Political map of Ireland showing the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.The island of Ireland on the European continent. A united Ireland is the term used to refer to a sovereign state covering the whole of the island of Ireland. Presently, the island encompasses the territory of two independent sovereign states: the Republic of Ireland, which covers the southern 26 counties of the island, and the United Kingdom, one of whose constituent countries is Northern Ireland.
Irish republicans and nationalists want Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom and unify with the Republic of Ireland. Unionists and loyalists oppose this and wish Northern Ireland to remain a constituent part of the United Kingdom. Unionists form a majority within Northern Ireland, and nationalists form a large majority across the island as a whole.
Many different models for unification have been suggested including federalism and confederalism, as well as a unitary state. To this day, Article 15.2 of the Constitution of the Republic of Ireland (enacted in 1937) provides for a federal-type structure, originally intended to absorb the old Stormont institutions of Northern Ireland.
The current division of the island of Ireland stems from demographic and political factors. In demographic terms, the six counties of Northern Ireland contain a Protestant majority that largely favours continued union with Britain. The twenty-six counties of the Republic contain a very large Roman Catholic majority that rejected British rule and became independent in 1922. In political terms, the British government was reluctant in the 1920s to withdraw its jurisdiction from the whole of the island for strategic reasons.
While Irish governments, particularly under Eamon de Valera, pursued the goal of a united Ireland throughout the 20th century, the prospect of a united Ireland assumed particular importance following the outbreak of The Troubles in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s. All major political parties in Britain and in both parts of Ireland now accept the principle that a united Ireland can be achieved only with the consent of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland. All major political parties in the south favour a united Ireland, as do the SDLP and Sinn Féin (and Republican paramilitary groups) in Northern Ireland. A united Ireland is opposed by the Unionist parties and loyalist paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland. In Britain, the Government is committed under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to following the wishes of the majority of the Northern Ireland population, though the Conservatives have links with the Ulster Unionist Party and are more inclined to favour unionism, while many Labour supporters have more sympathy for the nationalist cause.
Before the coming of the Normans there existed the title of Ard Rí (High King), usually held by the Uí Néill but this was more of a ceremonial title denoting a sort of "first among equals", rather than an absolute monarchy and unitary state as developed in England and Scotland. Most were described in the records as king "with opposition". Nevertheless, several strong characters imbued the office with real power, most notably Máel Sechnaill mac Maíl Ruanaid (845-860), his son Flann Sinna (877-914) and Flann's great-grandson Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill (979-1002; 1014-1022), Brian Boru (1002-1014), Muircheartach Ua Briain (1101-1119), and Toirdhealbhach Ua Conchobhair (1119-1156).
What prevented the consolidation of truly national power even by the Ard Ríanna was the fact that the island was divided into a number of autonomous, fully independent kingdoms ruled by rival dynasties. The most powerful of these kingdoms in the immediate pre-Norman era were Aileach, Brefine, Mide, Leinster, Osraige, Munster and Connacht. In addition to these, there were a number of lesser subject kingdoms such as Airgialla, Uladh, Brega, Dublin, Ui Failghe, Laois, Desmond, and Hy-Many. Many of these kingdoms and lordships retained, at the very least, some degree of independence right up to the end of independent Gaelic polity in the 17th century.
In 1168-72 the Norman conquest ended with the acceptance by the Gaelic kings and bishops of the unitary rule of Henri Plantagenet as Lord of Ireland. In 1297 the first Irish parliament sat, modelled on the Norman-English parliament but only representing large landowners and merchants. However by 1300 the Norman system was breaking down and Norman lords and the former Gaelic dynasties reasserted local control in their areas. By 1500 the area directly controlled by the Lordship had reduced to the Pale. The power of the lords deputy had become similar to the former high kings "with opposition", and they could only succeed in alliances with the local dynasties.
Under King Henry VIII the Tudor Reconquest of Ireland included the establishment of the Kingdom of Ireland in 1541-42. The dynasties were to be included in the system and use English law, and the process took decades of treaty negotiations and wars, ending with the Plantation of Ulster that started in 1607. For the first time since the Norman conquest, Ireland could be said to be united in a way similar to most European states.
