Post-Brexit Northern Ireland, the question of Irish reunification, and a crucial role for social science in the debate

  • Guest Feature

John D Brewer HDSSc, FAcSS, MRIA, FRSE, FRSA Professor of Post Conflict Studies, Queen’s University Belfast, Honorary Professor of Sociology, Warwick University, Honorary Professor Extraordinary, Stellenbosch University 

In this piece John Brewer FAcSS, internationally recognised expert in conflict transformation and Professor of Post Conflict Studies at Queen’s University Belfast, considers some of the tensions and forces that could determine Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit future. John also outlines the important role that social science can and should play in the debate.

When I was an undergraduate in the early 1970s, convergence theory, as it was called, predicted an ever-closer alignment between the two super powers of the USA and the Soviet Union.  Convergence theory represented social science’s response to the Cold War, arguing that the Soviet’s rapid industrialisation would set in train internal political and cultural shifts that would see the two societies converging in key respects. Convergence theory was in effect US social scientists mounting claims that the Soviet Union would become more like America.

It is a matter of debate whether the collapse of Communism nearly two decades later, can be attributed to the tenets of convergence theory; losing the Afghan war had something to do with it as well, with its enormous attendant military and economic costs. But it is clearly the case that the rise of reforming Soviet leadership in Gorbachev and Yeltsin can be linked to internal political, cultural and economic shifts.

The strength of social science is its attention to the drivers of social change that lie within the economy, culture and the polity.  Convergence theory was a good illustration that subsequent events in the Soviet Union may validate.  Convergence theory was poor, however, in dealing with serendipity and the unpredictable.  Chaos theory offers a better example than convergence theory in explaining the subsequent emergence of President Putin and his resurgence of the idea of Greater Russia, with its marked divergences from the West, which the invasion of Ukraine tragically exemplifies.  The mechanisms of unpredictability within otherwise orderly systems are the focus of chaos theory, giving chance a role in social change.

I was reminded of the strengths and weaknesses of convergence theory in social science when, six-months ago, I was asked by a London-based peace and reconciliation think-tank to write a briefing paper on whether there is a sociological case for reunification in Ireland, similar to the well-argued and popular economic case for reunification.

It is only with hindsight that social scientists see inexorable logic working to bring about some endpoint. However, social scientists do ask pertinent questions about social change even if they cannot predict where it ends. I posed Irish reunification as a question deliberately, since social change in Ireland, North and South, is ongoing, and the impact of the several drivers of social change is not fully discernible when a solitary snapshot is taken at any single point. These drivers include the effects of Brexit; demographic changes that will make Catholics an electoral majority sometime in the mid-2030s ; attitudinal and value change in both parts of Ireland, with new identity formations; the normalisation of cross-border relations, from economic ties and culture to medical care, which in effect reduce the significance of the border, if not eliminate it; and the increasing convergence of the two societies, attendant on the social separation of Northern Ireland from Great Britain to keep it within the European Union sphere as a result solely of its Irish connections.

However, whether or not there is a sociological logic to reunification is not my argument here.  My point is to mark the highly unpredictable and serendipitous nature of Northern Ireland post-Brexit.  Social science chaos theory fits it well. Asking the very question about a sociological case for reunification would not have been possible without Brexit. The unpredictable consequences of Brexit have been chaotic in the North of Ireland.  Convergence is rooted in chaos.

In supporting Brexit, the Democratic Unionist Party alienated those unionists who saw themselves as European, forcing it to rely on a constituency that has narrower forms of loyalty to the UK. It subsequently lost its electoral position as the majority party and cannot nominate the First Minister in a devolved government. It is now a minority of a minority. Middle class Catholics, normally ambivalent about reunification since so many are in jobs paid for by the British Exchequer, now support reunification in larger numbers. Political parties in the South of Ireland and establishment bodies like the Royal Irish Academy have now begun debates about reunification, no longer concerned about frightening the horses in the North. Sinn Fein, as the traditional advocates of reunification, is the largest party with the biggest electoral mandate in the North; it is also the largest party in the South, kept out of power in the South only by a fragile coalition of three parties.  Sinn Fein advocates a return to devolution in a power-sharing government in the North; the DUP does not. It is Sinn Fein that is trying to make Northern politics work, the DUP is not. The absence of a functioning government in the North is having very detrimental consequences for managing the cost-of-living crisis. Sinn Fein is making political advantage of this. Economic hardship will have electoral consequences. The shifts in the political landscape of Northern Ireland are seismic and the endpoint is unpredictable.

The argument of chaos theory, however, is that equilibrium in the system eventually gets restored after the chaos. There is something of this in the DUP’s resistance to resuming power-sharing. The DUP’s reluctance is entirely because it realises the implications of a Brexit which it supported, and which now undermines the position of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom. The DUP insists that sorting out the so-called Protocol – the agreement in law between the European Union and the British government for managing Northern Ireland’s special status within the EU free trade area and custom union – is required first before they will commit to power sharing.  In some senses this is the return to an equilibrium of sorts: to traditional unionist opposition to any weakening of the links with Britain.

The test for any sociological case for reunification will be whether traditional unionist identification with Britain can withstand the drivers of social change that suggest convergence between the North and the South and which push toward reunification.  This does not place Northern Ireland back in 1921-22 at the time of partition. Social science can make a difference to the debates of a century ago. Evidence that there is an all-Ireland economy, now threatened by Brexit, is disputed by traditional unionism. The claim that the Protocol is economically beneficial to the Northern economy is similarly disputed by traditional unionism.  Social science can give us the evidence.  Evidence of value change North and South can be tested and shifts in identity formation can be examined as real or not.

The future of Irish reunification will be determined by the tension between the political case against it and the sociological, economic, cultural and demographic drivers that encourage it. This is a debate for social science.

About the author

Professor Brewer is an internationally recognised expert in peace studies and conflict transformation.  He is the author or co-author of sixteen books, editor or co-editor of a further five, and has well over a hundred peer reviewed articles.  He has lectured across the world and regularly teaches peace and reconciliation workshops in Sri Lanka. John was active in the Northern Irish peace process facilitating the Faith in a Brighter Future Group of leading ecumenical churchmen and women. He has also been involved as a policy advisor on policing reform in South Africa and Northern Ireland.  In 2010, Professor Brewer was appointed to the United Nations Roster of Global Experts for his expertise in peace processes.