The 3Arena in Dublin has hosted U2, Mariah Carey, Britney Spears and Arcade Fire, but on 1 October 2022 5,000 people streamed in to watch a very different spectacle. The performers on stage were Irish politicians, dozens of them from ruling and opposition parties, and all they did was talk. A river of words that touched on pensions, healthcare, taxes, social policy, constitutional arrangements – worthy topics that could put an audience to sleep. Instead, people craned forward in their seats, thirsty for every word. An energy pulsed through the auditorium because each speech articulated a collective wish, a wish once dismissed as hopeless fantasy, a pipe dream for sad ballads, and declared it alive with exhilarating possibility. The wish for a united Ireland.
“Together, we look to an Ireland beyond partition,” Mary Lou McDonald, the leader of Sinn Féin, told the crowd. “We reimagine the future of our country, discuss our ideas for a united Ireland and a tomorrow that captures all the potential and immense opportunities for this island. We are here in the spirit of ambition. To seize the day.” She paused, and the rhetoric soared: “Friends, we have come together to build our nation anew.”
McDonald finished to cheers and a standing ovation and there was yet more rapture: in a keynote speech, the actor James Nesbitt, a Northern Irish Protestant from a unionist background, declared it was time for a “new union of Ireland”, one that accommodated all identities and allegiances. “We’re standing at a profound moment here in the history of the islands,” he said. The crowd whooped and gave another ovation. They streamed out into autumn sunshine confident history was finally on their side, that demographic and political forces were aligning to erase the border. “It’s closer now than it’s ever been,” said Mary Greene, 63, from west Belfast. Wally Kirwan, 78, a retired senior civil servant who used to advise Irish governments about Northern Ireland, hoped to see Ireland become one. “If I’m given a few more years, I might be there for it.”
For Irish unity even to be taken seriously is a dramatic turnaround – and a century in the making. Rebels led by Michael Collins ended British rule and won autonomy for 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties in 1921. The British cleaved off six northern counties as a statelet for Protestants who wished to remain in the UK. Protestants in this new state, Northern Ireland, outnumbered Catholics two to one, ensuring a seemingly permanent unionist majority. Discrimination against Catholics paved the way to the Troubles, which revived the IRA and republican dreams of unification. Then the 1998 Good Friday agreement enshrined the principle of no constitutional change without the consent of the majority. If a secretary of state believes a majority would favour unification, he or she is to call a referendum. For two decades this was a remote prospect since most people in Northern Ireland, including many Catholics, favoured the status quo. It meant stability, the NHS and an estimated £10bn annual subvention from London. The unification dream hibernated.
Over the past six years, little by little, it has awoken. What prompted the comments from Tebbit, Woodward and Kyle were results last month from the 2021 Northern Ireland census. Of the 1.9 million population, Catholics now outnumber Protestants: 45.7% versus 43.48%. The demographic tilt was expected – the gap has narrowed every decade – but was still a landmark. The late Rev Ian Paisley, the founder of the Democratic Unionist party (DUP), had feared such a doomsday when he warned that Catholics “breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin”.