Fantasy Ireland

Everybody benefits from a united island.

As a sectarian riot raged in Dublin last month, the same question was likely heard in every Irish pub: Do we really need these Northern shenanigans?

Even the most ardent supporters of a united Ireland must have cringed when they heard about the donnybrook, sparked by opposition to a march planned by Protestants from Northern Ireland. But the Dublin riot proved that as hard as residents of the Irish Republic try to ignore them, Northerners are never going to go away. In fact, they could become more than just neighbors some day.

On St. Patrick’s Day, 2005, the five McCartney sisters—whose brother, a Catholic, was murdered outside a Belfast pub by IRA men—met with President Bush after taking a stand against the Irish Republican Army. The condemnation that followed Robert McCartney’s murder and the IRA’s alleged $50 million Belfast bank heist led to a stunning declaration last July: The IRA’s armed rebellion was over at last. The International Monitoring Commission says the IRA has now finally disarmed and no longer poses a terrorist threat.

As the IRA faded from the scene, Ulster’s nationalist leaders pushed their cherished dream of a united Ireland. Several Catholic town councils cast symbolic votes in support of Irish unity. The British army, to the joy of Catholics and the agony of Protestants, began a rapid, dramatic military withdrawal. A united, independent Ireland, at least in theory, seems closer now than ever.

The Catholic portion of the Northern Ireland population keeps growing, from just 37 percent three decades ago to about 45 percent now. Catholic birth rates have historically been higher than Protestants’, whose middle-class kids tend to leave for college on the British mainland, never to return. Protestants, whose ghettos are littered with abandoned homes, are expected to become the minority one day, possibly within a generation.

Many moderate Catholics who never supported the IRA want the six Northern counties to join the Irish Republic. That helps to explain Sinn Fein’s spectacular growth since it signed the historic Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Under the accord, Northern Ireland can leave the United Kingdom and join Eire only if a majority supports the move.

While Protestants fear abandonment by the British, Catholics know the Irish aren’t yearning for reunion. Ulster is a troubled region that nobody wants—not the folks on the other side of the Irish Sea and not the Irish, either, if it means higher taxes.

Before Ireland’s 1921 partition, London was ready to free the entire island. Protestants in the booming industrial northeast, fearing domination by backward Catholic farmers, took up arms. The threat of war led to the gerrymandering of a majority Protestant province. The new Irish government, after defeating the anti-partition IRA in the Irish Civil War, quietly abandoned the North.

After Northern Catholics endured a half-century of discrimination, the “Troubles” erupted in 1969. The British considered granting Northern Ireland its independence, according to recently declassified official documents. The Irish, meanwhile, were praying that the British would not withdraw. According to declassified Irish papers, sending in Irish troops would happen only if fighting became so bad that “intervention could not make matters worse.”

To spur along the peace process, both nations made their lack of interest in Northern Ireland official. With the Downing Street Declaration of 1993, the United Kingdom bluntly announced that it had no “selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland.” The Irish, with their overwhelming support for the Good Friday Agreement, relinquished their constitutional claim to Ulster.

British demilitarization began immediately after the IRA’s 2005 declaration, and Belfast’s Protestants rioted en masse in September. Now Protestant loyalist leaders see British retreat and Irish unification everywhere they look. This while Irish premier Bertie Ahern politely insists that the focus is on getting Protestants and Catholics to break their political stalemate and share power in the provincial government set up by the Good Friday Agreement. And as much as they would love to give Northern Ireland the heave-ho, the British know that quickly quitting Ulster would be an economic disaster. The IRA’s long war—in what Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams would describe as a cruel irony—made the North totally dependent on massive U.K. government spending. A staggering two-thirds of the Ulster economy depends on it. The wee Irish Republic could never provide such giant subsidies.

The British know their support is stifling and enfeebling, and London is trying to drag Ulster toward self-reliance. A grand consolidation of government agencies and town councils has begun, earning business leaders’ praise. Peter Hain, the British minister in charge of Northern Ireland policy, has warned that the province’s economy is “not sustainable in the long term” and spoken of the need for an “island of Ireland economy.” Those once-unthinkable comments drew a swift call for Hain’s resignation from the excitable Rev. Ian Paisley, Protestant leader of the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party.

Nobody expects a future Protestant minority to vote to leave the United Kingdom, but there’s hope that at least they wouldn’t threaten to rebel. A lauded unity plan offered by moderate Irish nationalists the Social Democratic and Labor Party, promises to keep the Good Friday Agreement’s power-sharing provincial government intact, an attempt to quell Protestant fears of dominance from Dublin.

The arguments for unification will center on a brighter economic future and a political voice for both Northern Catholics and Protestants in Dublin, which is now a world-class capital. Downtown Belfast might be thriving, too, but pockets of stratospheric unemployment around Ulster still leave young men easy prey for paramilitary groups. Manufacturing jobs have halved in just 20 years, and poverty persists. The Irish, meanwhile, are now richer per-capita than the British and most other Europeans after years of spectacular growth. More than 50 Fortune 500 companies operate in the Irish Republic, compared with zero in Northern Ireland.

Politically, both Protestants and Catholics complain that the British ignore their everyday problems. Northern Irish parliamentarians are a tiny, irrelevant presence in Westminster, but they would wield real influence at the Dáil, the Irish parliament.

The same arguments can be made to the Irish. The Republic of Ireland could at last corral the unruly North. Economically, the Celtic Tiger could use more room to roam—Dublin is now one of the world’s most expensive cities, while the North is comparatively cheap. The border, though open, is still a barrier. Instead of consuming the beautiful Irish heartland, growth could march up the developed East Coast. Dublin and Belfast, by far the island’s two biggest cities, are just over two hours apart.

Plunk Ulster into the Irish Republic, with its low corporate taxes, and it starts to look like a Celtic Tiger cub with a hungry, well-educated, English-speaking workforce. The scourge of paramilitaries clouds the North’s future, and a mafia empire could emerge, but real economic opportunity would make organized crime less alluring.

Even if a united Ireland has potential for Protestants, the Irish nation would have to adapt to welcome them. The militant national anthem, which Protestants say is anti-British, would need to change, while loyalist traditions would continue. The bowler-wearing Protestants of the Orange Order would keep celebrating their hero, Protestant King William of Orange, with contentious marches every summer. What the Irish wouldn’t need to change is their green, white, and orange flag: The orange represents Protestants.