One of the issues raised by Brexit was what to do about the boundary between Northern Ireland and the rest of the island. During the Troubles, the IRA constantly attacked border posts, which became armed fortresses, and one of the most beautiful signs of the peace that followed the Good Friday Accords was the dismantling of those grim, concrete and barbed wire monstrosities. But the open border between the UK and the Irish Republic depended on both being in the EU. So when Britain announced it was leaving, many (including me) wondered, what would happen to that suddenly relevant border?
Last summer Boris Johnson announced a solution: rather than rebuilding the border between the two Irish nations, a new customs and trade boundary would be established between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. This caused so much disruption that much of it had to be suspended on an "emergency" basis, and nobody thinks it is working very well, but the symbolic message was clear: Britain was ready and willing to jettison Northern Ireland if that was the price of its independence from the EU.
This has Susan McKay wondering how much longer Northern Ireland will endure:
Northern Ireland, created in 1921 when Britain carved six counties out of Ireland’s northeast, is not enjoying its centenary. Its most ardent upholders, the unionists who believe that the place they call “our wee country” is and must forever remain an intrinsic part of the United Kingdom, are in utter disarray. Their largest party has ousted two leaders within a matter of weeks, while an angry minority has taken to the streets waving flags and threatening violence. And the British government, in resolving Brexit, placed a new border in the Irish Sea. . . .
The writing is on the wall. While the process by which Ireland could become unified is complicated and fraught, one thing seems certain: There isn’t going to be a second centenary for Northern Ireland. It might not even last another decade. . . .
Northern Ireland now has borders with Britain and Ireland — and it is no longer a majority-Protestant state. The last census, in 2011, showed that the Protestant population had declined to 48 percent and the Catholic minority had risen to 45 percent. The Protestant community is aging, too: In 2011, only among those over 60 did it have a significant majority, and among schoolchildren, Catholics were the larger group. The results of a census to be published next year may well show an overall Catholic majority.
Nor can unionists count on the votes of Protestants. As a society, Northern Ireland has become more secular, more tolerant of diversity, less insular. People who reject conservative social policies have other voting options, and many young people do not vote at all. Some put their energy into global movements like climate justice and feminism — and plenty neither know nor care about the religious background of their friends.
From the 1920s to the 1990s, Unionism in the North was fed by the huge economic, educational and social disparities between the industrialized, Protestant area around Belfast and the vast stretches of rural poverty across Catholic Ireland. But like most old manufacturing cities, Belfast has fallen on hard times, while Ireland has both boomed economically and become much less conservatively Catholic. So, as McKay says, some of the disparities on which Unionist sentiment was founded have faded away, and many young people just don't understand what all the fuss was about.
When I was younger I believed that the arrangement of nations I saw on the map was permanent, and I scoffed at the notion that Germany would ever be reunited. The division of Ireland is no more permanent than the Berlin Wall turned out to be, and I would also not be surprised to see it disappear in my lifetime.