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Can Ireland be reunited?

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The question of Irish reunification has been back on the agenda since February, when Michelle O'Neill from the pro-Irish Sinn Féin party became Northern Ireland's prime minister. However, some indications suggest that a referendum on the matter may not take place in the near future.

The United Kingdom is made up of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Will Northern Ireland leave the UK soon?

For centuries, the United Kingdom, mainly Protestant, tried to control Ireland, mainly Catholic, to occupy the entire region. The current border separating the island from Ireland dates back to 1921.

From this date, the Republic of Ireland, which occupies the southern part of the island, becomes independent and Northern Ireland, which occupies the north-eastern part of the island, joins the United Kingdom. However, the situation in Northern Ireland is tense.

A minority of Catholics who felt discriminated against by the British formed a peaceful resistance that was violently suppressed. In response, Irish paramilitary groups were created, including the famous Irish Republican Army (IRA).

The 1960s marked the beginning of a 30-year conflict known as the Troubles. The conflict would result in over 3,500 deaths and 50,000 injuries.

Among the significant events that took place, which can be translated as “Bloody Sunday”, which refers to a peaceful demonstration for civil rights by Catholic nationalists, 14 unarmed civilians were shot dead by British soldiers in Derry on January 30, 1972. This tragic event also inspired U2's song Sunday Bloody Sunday.

To end the “Troubles”, the Good Friday Peace Agreement was signed in 1998. At that time,
The paramilitaries are disarmed, power is shared between nationalists (supporters of Irish reunification) and unionists (supporters of British Northern Ireland) and the border is gradually reopened.

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The agreement also allows everyone born in Northern Ireland to recognize the right to identify and be recognized as Irish or British or both. The agreement also raises the possibility of a reunification referendum.

Brexit in 2016 put the question of reunification back on the agenda. By leaving the European Union, the border between Ireland, a member of the European Union, and Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, became an EU border, where goods are controlled.

The solution found in 2021 was to establish a maritime customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, in other words a commercial border within the United Kingdom. For many unionists, this customs border within the United Kingdom, which only allows goods and not passengers, is unacceptable.

In 2021, Catholics outnumbered Protestants in Northern Ireland for the first time. In May 2022, Sinn Féin, a party that favors reunification with the Republic of Ireland, came out on top in the Northern Irish legislative elections.

However, Michelle O'Neill became Prime Minister of Northern Ireland until February 2024 after the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) refused her seat in protest at the new post-Brexit rules.

Despite this, with Northern Ireland now led by a Prime Minister from Sinn Féin, supporters of a referendum on reunification with the Republic of Ireland are far from having a cup on their lips. Under the Good Friday Agreement, only the British government could organize a referendum on reunification.

Also, to be valid, the referendum must be approved by both parties on the island. However, according to the latest polls, while the “Yes” camp is in the majority in the Republic of Ireland, it remains a minority in Northern Ireland.

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Sinn Féin's victory in the 2022 parliamentary election, which allowed Michelle O'Neill to become Prime Minister of Northern Ireland in 2024, was largely explained by the division of the Unionist vote, which was divided over questions related to the consequences of Brexit, particularly the customs border. Still, it's an important symbolic victory for Republicans.

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