The next significant moment occurred in 1642 when the Confederate Catholics Association of Ireland – an Irish Catholic government formed to fight the Irish Confederate Wars, assembled at Kilkenny and held an all-Ireland assembly. The Confederates did rule much of Ireland up to 1649, but were riven by dissent and civil war in later years over whether to ally themselves with the English and Scottish Royalists in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Ultimately, they dissolved their Association in favour of unity with the Royalists, but were defeated anyway in the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, and from 1653-60 Ireland was united for the first time under a republican government, ruling from London.
Until the Constitution of 1782, Ireland was placed under the effective control of the British-appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland due to restrictive measures such as Poynings Law. From 1541 to 1801, the island's political status was of a Kingdom of Ireland in personal union with the English (and later the British) Crown. Under the leadership of Henry Grattan, the Irish parliament (still dominated by the Ascendancy) acquired a measure of autonomy for a time. After the Act of Union, Ireland became part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, a single entity ruled by the Parliament at Westminster.
Ireland was last undivided at the outbreak of World War I after national self-government in the form of the Third Home Rule Act 1914, won by John Redmond leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party was placed on the statute books, but suspended until the end of the war. It was amended to partition Ireland for six years following the objections of Irish Unionists.
In the 1918 UK general election, the republican Sinn Féin political party won the vast majority of seats in Ireland. The newly elected Sinn Féin candidates did not take their seat in Westminster; instead they formed a republican assembly in Dublin called Dáil Eireann which unilaterally declared itself in 1919 the Government of the Irish Republic and independent of the British Empire. Its claims over the entire island were, however, not accepted by northern Unionists. Under the Anglo-Irish Treaty the Irish Free State became in 1922 the name of the state covering twenty-six counties in the south and west, replacing the Irish Republic, while six counties in the northeast remained within the United Kingdom under the 1920 Government of Ireland Act. According to some historians, Sinn Féin had no special policy towards Ulster despite its different religious and political make-up, regarding it as an integral part of an Irish republic.
The leading political parties in the Republic of Ireland, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, have often made a united Ireland a part of their political message. It is also a main focus of Sinn Féin and Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in Northern Ireland. The first line of the introduction to the page "History of the Conflict" on the official Sinn Féin website states: "Throughout history, the island of Ireland has been regarded as a single national unit."
In contrast, the Unionist community – composed primarily of Protestants in the six counties that form Northern Ireland – opposes unification. All of the island's political parties (except for tiny fringe groups with little electoral representation) have accepted the principle of consent, which states that Northern Ireland's constitutional status cannot change without majority support in Northern Ireland.
Many Protestants in Northern Ireland argue they have a distinct identity that would be overwhelmed in a united Ireland. They cite the decline of the small Protestant population of the Republic of Ireland since independence from the United Kingdom, the economic cost of unification, their place in a key international player (within the UK) and their (Protestants) mainly non-Irish ancestry. Unionist people in Northern Ireland primarily find their cultural and ethnic identity from the Scottish and English planters, whose descendants can also be found in the three counties of Ulster which are governed by the Republic of Ireland. Such individuals celebrate their Scots heritage each year like their counterparts in the other six counties. While Catholics in general consider themselves to be Irish, Protestants generally see themselves as British, as shown by several studies and surveys performed between 1971 and 2006.. Many Protestants do not consider themselves as primarily Irish, as many Irish nationalists do, but rather within the context of an Ulster or British identity. A 1999 survey showed that a little over half of Protestants felt "Not at all Irish.", while the rest "felt Irish" in varying degrees.
Some have suggested that one such method of governing in a United Ireland, would be for a united nine-county Ulster to have local self-government, and perhaps local self-government for Ireland's other three provinces (like U.S. states or German federal states), to help ease the worries Unionists in Ulster might have about joining a reunified all-island nation-state.
Given that all significant political parties and both the UK and Irish Governments support the "Principle of Consent" the final choice is one for the people of Northern Ireland, alone, to decide. Meanwhile it should be pointed out that in certain instances there does in fact exist a degree of Irish unity already. For example the Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church are both organised on an all Ireland basis. Also the Irish rugby football, cricket and International Rules teams are drawn from both north and south. Members of the Irish Defence Forces are drawn from north and south of the border. Soldiers from Irish regiments in the British army are also drawn from both north and south.
