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Yesterday an American visitor going under the pseudonym Eireann posted a comment on another thread asking a few questions about Ireland. Specifically, he/she was having trouble with the concept of why Ireland was divided and why we couldn't all just unite and live happily ever after. It was difficult to know where to start, and definitely beyond the remit of a follow-up comment on a more-or-less unrelated thread, nevertheless I set about formulating some sort of response.
It's not easy to try and explain the logic behind Northern Ireland (never mind the centuries preceding its existence) and unionism to outsiders, most of whom are familiar with the lovey-dovey dreams of republicans to reclaim their "fourth green field" from the "saxon oppressor", but who hear little of the alternative point of view. I'm always up for a challenge though.
The question was: "All of Ireland is a beautiful country - no doubt - can't it be united?"
Thanks, I suppose it is a beautiful country (though actually it's two beautiful countries). Nobody ever wanted to divide Ireland. The problem was that while the territory was united pre-1920, the people were already divided. In 1912, while 'nationalists' in south were seeking Home Rule (devolution) from Westminster, half a million 'unionists' signed a covenant pledging to fight such a move (such was the strength of opposition to Home Rule; it's safe to assume opposition to complete independence would have been even stronger). One of the most important reasons for this was that Ulster, and particularly Belfast, had benefited more from the industrial revolution than had the rest of Ireland. The shipbuilding industry was booming in Belfast and this necessitated good relations and close ties with the rest of Britain and the Empire. At that time, it was also feared that being ruled from Dublin would be harmful to civil and religious liberties. That fear may not be justified in the present day, but it certainly was at the time (between 1911 and 1926, the area that would be the Irish Free State lost a third of its already small Protestant population).
It's unlikely either nationalists or unionists set out to divide Ireland. It was only when the battle against Home Rule already seemed lost, following the Easter Rising and (probably more significantly) the passing of the Third Home Rule Bill, that Lord Carson, the Dublin-born leader of Irish Unionism, persuaded unionists to work for the exemption of 6 of the Ulster counties as a compromise. The logic of this was:
- the majority of Protestants and unionists were concentrated in this region; and
- the majority of people in this region were Protestants and unionists.
In the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty between Britain and the nationalist rebels that created the Irish Free State, both sides accepted that Northern Ireland's Parliament could opt-out of the Free State. However, when it did, the leaders of the Free State spent the next year engaged in a violent offensive against the new state of Northern Ireland. The southern state also maintained a territorial claim over Northern Ireland for the next 75 years which did nothing to aid good relations.
So there's a very brief history, but what about the present day? As I said above, it doesn't seem as obvious now as then that rule from Dublin would be "harmful to religious and civil liberties" so why do unionists still wish to remain separate from the rest of Ireland? We don't, at least not by design. The fundamental goal of unionism is to remain in the United Kingdom. The fact that this separates us from the rest of the island of Ireland is an unfortunate consequence.
Even though partition was nobody's primary goal, I fear the answer to your question regarding unification is no. There are numerous advantages to being part of the United Kingdom including a slightly tongue-in-cheek list I have produced previously, but a major factor in the desire to remain in the UK is that (contrary to the slogan's unsuccessful use in an election campaign) we are "simply British."
The reason this causes problems is that southern state is in many ways defined by its opposition to Britain. As an example, the Easter Rising, a rebellion that was unpopular even among the Irish at the time, is celebrated annually and has become something of an Irish creation myth. The Gaelic Athletic Association, a quasi-political organisation which runs probably the most popular sports in the country, was founded specifically to promote the idea that Gaelic was good and British was bad. Similar logic is still present in the Republic's laws, right down to its constitution. English was made, and remains, de jure, a second language behind Irish Gaelic. This would be fine if it wasn't so blatantly politically motivated, as evidenced by it being given this status despite the fact that then, as now, English is far more widely spoken than the "first language." Imagine French being made the first language of the whole of Canada! It's ridiculous. English is made explicitly inferior because it is deemed "foreign."
Note that this is not an exhaustive list of problems we would have with the Republic (how long have you got?), just a starting point.
Anyway, back to the question. It just seems as if there is just too much water under the bridge. Even if, by some miracle, the Republic, prosperous as they now are, decided they would like to rejoin the UK, I think it would take many years and even more reforms before there was enough trust there to combine the two jurisdictions into one administrative region. We're really delving into the realms of fantasy to even consider resurrecting the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland though.