Brexit and Biden Rekindle Hopes for a United Ireland

A pedestrian walks past a poster celebrating U.S. president-elect Joe Biden in his ancestral hometown of Ballina in County Mayo in northwest Ireland on November 8, 2020. Photo: PAUL FAITH/AFP via Getty Images

In September, Joe Biden — who traces his roots to County Mayo as well as County Louth, right on the border that still splits Ireland in two — made an intervention into the politics of his ancestral homeland. “We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit,” he tweeted, referring to the pact that ended three decades of violence on the island. “Any trade deal between the U.S. and U.K. must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border.” The baroque, seemingly endless negotiations to rip Britain out the European Union have often threatened to reintroduce new barriers between Northern Ireland (part of the U.K.) and the Republic of Ireland (an E.U. member), and Boris Johnson’s government had just announced plans to violate a withdrawal agreement it had made with the European Union just last year. In response, the next U.S. president was directly threatening something the U.K. sorely needs — good relations with Washington — when they actually leave.

British conservatives reacted with anger, and some even seemed to suggest that Biden is too Irish to be a good ally. Tory MP Scott Benton tweeted, “Joe Biden is no friend of Britain. His Irish republican sympathies and ignorant comments … are another reminder why he’d be an awful President and undermine our special relationship with the U.S.” In Ireland, small-r republicans want a united Ireland that is fully independent from the Crown, while unionists favor remaining a part of the U.K. Just before the U.S. presidential election, Sammy Wilson, member of parliament for the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland, posted that “Joe Biden is a parrot for Irish Nationalism and their falsehoods re the Belfast Agreement,” using the other term for the Good Friday Agreement (sectarian divisions run so deep that the two groups often use different words to refer to the same thing, as is the case with Derry/Londonderry, the second-biggest city in Northern Ireland). Wilson ended the tweet with “#MAGA,” in case his position was in doubt. President Trump has been a steadfast supporter of Brexit and blasé about the complicated negotiations impacting Ireland.

But Irish nationalists welcomed Biden’s comments, pointing to the historic role the United States played in ending the Troubles. And a lot of them are saying, with increasing volume, that the dream of a united Ireland might finally be within reach. “I hope the next President of the United States of America is a persuader for a United Ireland,” tweeted John O’Dowd, a Sinn Féin representative in the Northern Ireland Assembly, just as the election results were finalized on Saturday. “We have been Biden our time for such a president.”

Biden’s imminent arrival to the White House provides yet another gust of wind to a perfect storm that has quickly swept the question of Irish nationalism back to the surface of European politics. In the 2016 U.K. referendum, Northern Ireland voted to stay in the E.U. by a margin of 56 percent to 44 percent, and many people there — including unionists — believe that Brexit was put forward without any consideration for their region (or worse). Demographic trends north of the border seem to indicate that, sooner or later, the (largely Protestant) unionist majority will be a thing of the past — for the first time since partition began 99 years ago. Back in Great Britain, people increasingly don’t care much whether Northern Ireland stays or goes. And Sinn Féin, the ardently nationalist party associated with the IRA, is now the most popular party in the Republic of Ireland, and the biggest party active on the entire island. Though they are not in power, Sinn Féin party leader Mary Lou McDonald is calling for a referendum on reunification — which is provided for, in slightly ambiguous terms, by the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement.

“The entire Brexit debate happened as though Ireland didn’t exist, and it seemed that it never crossed the Tories’ minds that there would be evident damage to Ireland,” McDonald told me. “We have a hugely exciting prospect to end partition — but more than that, to build a new Ireland. And I know increasing numbers of people are hugely energized, and hugely challenged, by that very real prospect. The first thing to do, of course, is call for a referendum on Irish unity.”

In a wide-ranging conversation over Zoom, from lockdown in her native Dublin, the Sinn Féin leader said that nationalists see the vote as part of a struggle that goes back over 800 years — to when Great Britain first started exerting control over their smaller neighbor — and which has relied on Irish American support for well over 200 years. Responding to the comments from Tories on Biden’s apparent sympathies as an Irish American, McDonald said they were “a bit rich coming from the mouths of the same people who created the circumstances that made Irish people into Americans in the first place.” In the nationalist understanding of history, British imperialism created the poverty and starvation that led to widespread emigration. Even now, Ireland is in the very strange position of having fewer residents than it did in 1840 — before the so-called “Potato Famine” began.

