This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly foreign policy newsletter from Inkstick Media. Subscribe here.
“The Irish Unification of 2024” is a one-off reference from a 1990 episode of Star Trek. But eight years before the Good Friday Accords, the episode’s acknowledgment of terrorism as a path to such a political settlement prevented it from being aired on the BBC for 17 years. In late 2022, the question is: What might happen should Ireland and Northern Ireland fall under one government again? This issue is now less science fiction and more plausible policy.
In “Irish Unity: Lessons from Germany?,” Tobias Lock examines the textbook example of national unification in the modern era.
Following World War II, Germany’s Nazi government was driven from power, and the country was divided by the occupying forces of France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union. This division followed in miniature in Berlin, which was otherwise surrounded by the Soviet Zone. The Soviet Zone became the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, while the three other areas became the Federal Republic of Germany or West Germany. This division lasted from 1945 until 1990 when a series of changes began in 1989 and led the last government elected in East Germany to vote for accession to West Germany. The two countries have been one ever since, though many divisions from nearly half a century apart still run deep.
“The German and Irish contexts differ, however, as far as the subjects of unification are concerned: whereas the GDR was a sovereign state and ceased to exist as such on 3 October 1990, Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, which would continue to exist as a state after Irish unification,” writes Lock. “In other words, whereas German unification consisted in the absorption of one state in another, Irish unification would technically be a transfer of sovereignty over territory by one state to another.”
What unification would share is a continued international place for Ireland, which would maintain its relations as it absorbed transferred territory. If such a transfer should occur, Northern Ireland would once again be a party to the European Union, which the United Kingdom left under the policy of Brexit.
One major structural difference is that, whereas East Germany’s parliament was able to unilaterally vote for accession, the existing “Good Friday/Belfast Agreement stipulates that Irish unification requires ‘consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South,’ i.e. two concurrent expressions of consent,” Lock writes.
In structuring such expressions of consent, negotiators could strive to accommodate the hard-won — and already-negotiated — terms of the agreement. One way such a unification could improve upon German reunification would be ensuring that the burdens of constitutional change are not shifted entirely onto the ascending territory.
“Constitutional reform confirmed by a subsequent referendum would have given Germans East and West a greater degree of agency over reunification, which by and large was an event that was happening to them rather than one they were actively able to shape; and it might have demanded that West Germans adapt to at least some changes to their status quo, which — in stark contrast to their East German compatriots — they did not have to grapple with,” Lock writes.
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