Northern Ireland. The challenge for nationalists is to show that a united Ireland will not fail the unionist community in the same way.