All the major parties in the Republic of Ireland say they support reunification, but Sinn Féin is the most vocally nationalist and the one pushing the hardest for a quick vote. Domestically, the party has made rapid inroads with voters by putting forward a set of left-leaning policies that set them apart from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the two right-leaning parties that have long governed the country. They have hammered the mainstream parties on the cost of housing and insist that a united Ireland should have free universal health care. Two years ago, McDonald took over for Gerry Adams, the longtime Sinn Féin leader who was understood to be speaking for the IRA during peacetime, and has quickly expanded its base, especially among younger Irish people. In elections earlier this year, the party won the most votes, but Ireland has a parliamentary system, and Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael came together to form a coalition with the Green Party. The Guardian recently compared her success to that of the Bernie Sanders movement, or Podemos in Spain. McDonald said she understands those comparisons, but they are imperfect. “We are a party of the left, but you can’t equate Irish politics with U.S. politics,” McDonald said. “We often point to parallels with Scotland and Catalonia, because we are still midway through a process to remove the colonial shackles. We have a national project to finish.”

Contemporary Irish politics is all about history. People on the island spend far more time looking to the past than their contemporaries in England, as the nationalist Northern Irish rap group Kneecap explained in a blustery interview that went viral earlier this year. Groups on both sides of the nationalist-unionist divide look to figures and events in history as justification for current positions. They often want to make sure that past struggles can be honored and seen as leading to some kind of a final triumph. The eternal challenge has been to do that in a way that — somehow or another — works for most people. “Both major political traditions have a very keenly developed sense of history and a narrative that goes back to the 17th and 18th centuries. This is common in societies where identities and borders, and the framework of political life, are still in dispute,” said Daniel Finn, author of One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA. “But it can often supercharge contemporary politics with historical energy. When discussing peace negotiations, there was a tongue-in-check saying we had here: ‘That’s all very well in practice, but does it work in theory?’”

In 1916, Irish republicans rebelled against British rule — with important Irish American support — in the “Easter Rising,” which was crushed. Soon after World War I ended, however, the nationalist “Irish Republican Army” waged a bloody guerrilla offensive, which is now called the Irish War of Independence. In 1921, IRA leaders signed a treaty with the British that would give them a Free State in the South, and keep six counties in the North — where unionists were a solid majority — inside the U.K. Not everyone accepted this deal, which led to a brutal civil war. The Free State eventually declared itself a Republic, while Catholics above the new dividing line suffered under obvious and intentional discrimination imposed by the Belfast government. In the 1960s, a civil-rights movement inspired by Black Americans exploded in Northern Ireland. They were met with state repression and were targeted by violent Loyalist paramilitary groups that claimed they were a front for radicals that wanted to impose Catholic rule — or even communism — on the region. A small “official IRA” did exist at the time and did have an unabashedly left-wing ideology. But the anti-Catholic violence led many people to the join the “Provisional IRA,” a more aggressive splinter group that soon became the main nationalist protagonist in the Troubles, a low-intensity, irregular war that lasted roughly 30 years and took many civilian lives.

From the late 1960s to 1998, over 3,500 people died, and Northern Ireland has a population of less than 2 million. No one in the IRA, or most of the nationalist community, ever recognized the legitimacy of the partition. But by the 1990s, it was clear to the Provisionals that they could not win Irish unity through this armed struggle, and nationalists slowly hammered out a deal with London, the unionists, and the Republic (with the help of Bill Clinton’s administration). Even now, if you walk through working-class neighborhoods in Belfast or (London)Derry, it is obvious that there was recently a war there, and it’s not really clear that it ended. In Catholic neighborhoods, there are murals celebrating the IRA (and its famous MP and hunger striker Bobby Sands) alongside copious Palestinian flags and images of Che Guevara (the nationalist movement sees itself as an anti-imperialist movement and has looked to revolutionaries in the Global South as much as it often relied on money from North America). In largely Protestant neighborhoods, there are murals celebrating paramilitary forces like the Ulster Volunteer Force — classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and U.K. — and promising armed defense if they come under attack. And the scars are everywhere. “We are a post-conflict society, and because of that, we have huge problems of intergenerational trauma — and when you combine that with unemployment, poverty, and inequality, you can see why we have a mental-health epidemic,” said Matt Collins, a Belfast city councilor from the left-wing People Before Profit party. “More people have killed themselves since 1998 than died in the entirety of the Troubles.”

It is not just opponents of a border poll who recognize that violence could return. “I don’t think reunification can be done clean and easy, like,” said Niall Eggleston, who grew up among the bombs and riots of the Troubles in Derry and now considers himself a moderate unionist. “Whether because of fear or ignorance, there will be resistance” in the unionist community, he said. Eggleston lives in a heavily Protestant neighborhood, and is proud to have friends in both communities, but he says that “it is still very easy to meet people who do not know anyone at all on the other side.”

Much of the Protestant community in Ireland does not have ties to England, but to Scotland, which has a vibrant independence movement and also voted to stay in the European Union. If that country votes to leave the U.K. — and it really could — that would be another major blow to the link between Belfast and London.

