In 1990, a country of 16 million people became a member of the European Economic Community without any formal accession process. This fast track was possible because East Germany, rather than joining as an independent nation, was merging with an existing member state.
Not all European leaders were enthusiastic about the speed with which German reunification proceeded. Margaret Thatcher famously feared a revitalised single Germany, whilst the Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti is said to have quoted François Mauriac, insisting ‘I love Germany so much, that I like to see two of them’.
But the Irish Taoiseach Charles Haughey – then holding the EEC Presidency – begged to differ, telling the Irish Parliament, the Dáil, in 1989 that, whilst he would not wish to draw an exact corollary between Germany and Ireland, he believed that, as citizens living in a divided country, the Irish ‘would have an underlying sympathy with the efforts of any other people who wish to achieve their reunification.’
Could Northern Ireland imitate the East German example?
Fast forward to 2017 and Charles Haughey’s successor, Enda Kenny, can be found stressing the need for any Brexit deal to preserve the East German route to EU membership. For Irish nationalists, it’s important to emphasise that, in the event of a future border poll returning a vote in favour of a united Ireland, Northern Ireland’s re-admittance to the EU would be just as smooth as the German process 27 years ago.
In March, this apparently fairly abstruse point was highlighted during an exchange between the SDLP MP Mark Durkan and the Brexit Secretary David Davis at the Commons Exiting the EU Select Committee. Mr Davis decided not to give Mr Durkan an off-the-cuff answer. However, in a subsequent written reply, he said that if the people of Northern Ireland voted to leave the UK, they would ‘be in a position of becoming part of an existing EU member state, rather than seeking to join the EU as a new independent state’. The Brexit Secretary added that it would then be up to the European Commission ‘to respond to any specific questions about the procedural requirements for that to happen’.
Notwithstanding the Spanish Foreign Minister’s recent indication that Madrid would not veto a bid by an independent Scotland to join the EU, the East German precedent appears to put the two parts of the UK which voted ‘Remain’ in very different categories regarding their potential European futures. One would have to apply and go through normal accession procedures to becoming a new EU member, the other could theoretically become an EU member automatically.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that everyone born in Northern Ireland is entitled to an Irish, and therefore EU, passport, something which Brexit won’t change. And the European Commission’s Chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has indicated that the EU will not tolerate anything which disrupts peace and dialogue in Ireland.
How likely is an EU fast track in practice?
But before concluding that – in contrast to Scotland – Northern Ireland is on an EU fast track, you need to consider some homegrown obstacles.
Enda Kenny and Mark Durkan’s ‘East German’ example assumes a vote for a united Ireland in a future border poll. However, the last time the BBC commissioned an opinion poll on the topic was in September last year, three months after the Brexit referendum. The results suggested 63% of people in Northern Ireland would back staying in the UK whilst only 22% would opt for a united Ireland. At that stage only 17% of those polled reckoned the vote to leave the EU had changed their mind regarding a future border poll in Ireland.
In recent weeks, there has been a lot of talk about the political tectonic plates moving, with the triggering of Article 50 and the UK government turning down Nicola Sturgeon’s request for a fresh independence referendum.
In Northern Ireland, this was viewed in the light of unionists losing their long held majority in the Stormont assembly, and Gerry Adams expressing the view that Sinn Féin’s surge in the Assembly election in March made a United Ireland seem more ‘doable’. Newspaper reports also pointed to demographic changes, with Catholics in Northern Ireland increasingly outnumbering Protestants in younger age groups.
Some of the polarising politics Northern Ireland has seen in recent months over Brexit, the Irish language and how to handle the legacy of the Troubles has undoubtedly risked alienating some crucial swing voters in any future border poll. These are the Catholics whose satisfaction with the status quo depends not just on a strong economy or the NHS, but also the maintenance of a society which can comfortably accommodate their Irish or Northern Irish identity.
Nevertheless, the 63% to 22% lead suggested by last year’s opinion poll remains a sizeable challenge for Irish nationalists to overcome before East German history becomes at all relevant. Northern Ireland’s potential re-entry to the EU may appear smoother than Scotland’s, but a border poll breaking the link with the UK still seems a relatively distant prospect.
In the immediate future, the debate in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic will not be about triggering a border poll. Instead, it will concentrate on what kind of practical arrangements can be put in place regarding cross-border trade, travel and future EU funding, arrangements which recognise what the EU’s draft Brexit guidelines refer to as Northern Ireland’s ‘unique circumstances’.
That said, if Irish nationalists do find themselves campaigning during a future border poll in soft unionist territory, they may find ‘A European Union Once Again’ proves a better slogan for them to try than the old Irish republican battle anthem of ‘A Nation Once Again’.
BBC Northern Ireland
Mark Devenport has been BBC Northern Ireland Political Editor since 2001 and was the first Chair of the Stormont Correspondents’ Association. He presents Inside Politics on BBC Radio Ulster and writes a regular blog for the BBC on the big Stormont stories and politicians making the news.