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In Ireland, reunification on the horizon?

Will we soon see the reunification of Northern and Southern Ireland? This is in any case what militates the leader Mary Lou Macdonald, the leader of the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein, who won the popular vote in the legislative elections on February 8.

According to the politician, who has not yet formed a government, Brexit would be a big boost for the process. She even sees herself holding a referendum within three to five years, she said in a Times interview last week.

In the British province, the partition of the island culminated in the second half of the 20th century in three bloody decades, nicknamed the “Troubles”: the mainly Catholic Republicans and supporters of the reunification of Ireland opposed the Protestant loyalists , defenders of keeping under the British crown, causing 3,500 deaths.

The idea of ​​reunification is far from being far-fetched, even if it is complex, reacts Agnès Maillot, lecturer at Dublin City University. “If you take the point of view of a loyalist, it could rekindle the conflict. If one takes the point of view of an Irish republican, this idea is plausible. Sinn Fein has been fighting for this for a hundred years, it’s part of its program, ”she says.

“It’s inevitable”

The Irish party has one advantage: the possible dissensions caused by Brexit. Northern Ireland had in fact voted overwhelmingly against the exit from the European Union, formalized three weeks ago. The new British immigration measures, deemed too restrictive by Ulster, do not help the loyalists either.

For historian Jean Guiffan, specialist in Ireland, a pro-reunification majority should emerge in the coming decades: “It is inevitable. Catholics will become the majority in Northern Ireland through a demographic effect, and the most moderate Protestants, initially against reunification, will probably evolve, “he said.

This concept of voting is however disputed, recalls Agnès Maillot. “It is true that there is a decline in the Protestant community. Thirty years ago, there were two thirds of Protestants, one third of Catholics. Today, there are something like 47% Protestants, 42% Catholics. And there is the middle, the 18%, which is neither, ”she said.

A threatened national identity

Consequence: for the moment, there is no frank and massive “yes” or “no” that emerges from opinion polls on the referendum. Symbolically, the United Kingdom would lose a lot by approving such a referendum: it would give weight, thereafter, to the independence of Scotland, and would undermine its desire to strengthen the identity of the country after Brexit.

Economically, however, the British would have everything to gain. “Northern Ireland costs them very dearly in subsidies, and it does not bring them anything,” says Jean Guiffan. It remains to be seen whether the Republic of Ireland, for its part, would be able to compensate for this economic weight.

“We should not launch this idea of ​​the referendum too early,” continues the historian. “In Scotland, where people have voted against Brexit even more, they have asked for a referendum and they have failed,” he said. Not to mention that the two Irish have still a lot of work to do: it’s only been a few weeks since the North saw its Loyalist Prime Minister return.

Sinn Fein in the South has yet to compose a majority, after a campaign based on social themes, specifies Agnès Maillot: “The themes which preoccupied the Irish were housing and health. Brexit, which is still fresh, interested only 1% of voters. “

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