Like many other politicians on the island, Steve Aiken, the head of Northern Ireland’s Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), knows how to speak in American political idioms and does so when explaining why he opposes a vote on reunification. “We are a fully integral part of our nation. It would be like saying to the people of Texas, ‘You’d be better off being part of Mexico again. Off you go,’” he told me, in a phone interview. “Once you have one border poll, then you have another one after seven years, and then you are locked into a spiral of continuous polling.” But he campaigned for the U.K. to stay in the E.U. and quickly recognizes that Brexit has complicated things for his country. “Northern Ireland has been used as a bargaining chip by all sides, and that has not helped politics here at all. Brexit has helped polarize politics in Ireland in a way that we haven’t seen since the Belfast agreement.”

Aiken has relatives in the U.S. and knows that American politics matter to Ireland, though he does not always think that is a good thing. “Thanks to both the Obama administration and Trump, America’s standing in the world seems to have diminished considerably. One of the few places where America is still seen as a force for good is the U.K. — and indeed on the island of Ireland.” He said that many people in the unionist community saw Biden’s intervention as “quite disappointing,” and he was critical of Nancy Pelosi’s remarks on the issue. Long before Biden got involved in September, the Speaker of the House said there would be “absolutely no chance” of a U.S.–U.K. trade deal if Irish peace was undermined. Many unionists have pointed out, correctly, that Representative Peter King, one of the co-signatories on the congressional letter that Biden tweeted out, has long been a vocal supporter of the IRA. And just days after his victory was announced, Biden called Boris Johnson and reportedly reemphasized the importance of the 1998 peace treaty. “One thing I can say for Joe Biden is I think he is one person that has read the Belfast agreement and really understands it,” Aiken said.

But the most important unionist party is the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which has the most seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly (Sinn Féin is behind by one) and many MPs in Westminster. On Monday, DUP representative Gordon Lyons told me that “sometimes we can overestimate how important U.S. elections are for Northern Ireland. Our future won’t be determined by the U.S. president — it will be determined by the people of Northern Ireland.” But Lyons admits that many unionists are skeptical toward the president-elect, because of his apparent nationalist bent.

Of course, Lyons, and almost everyone else in Ireland, had seen Biden’s exchange with the BBC just after he was declared the victor. The president-elect once more angered some British conservatives when he seemed to take sides in a rivalry on the British Isles. When the English reporter asked him for a quick word, he responded, “The BBC? I’m Irish!” and smiled. Lyons also cited a remark Biden made in jest last year, that “anyone wearing orange is not welcome” in his home. (The “Orange Order” is an important Protestant group based in Northern Ireland.) “These may just be jokes, but I do think they betray where he is coming from, and his worldview,” said Lyons. Still, he congratulated Biden on his victory and said that there has been a bipartisan consensus in Washington to treat Ireland fairly. Lyons said he expects Biden to be fair, too. “I think he would realize that it would be completely inappropriate to involve himself in the domestic affairs of a foreign country,” he said.

Next year will be the 100th anniversary of the partition that also created the Southern state. And in Dublin, there’s broad support for reunification in theory, but the ruling parties are more cautious than Sinn Fein about holding a referendum on the issue. Mark Daly, the “cathaoirleach” of Seanad Éireann — that is, the chair of the Senate of Ireland in Dublin — has commissioned studies into the issue of unification as well as the possibility that Brexit could reignite violence in Ireland. “This is the longest-running political dispute in the Western world. It has been going on for about 851 years. It is worth taking the time to carefully plan for the best future for the generations to come,” he told me. Daly is a member of Fianna Fáil, the ruling party, and Taoiseach Micheál Martin — prime minister and head of government — congratulated Biden on his victory. The Good Friday Agreement does not make it clear exactly what should trigger a border poll — though authority clearly rests with the U.K.’s secretary of State for Northern Ireland — or who should vote. “The lesson of Brexit for the issue of a united Ireland is that you don’t hold a referendum without long-term planning and engagement with all sides so that everyone knows what it is they are voting for” Daly said.

Domestically, the question of radical republicanism has once again become a political one, as the major parties grapple with Sinn Féin’s arrival to the scene. Earlier this year, police in the southern Republic made a statement implying that the party is still overseen by the IRA. Mary Lou McDonald denies this vigorously, calling it “rubbish” based on gossip amplified for political purposes. But she readily admits that many in the party came from the armed struggle in the past. “There are those who were [Provisional] IRA volunteers and then became MPs and MLAs [in the Northern Ireland Assembly] and TDs [in the Irish Parliament], but I can also tell you that the war is over. The generation before us in Sinn Féin struggled and then sued for peace, and we are the new generation — Sinn Féin in peacetime.” When asked if the IRA still exists, she said, “No. The IRA is gone. There are dissident groups that call themselves the IRA, but I wish they would desist from their activities,” she said. “We are the generation that are going to push it home, through exclusively peaceful — and exclusively democratic — means. But the struggle is the same.”

Brexit and Biden Rekindle Hopes for a United Ireland