Currently, both the Irish and British governments are creating a number of all-island bodies and services, such as the all-island electricity network from November 2007, then to be followed by the all-island gas network. Not only services, but also governmental bodies such as The Loughs Agency, Waterways Ireland, InterTradeIreland and, most notably, the North/South Ministerial Council, have been set up; with more planned in the near future. Recently, politicians have called for there to be an all-island corporation tax of 12.5% (currently the Republic's corporation tax - the lowest in the European Union), in order to boost Northern Ireland's economy. Other politicians have called for an all-island telecommunications network, especially within regard to mobile phones. The Irish government are currently investing over €1 billion in Northern Ireland as well, especially in the West, around Derry. Investments include upgrading City of Derry airport (at a cost of €11 million), building a Letterkenny/Derry-Dublin motorway or high-quality dual carriageway, reopening the Ulster Canal, and improving cancer services in the region for those in the region itself, but also people from County Donegal in the Republic.
In 1973, the population of Northern Ireland was polled on whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom or join with the Republic of Ireland to form a United Ireland. The poll was largely boycotted by Catholics, and so the result of 98.9% in favour of union with the rest of the UK represented the opinion of 57.45% of the electorate.
A possible referendum on a united Ireland was included as part of the terms of the Belfast Agreement. Currently about 42% of the Northern Ireland electorate vote for Irish nationalist parties that oppose the union with Great Britain and support a united Ireland as an alternative, although it is not the only issue at election time so it is difficult to take this figure as a direct indication of levels of support for a united Ireland. A survey taken in 2008 showed support for a united Ireland at 18% and support for Northern Ireland remaining in the United Kingdom at 70%. 8% support independence or other arrangements.
Support for Irish unity is a feature of all major political parties in the Republic of Ireland. Some very small pressure groups do exist, such as the Reform Movement and lodges of the Orange Order in the Republic of Ireland, that are sympathetic to Northern Ireland remaining within the UK for the foreseeable future, but their impact on the broader political opinion is negligible. A Dublin riot in 2006 prevented a march organised by "Love Ulster", though the rioters did not have a wide support base. Some politically conservative Catholics from Southern Ireland, such as Mary Kenny and Desmond Fennell have also expressed misgivings about a United Ireland, fearing the incorporation of a large number of Protestants would threaten what they see as the Catholic nature of the Irish Republic. A 2006 Sunday Business Post survey reported that almost 80% of voters in the Republic favour a united Ireland: 22% believe that "achieving a united Ireland should be the first priority of the government" while 55% say they "would like to see a united Ireland, but not as the first priority of government." Of the remainder 10% said no efforts should be made to bring about a united Ireland and 13% had no opinion. This poll was markedly up from one year earlier when a Sunday Independent article reported that 55% would support a united Ireland, while the remainder said such an ambition held no interest. Such poll results should be seen in the context that Irish reunification would entail a significant financial burden for the economy and taxpayers of the southern 26 counties of the present-day Republic.
There is significant support in Great Britain for Ireland to reunify as a political entity. An ICM poll conduced by The Guardian in 2001 revealed that only 26% of Britons supported Northern Ireland remaining a part of the UK, while 41% supported a united Ireland. The British Social Attitudes Survey in 2007 found 32.25% supported Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK, and 40.16% supported Irish re-unification. The poll has been run 19 times between 1983 and 2007, with each result being in favour of Irish unity. The highest support came in 1994 with 59.36% of the British respondents supporting Irish Unity, while only 24.09% in support Northern Ireland remaining in the UK.
Opposition to reunification comes mainly from Unionist political parties in Northern Ireland, particularly the Ulster Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party. It also comes from loyalist paramilitary groups such as the Ulster Defence Association and Ulster Volunteer Force.
Nationalist parties in Northern Ireland support the independence of Northern Ireland (and of Ireland as a whole) from the United Kingdom and all nationalist parties support a united Ireland in some form. Sinn Féin is currently the largest nationalist party in the Northern Ireland Assembly (and the fifth largest in the Republic's Dáil.) Until recently, it had a policy of violent intervention through the Provisional Irish Republican Army but since the mid-90's had adopted a policy of achieving a united Ireland through constitutional means only. It supports integration of political institutions across the island of Ireland. For example, the party has proposed that Northern Ireland should have some form of representation in the Dáil, with elected representatives from either the Northern Ireland Assembly or the British House of Commons able to participate in debates, if not vote. The major parties in the Republic have rejected this notion on a number of occasions. Should Irish reunification ever occur, Sinn Féin has stated that it would wish to amend the Irish constitution to protect minorities, including the Protestant and Ulster Scots communities.
