The spring of the year 2031: and time to draw breath and look back upon the events of an extraordinary decade – and to survey an Ireland which has experienced a transformation.
Few imagined, in those now-distant days before the Brexit referendum, that the constitutional arrangements governing Britain and Ireland would be subject to much by way of alteration in the years to come. The Scottish question had surely been settled – while closer to home, although nobody could exactly say that Stormont was working well, the local parties manifestly enjoyed wielding power and spending money; and seemed, for all their grumbling, tensions and grandstanding, to be in it for the long haul.
But then came the Brexit vote, with the DUP bustling forward in support of a change that – should it come to pass – would subject an ostensibly precious union to unsustainable centrifugal pressures.
And so it came to pass: now, in the year 2031, the United Kingdom is no more, having dissolved with startling rapidity in the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum of 2023. The new Scotland is a member state of the EU – while Northern Ireland itself has vanished entirely off the map. It has instead become part of a unitary Irish state – which is not to say that it has been absorbed by the Republic; far from it. Rather, the two parts of Ireland were melded into one.
An innovative Irish process of evolution and development, indeed, caught the attention of the world. Was this a new ‘Second Republic’, a new ‘Springtime of Peoples’? – the terms were indeed bandied about by the pundits, alongside references to the 1848 Year of Revolutions. Indeed, the phrase Second Republic even made it into the preamble to the new draft Irish Constitution – until historians observed that the French ‘Second Republic’ of 1848 had lasted a mere three years; the nomenclature was dropped hastily.
That this Irish transformation has taken place so smoothly, peacefully and rapidly owes much to the influence of the Citizens’ Conventions. Earlier in the century, these had eased the passing of legislative changes – marriage equality, abortion rights – that had once seemed inconceivable in Ireland. It was taken as read that the politicians on the island of Ireland could not and would not be charged with delivering the necessary transformation – and besides, they didn’t want the job. It was up to the Citizens: and their brief? To bring together the best of both parts of Ireland – and to discard the worst.
We can all remember the anxiety of interest groups north and south of what had been the Irish border, as the Citizens’ Conventions deliberated – and the frenetic lobbying that took place against the range of proposals tabled, including:
- An Irish NHS-style public health system that was free at the point of need, and the nationalization of the network of private hospitals in the Republic;
- an island-wide removal of church influence from the education system, plus the abolition of Northern Ireland’s grammar schools and of the Republic’s fee-charging schools – and the creation of a single-tier secular, comprehensive system;
- a planning system that – in the aftermath of a series of ferocious storms and devastating floods that took lives and destroyed livelihoods – placed the environment front and centre;
- the elimination of homelessness by the provision of a Constitutional guarantee of homes for all.
These interest groups mobilized in defense of the status quo. In the Republic, earnest newspaper columns declared that the proposals were fanciful – and the costs of unification insupportable. In the North, former First Minister Arlene Foster – now Baroness Dernawilt – repeated her threat to leave the island if unification became a reality.
And yet these lobbying attempts failed.
In the aftermath of the Covid public health disaster, it had become widely – if sometimes tacitly – accepted in Northern Ireland that the province was ungovernable, that Stormont was simply not up to the task, that other arrangements would simply have to be found. That this place, this century-old entity, was a lost cause – and this, even before Scottish independence sealed this understanding.
In the Republic, meanwhile, the Citizens’ Conventions had revealed a population jaded by the status quo, by rising social inequality, by the creaking structures of a chronically over-centralized state – and evidently willing to embrace the deep structural changes that were being proposed.
In both parts of Ireland, the agricultural sector, already familiar with the idea of an all-island economy – and alarmed by the rapid environmental changes that were ruining farming livelihoods – was willing to think big and radical. The tourism sector, which had been beggared by Covid, was thrilled by such proposals as an all-Ireland coastal path, and spoke with enthusiasm of the island as a new green tourist mecca. The GAA threw its weight behind the wave of change; so too did small-town Ireland, its enthusiasm heightened by the prospect of a new federal system of governance that returned power to local level and of new jobs relocating from Dublin and Belfast. It was also understood that the radical Green Energy schemes to be rolled out nationwide would transform regional Ireland – and the rest is history.
Other factors also helped to sell the notion of an Ireland transformed, an Ireland of the future. Generous EU structural funds were made available; and the notion of austerity was finally ditched – in Ireland as elsewhere in the aftermath of the Covid economic catastrophe – in favour of a return to Keynesian models of deep borrowing and long-term infrastructural spending.
It’s true that not everybody in the former Northern Ireland is pleased with the new world in which they dwell: there are no fairytale endings in this real world. But even this constituency can appreciate the way the cards fall: for this altered dispensation has placed the Northern Party – one of a number of new political parties that have forever altered the shape of Irish politics – at the centre of parliamentary arithmetic, and set to hold the balance of power in Dublin for the foreseeable future. As many have reflected: what an irony!
Neil Hegarty’s novels include The Jewel and Inch Levels; and his non-fiction works include The Story of Ireland, which accompanies the BBC-RTE television history of Ireland. Born in Derry, he now lives in Dublin. Don’t miss Neil Hegarty’s Imagine! event on 24th March at 7.30pm.