Something fundamental has changed in Northern Ireland this past year.
2017 will be seen as the point when the argument for the reunification of the island of Ireland - partitioned in 1921 as a fig-leaf to cover Britain’s withdrawal from much of the rest of its first colony - crystallised into a coherent, evidence-based proposition with clear and growing support.
Last March’s elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly saw Sinn Fein come within 1,100 votes from topping the poll. Just thirty odd thousand votes now separate parties committed to remaining in the UK from parties explicitly backing Irish unity. That’s the equivalent of three council wards.
Unionism no longer has the numbers to dominate proceedings and the growing probability is that Northern Ireland will actually cease to exist by the mid-2020s.
Especially as a wave of enthusiasm for Irish unity is building among the young. Last month, a Lucid Talkpoll asked a cross-section of 18-44 year olds whether they wanted to ‘leave’ and become part of a single Irish state or ‘remain’ in the UK. Fifty-six per cent wanted to live in a united Ireland and just 34 per cent opted for the status quo.
Clearly, Brexit has played a large part in bringing the debate into focus. After all, Theresa May conceded before Christmas that there must be no hard border between Northern and southern Ireland and promised to avoid regulatory divergence between the two jurisdictions, however unworkable that sounds in practice.
But Brexit is merely an accelerant poured over the dry tinder of electoral, demographic, economic and constitutional changes that will deliver a united Ireland whether or not Britain self-ejects from the European Union.
As such, a crisis is looming in the next parliament. The question of Irish reunification will need to be resolved and British politicians need to remove their heads from the sand and start planning for this change in earnest.
The next scheduled assembly elections are due in 2022. By then, Sinn Fein will probably be the largest party and, if votes for Irish nationalist parties outweigh those for unionists, it will be impossible to deny a referendum on the North’s constitutional status, as provided for in the Good Friday Agreement.
As soon as its clear nationalism has the votes, there will have to be a border poll and a majority for Irish unity sees Northern Ireland ceasing to exist
This is all fairly predictable and the main British parties need to make an explicit manifesto commitment to hold a border poll in the likelihood of this happening.
Long-term population changes make reunification inevitable in any event. Northern Ireland was created as a Protestant-Unionist fief in 1921 and was governed like that for the first half century of its existence, with Catholic-Nationalists frozen out of every level of political and economic decision-making.
Now, Catholics outnumber Protestants among the under-35s and at every level of the education system - from nurseries to universities. Structurally, the game is up for Unionism. The future belongs to Nationalists. Unionists’ sheer lack of generosity towards them (evidenced in the currently row over the denial of an Irish language act) guarantees Unionism will never have much crossover appeal – and has left it too late to change tack.
And forget the DUP’s deal with the Tories – that’s little more than a discountable footnote in British political history. The Tories regard them as little more than useful idiots, easily bought off with a dollop of public money that, in all likelihood, was coming to Northern Ireland anyway.
The DUP’s Arlene Foster has proven to be comprehensively out of her depth as the de facto leader of political Unionism. Forced to account for her role in introducing the Renewable Heat Incentive Fiasco - the bungled commercial energy scheme which has wracked-up a £700million liability - she brought the DUP to near cataclysm. Her party has seen the future. But it isn’t orange.
It is highly likely that the independent review into the fiasco, led by retired judge Sir Patrick Coghlin, will park this mess squarely at her door and she will be gone for good in the next 12 months.
Across the Irish Sea, the likelihood of a second referendum on Scottish independence in the next few years remains very real. Having narrowly lost in 2014, nationalist demands for separation have been turbo-charged by the anger of pro-European Scots who resent being forced out of the EU by the English. Given the Scottish antecedents of many Ulster Protestants, the psychological blow of ‘losing’ their kith and kin would be catastrophic.
As if that wasn’t enough, it is entirely feasible to see Jeremy Corbyn – a long-term Irish republican sympathiser – emerging as Prime Minister if Theresa May’s shambolic government collapses before 2022 (a near racing certainty). In case unionists hadn’t noticed, we are truly through the looking glass these days.
No wonder Gerry Adams feels it’s now safe to retire.
In contrast, Northern Ireland, as a concept, limps on to its centenary in 2021. There will be little to celebrate. We are now in injury time. As soon as its clear nationalism has the votes, there will have to be a border poll and a majority for Irish unity sees Northern Ireland ceasing to exist.
Is it really that simple?
Yes, aided, I would argue, by the sheer paucity of coherent arguments for retaining the Union. It could be suggested this has long been the case, but even the most objective analyst would now question how and why the place will, or should, endure. The argument for the constitutional status quo hangs by a gossamer thread.
Irish unity is now a medium term probability. Within five years, it will have gained unstoppable momentum. When we look back, it will be clear that 2017 was the moment everything changed.