A United Ireland is Imminent

By Judge Michael C. Mentel

The Irish Unity Summit was held on March 1st this year in New York City at the historic Cooper Union. I had the privilege to attend. The Cooper Union venue is indeed historic. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln gave his celebrated anti-slavery speech at Cooper Union before his election as President. It is also the venue where, in 1902, James Connelly spoke in support of a free and United Ireland. Fourteen years later, he would be executed at Kilmainham Gaol for his participation in the Easter Rising. The Cooper Union once again served as a historic venue when Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Féin President and Leader of the Opposition in the Dáil, addressed the Irish Unity Summit declaring that, “We’ve run the numbers, and it is adding up to a vote in 2030 that will create a United Ireland.”

Ms. McDonald’s declaration was not one made-up of hope or wishful thinking. It is a declaration that recognizes the changes from the past and grounds itself in fact. Three major events within the past thirty years support Ms. McDonald’s declaration. First, no Irish Republican-Nationalist has served in any elected leadership capacity in the north following partition. This year, Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin Vice President and MLA, became the First Minister and leader of the Northern Ireland Assembly, with Sinn Féin holding the majority in the Assembly. This is a clear tell on the political direction the north is taking. In the Republic, a poll conducted by Politico in early March of this year revealed that, among all political parties in the Republic, Sinn Féin has a 28% support level among Irish citizens, followed by Fine Gael at 20%, and Fianna Fáil at 18%, with all other parties and independents trailing. The level of support for Sinn Féin in the north and the Republic provides an indicator of the direction that unification support is heading.

Second, although a slim majority in the north presently favors remaining a part of the UK, the number is dwindling. As an example, an Irish News poll from February of this year revealed that 62% of the residents in the north would choose to rejoin the European Union following the UK’s adoption of Brexit. This is a revealing statistic. The Republic is a member of the European Union, enjoying the privileges of trade, travel, a common currency, along with having a thriving economy. From this vantage point, one can see that unification is an attractive and sensible alternative to the present situation in the north.

The third factor is the success of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). Since its signing in 1998, the GFA ended the thirty years of the Troubles, established peace, and allowed for new investment in the north, albeit slow at this time. It also opened the border with the Republic. While all of this is good, much more must be addressed before a border poll on unification can take place. The demographic changes in the north have led to a growing Catholic, nationalist, majority. However, this growing majority does not equate to a clear win if a border poll was called today. The risk of calling a border poll before it is ready is the backlash and rigidity it would create if it failed. The GFA mandates that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland shall call for a border poll when it ‘… appears likely to [him or her] 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.”

Dr. Brendan O’Leary, Political Science Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, speaking at the Summit, opined that political support for unification is growing albeit such support would not exist today. The necessity of addressing multifaced cultural, economic, and governing issues must be resolved if voters are to be made comfortable with unification. Mr. Glenn Bradley, a former British soldier, a Loyalist political leader, and a declared Irish Republican, posed one example of an issue that must be solved before some residents of the north would support unification. Because Mr. Bradley is a former British soldier he draws a pension from the British government. Many in the north are in Mr. Bradley’s same position whether as a soldier or a government worker, unionist or nationalist. Before he could support unification, Mr. Bradley wants to know which government will cover his pension. Other issues discussed included health care coverage, infrastructure, financing obligations, and how government representation will be structured; all of this must be resolved before a border poll on unification can take place. Fortunately, the planning process is underway. A non-governmental multi-party body has been formed with committees made up of individuals from various disciplines and backgrounds participating to address these issues.

A critical factor to the realization of unification is the involvement of the United States and Irish America. Summit presenters made clear that major support from the United States is vital to making any unification plan workable. This includes the pressure that the United States can impose upon the UK to support unification as well as encouraging investment and providing financial backing for the north. Some presenters questioned whether the UK would economically assist with unification should a border poll pass, making pressure from the United State on the UK a necessity. The Summit presenters also put out the call for active participation from Irish-America in the unification process. Ms. McDonald and other presenters encouraged Irish-Americans to contact their elected U.S. Representatives and Senators to tell them that, as a voter, Irish unification is important and that we want our government involved. For us, the Irish-American diaspora, now is the time to make our voices heard if we want to see an Ireland united and free.

Mike Mentel is an Appellate Court judge on the Ohio Court of Appeals Tenth District.