The EU’s declaration on potential Irish unity has been hailed as a diplomatic coup for the Taoiseach.
Enda Kenny himself described the outcome of the European summit in Brussels as “a huge endorsement of the Government’s approach to the Brexit negotiations and a clear recognition of the unique and specific challenges facing Ireland”.
That might be overstating things a bit. Both the council and the European Commission, along with most EU leaders, had already accepted the difficulty posed by a return to a hard border between the North and the Republic while endorsement of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement — which specifically allows for unification — is nothing new. Indeed, a Commission Task Force on Northern Ireland has been in place for more than a decade and has already channeled hundreds of millions of euro to support devolved government in the North.
However, what is new is the acceptance that, should the people of the North choose to unite with the south in the wake of Brexit or for some other reason, the whole of the island will have automatic EU membership.
Mr Kenny’s use of German unity as a template for this scenario was masterful and he deserves full marks for that. Germany could hardly have objected, given the fact that more than 16m East Germans were given automatic EU membership following German reunification.
The EU endorsement, however, has undoubtedly spooked some unionists. Indeed, former first minister David Trimble has already voiced concerns that the Brussels summit’s declaration on Irish unity would only stir up nationalist feeling.
The former Ulster Unionist leader told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “From the point of view of the Irish, there is no need to introduce this, it’s actually playing games with nationalist feelings and I wonder why the Irish Government is doing this and why Europe is going along with it.”
According to Mr Trimble, “stirring up nationalist feeling is not necessarily a wise thing to do, but what I would like to do is to focus on the real issue, and the real issue in terms of the border is tariffs”.
He has a point. Raising the spectre of unification could deflect from the hard work needed to ensure there is no return to a hard border. It is also absurdly premature and poses more questions than answers. While offering loyalists in Northern Ireland a practical reason for unity, it challenges us to reimagine the island of Ireland as a sovereign, independent state.
At the moment we only have one vision of a united Ireland, offered mostly by Sinn Fein: An ultra nationalist, pseudo- socialist, Brit-bashing republic. That is hardly going to endear liberal southerners, let alone unionists.
We need to fundamentally rethink our nationhood, including consideration of issues such as whether the capital of a unified state should necessarily be Dublin and whether we should rejoin the British Commonwealth. These are questions that could take decades to sort out, so, whatever about EU endorsement for unity, don’t expect it anytime soon.
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