The Social Democratic and Labour Party had previously been the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland, but has suffered in elections since Sinn Féin's abandoned armed politics. As with Sinn Féin, it is committed to achieving a united Ireland. However, throughout its history, it has believed that reunification should be accomplished through constitutional means only. It would support a united Ireland only if a majority of both parts of Ireland voted for it in a referendum. In a united Ireland, the SDLP would support the continuation of a devolved Northern Ireland, governed by a local assembly. It should also be noted that the SDLP support membership in the European Union, the introduction of the Euro, and the Lisbon Treaty.
Aside from the major parties, Northern Ireland has several minor Nationalist parties. Among these, some parties are tied to paramilitary organisations and seek the reunification of Ireland through armed politics. These include the Irish Republican Socialist Party, which supports a united socialist Irish state and is affiliated with the Irish National Liberation Army. Another such party, Republican Sinn Féin, linked to the Continuity IRA, does not believe that the Irish government or the Northern Ireland Executive are legitimate as neither legislates for Ireland as a whole. Its Éire Nua (in English, New Ireland) policy advocates a unified federal state with regional governments for the four provinces and the national capital in Athlone, a town in the geographic centre of Ireland. None of these parties has significant electoral support.
The largest party in the Republic, and current governing party (through a coalition), is Fianna Fáil. It has supported reunification since its foundation, when it split from Sinn Féin in 1926 in protest at the party's policy of refusal to accept the legitimacy of the partitioned Irish state. However, in its history since, it has differed on how to accomplish it. Fianna Fáil rejected the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, which gave the Republic of Ireland an advisory role in Northern Ireland, claimed the agreement was in conflict with the then Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution of Ireland because it recognised Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. It later oversaw the removal of these articles from the constitution and today fully supports the Belfast Agreement, which it negotiated in coalition with the Progressive Democrats (see below). On 17 September 2007 Fianna Fáil announced that the party would, for the first time, organise in Northern Ireland. Ahern said that, "it is time now for this Party to play its full role, to take its proper place, in this new politics - in this New Ireland. By 2009 Martin Mansergh accepted that a United Ireland was not a major priority.
The second-largest party, Fine Gael a descendent of the pro-Anglo-Irish Treaty section of Sinn Féin upon the partition of Ireland, has also supported reunification as one of the its key aims since its foundation. It supports the Belfast Agreement and had previously negotiated the Anglo-Irish agreement.
The Labour Party, likewise, has also supported reunification since the foundation of the state, although it has always considered this aim secondary to social causes. It also fully supports the Belfast Agreement, and supported the Anglo-Irish agreement. The former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, resigned from the Irish Labour Party because she objected to the exclusion of unionists from the talks that led to the 1985 agreement.
The Progressive Democrats, a liberal party, which split from Fianna Fáil in the mid-1980s, has supported reunification since its foundation, but only when a majority of the people of Northern Ireland consent to it. The party fully supports the Belfast Agreement. Former party leader, Mary Harney, was expelled from Fianna Fáil for supporting the Anglo-Irish agreement. The party was one of the key negotiators of the Belfast Agreement.
The Green Party support the full implementation of the Belfast Agreement, which takes the possibility of Irish unification into account as the basis of simultaneous referendums on the issue being successful in the Republic and in Northern Ireland. The Green Party are an all-island party, having TDs in the Republic and an MLA in the North.
Sinn Féin is also an active party in the Republic, where its policies towards a united Ireland are the same as in Northern Ireland.
In Great Britain all major parties support the Belfast Agreement. Right-wing groups tend to be Unionist in outlook. Left-wing and liberal groups have traditionally been more open to a united Ireland.
Historically there has been strong support for a United Ireland within the left of the Labour Party, and in the 1980s it became official policy to support a united Ireland by consent. The policy of "unity by consent" continued into the 1990s, eventually being replaced by a policy of neutrality in line with the Downing Street Declaration.
The Conservative Party has traditionally taken a strongly unionist line in relation to the United Kingdom as a whole by opposing nationalism in Scotland and Wales as well as Northern Ireland. Until 1974 they had a parliamentary alliance with the Ulster Unionist Party and the two parties retained formal ties until 1985. The Conservatives current position is to "[work] in Northern Ireland to restore stable and accountable government based on all parties accepting the principles of democracy and the rule of law.". The Conservative Party is the only main UK party to contest elections in Northern Ireland.
The Liberal Democrats have a close relation with the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland and share their policy of supporting the Belfast Agreement whilst expressing reservations about what they perceive as its institutionalised sectarianism.