Ireland’s Rocky Road to Unity

Can Demographic Shifts Undo a Hundred Years of Separation?

Police and unionist protesters in Belfast, December 2013 Mariusz Smiejek / VISUM / Redux

In the wake of the Brexit crisis, the idea of a united Ireland has returned to the political agenda. Politicians in both parts of a divided country believe that Irish unity is a credible prospect over the coming years, whether they find that prospect welcome or deplorable. Sinn Féin, the main nationalist party in Northern Ireland, has called for a post-Brexit referendum on Irish unity, stressing the risk of economic disruption for a region that voted against Brexit by a wide margin. Leading unionist politicians have also warned that a border poll may become unavoidable, although they still hope to carry the day in the event of a vote.

But if the idea of Northern Ireland joining up with its southern neighbor now seems plausible, that stems from a different factor altogether—long-term demographic change, without which a vote in favor of Irish unity would be impossible to imagine.

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