Southern and nationalist concerns in a united Ireland

David KennyDavid Kenny

Editors’ Note: This post is part of an IACL-AIDC Blog Symposium on unification of the island of Ireland. The Symposium is co-hosted by the Constitution Project @ UCC Blog. Selected posts will also be co-hosted by the UKCLA Blog. The full set of posts can be found here.

Whereas support in Northern Ireland for a united Ireland is modest at present, support for the prospect of unification in the Republic of Ireland (southern Ireland) is relatively robust. A recent general election exit poll showed 57% of voters in favour of a border poll within the next five years. An exit poll after the European and local elections in May showed 65% in favour of the prospect when a time frame was not included, suggesting support is even stronger on a longer timeline. Support amongst younger voters is particularly high.

What these polls do not tell us, however, is what these voters see as central to a united Ireland, and how their support might be contingent on the details of unification in practice. What would matter to voters in the south, or to nationalists more generally, in conceiving of a united Ireland?

In some ways, the priority for those who favour unification is simple: for the two parts of Ireland to form a sovereign unit, as provided for in the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. This is, conceptually at least, straightforward. Unlike Brice Dickson’s account of unionist priorities, there is no necessary reason to think that this group has any unified view on conservative/socialist politics or how the political economy of the state should develop.

Beyond this, this group’s priorities may mostly be negative or reactive: comprising concessions or compromises they might want to avoid rather than a strong affirmative agenda for unification.

Structure of government and state finances

A major issue for nationalists is likely to be the structure of government and its implications for regional governance. Would devolution be maintained, as Brice Dickson suggests, or replaced with some sort of federal government? How would power be divided between the central and local governments in this? Would the consociational arrangements of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), with veto points and other community protections, be maintained? Or would it be acceptable to have a unitary state? These questions would be crucial for nationalists in Northern Ireland, as they will have a substantial effect on the way in which they would be governed in practice.

In the south, this issue would also raise acute questions around state finances. Northern Ireland runs a substantial budget deficit, and the burden of this is borne by Westminster. The scale of this deficit is the subject of some dispute, and would vary depending on how a “divorce bill” might be settled (e.g. who would bear pension costs incurred by the British administration, and what, if any, portion of the UK national debt would be taken on by a united Ireland?). Voters in the south might wonder how large a subvention to Northern Ireland from a new national government would be necessary, and how much oversight of budgeting and expenditure the new national government would have. Given that some of the most contentious policy issues – healthcare, education, policing – are also some of the most costly, any fiscal federalism will have to be carefully structured, and this would risk alienating southern support.


Aside from these more prosaic questions of governance and finances, there are profound symbolic issues that are likely to arise.

Flags, which have even in recent years been a flashpoint in Northern Ireland, are likely to be a significant point of symbolic contestation. The Union Jack and the Irish tricolour are intimately bound up with the two sides of the conflict in Northern Ireland. What national flag could do justice to all identities and traditions, and symbolise all communities in a united Ireland without causing great offence to anyone? Symbols currently associated with the Irish state – the celtic harp, the colour green – may have to be given in any compromise, perhaps to the dissatisfaction of nationalists north and south.

Similarly, problems of representing all communities while avoiding offence are acute in terms of a national anthem. The location of a national capital, and whether this ought fairly be Dublin, may also arise. Southern supporters of unification might have to consider decamping national institutions to a new capital on more neutral ground.

Language is also problematic. A dispute over an Irish Language Act in Northern Ireland was a central reason for the breakdown in powersharing in 2017, and it remains a highly controversial issue. At the same time, Irish is the national language and the first official language of the Irish State, with English as a second official language. How to square this – with joint and co-equal official languages or otherwise – will be complicated by other questions such as the use of Irish in a national anthem and the use of Irish terminology for offices and institutions, which is common in the current Irish state—e.g. Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister), Dáil (the Lower House) Teachta Dála (Dáil Deputy), Seanad (Senate), etc. Relegating the Irish language completely from the public life of a new state might be a bridge too far for nationalist and southern voters, making some careful compromise necessary.

The Identity of the State and Accommodating Britishness

Finally, the identity of the new state will raise issues. The Preamble of the current Irish Constitution speaks of the “heroic and unremitting struggle to regain the rightful independence of our Nation”, illustrating a state identity that is exclusive of Britishness, against whom the struggle was conducted. A new united Irish state would have to, in the first instance, develop a national identity that was far more inclusive and respectful of all communities and could acknowledge the Britishness of its unionist members. It would have to, as Dickson suggests, sufficiently acknowledge “the cultural heritage of [the unionist] community”.

Some aspects of this will be straightforward. The Good Friday/Belfast Agreement promises, in perpetuity, the right of people in Northern Ireland to identify as British or Irish or both. Principles in that agreement such as parity of esteem and rigorous impartiality would carry over to ensure cultural inclusion in various aspects of the life of the state. Cultural traditions would have to be respected and accommodated to the greatest extent possible.

But at a certain point, this could clash with the priorities of nationalists and those in the south. In the event that it was expected that a united Ireland should join the British Commonwealth, this might attract opposition from those who would find such close connection to what is often seen as an imperial institution to be difficult to accept. Beyond this, acknowledgment of some role for the British monarch, or acceptance of titles of nobility, might be seen as fundamentally undermining of the republican character of the state. The concept of Irishness would have to change, and this is a challenging prospect with the potential to alienate nationalists north and south.

There is some necessarily speculative element to this project of considering what these groups might care about in a united Ireland. We do not know if and to what extent the particular issues outlined here would matter in reality, if negotiations on unification were in train. We do not know if voters in the south have already factored in these matters as expected concessions when they say they support a united Ireland, or (I think more probably) if they have not considered them, and if doing so could affect that support. But if the prospect of unification becomes more likely in the coming years, time will tell which issues matter most.

Dr David Kenny is an Assistant Professor of Law at Trinity College Dublin, where he teaches and researches Irish and comparative constitutional law. He is currently a member of the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland, convened by the Constitution Unit of University College London and supported by funding from the British Academy and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.

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