The “end zone” for Northern Ireland is approaching in terms of a Border poll and Irish unity, according to political commentator Kevin Meagher.
The 100th anniversary of partition was marked this month, but Mr Meagher says “there's not going to be many more anniversaries”.
Mr Meagher, who was a special adviser to former Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward, told breakingnews.ie the renewed push for Scottish independence is a sign of what is to come in Ireland.
“There's a lot of people looking past Northern Ireland. I think what will come out in the wash here is that when the SNP and parties in favour of independence secure a majority in the Scottish parliament, there'll be a tilt and people will start to say, 'that's it, the UK state is going to change'. You can't ignore a result like that.”
While Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar have said that a Border poll will occur around 2029 at the earliest, Mr Meagher feels Sinn Féin's growing popularity could accelerate that timeline.
“We're in that end zone and in the next few years, you can imagine a scenario where they're talking of an early election in the North, one last hurrah to try and galvanize unionists in the centenary year.
“If Sinn Féin top the poll, if there's a change of composition in the Irish Government and Sinn Féin end up in the mix there, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have done everything to keep them out, but there's a point where the dam breaches and one of them will be racing over to Mary Lou McDonald to make a deal.
“Even within the next year there could be a scenario where you have Sinn Féin in government in the North and in the South as well. I keep saying to people these things are not as far away as they may think. If that were to happen, the demand for a Border poll would become very immediate.
“It would be better if we were all planning for this for a period of time first, but the electorate may overtake things here. Within the next five years I think we'll be in a position where a Border poll is close.”
Mr Meagher feels there are three “interconnected elements” that will determine the push for Irish unity.
“One is opinion of people in the North (theoretically this is all that's necessary to trigger a Border poll) so if you ended up with a majority of parties that were at least committed to a Border poll, testing opinion maybe off a census could be a plan.
“It's a bit like eBay, buyers have to be willing to collect.
“Then there's the Republic, I suspect in Dublin the situation is where everyone is theoretically in favour, they're hesitant about doing it immediately but if events overtook it you'd suddenly find everyone was in favour all along. If Sinn Féin are in government that will accelerate this element.
“The third element is Westminster and British opinion. I think British opinion, and I don't say this flippantly, but I don't think the British public give a damn about Northern Ireland. I don't think they ever have, I think they'd be quite happy if it went tomorrow. I think there's ample polling that shows that, even Brexit polls showed that when people were asked if they'd mind if it would mean losing Northern Ireland, they were still in favour of Brexit.
“I think Westminster at that point would say, here is the choreography that we've been fumbling with for 100 years. The Irish have taken ownership of the mechanism themselves, and they'd be happy to facilitate it at that point.”
While the likes of British prime minister Boris Johnson regularly defend the union of the United Kingdom, Mr Meagher feels it may not be an insurmountable stance.
“I don't think there'd be a lot of political backlash at all. The Conservative Party is a different beast, there'd be a bit of huffing and puffing and all the rest but as we saw with the Northern Ireland Protocol, it's all empty rhetoric. You've got a few British nationalists like Michael Gove and Boris Johnson who like a bit of colour and all the rest, but these are the two people who unionists say have betrayed them over the protocol.
“I think Westminster has always been looking for the choreography and not wanting to talk about it but if Dublin and the North are in the right place, and they can get it across the line, I think those three elements would click together quite quickly.
Scottish independence referendum
“The thing that nobody pays attention to is what happened in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. Nobody's learnt the lesson, which is why we're back there in Scotland.
“I don't underestimate unionists, but there's something galvanizing about a referendum on something like this, there's something energizing about the birth of a nation.
“The kind of people who are soft nationalists, or in two minds about it, would fall into the vote for change camp quite quickly and quite emphatically and the opinion polls that we've seen would show support in the low 40s, over the next five years or so that will continue to creep up the more real it becomes and the more talk there is about it.”
Mr Meagher said that talk about how a United Ireland would look is evidence in itself that the Republic and North are moving in that direction.
“When questions about the NHS, an all-Ireland economy, symbols or whatever when these issues are discussed I think it will be a lot more real and support will start to climb. Then it's in the hands of moderate people from a protestant/unionist tradition, they'll be the clinchers for this, and then it's a question of 'should we have a single Irish state?' If people feel that will be more prosperous, it's not going to bother people as much.
“Maybe it will for the people on the Shankill Road but for the people who are more moderate they will see things like being back in the European Union, perhaps more jobs and better opportunities.
“For example, a farmer trying to hold onto the family farm. If they think Boris has shafted them now it will be much worse next year with farming subsidies. When EU funding goes Northern Irish farmers will have to make their case and ask for what they had before, they won't get it. Boris Johnson will be concerned about rebuilding the economy after Covid and levelling up in terms of investing money in the north of England, Northern Irish farmers won't be part of that equation.
“Pragmatic politics will enter this. There's what you want in life, and there's also what you can live with. You might think, 'I'm not going to fall over myself voting for a United Ireland but if it happens, I can live with that'.
“It could be something much more dynamic than Northern Ireland is. People on the Shankhill Road won't be forced to fly the tricolour, this is something where there's a deal to be had about autonomy, protection of culture and all the rest of it.”
Mr Meagher feels a United Ireland will be a big issue in the next Irish General Election, adding that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will have to take it just as seriously as Sinn Féin.
“We're at the stage where people are talking about how things would work. It's in the hands of voters, and it could be an issue in elections as early as this summer.
“Jim O'Callaghan [Fianna Fáil] and Neale Richmond [Fine Gael], they're seen as outriders for their parties but they both have decent ideas, showing the biggest challenge is a hearts and minds thing. We can't underestimate the issues for unionists and how dislodging it may be, but this is all subject to the principle of consent, it's all flagged in the Good Friday Agreement.”
Mr Meagher said the Good Friday Agreement can provide a “blueprint” for the peaceful transition to a United Ireland.
“In terms of the logistics of Irish reunification this is reasonably straightforward, this is not a huge place like East Germany where you're talking 18 million people.
“This is 1.8 million, a tenth of that, you've got good infrastructure, you've got a lot of positive assets. The Irish economy is one of the most dynamic in the western world. If you support that with direct investment from America, Northern Ireland will struggle because of Brexit, but the EU would also have to contribute.
“In terms of public administration that's the easy bit. You can see how the North can integrate into an Irish state, but also what's valuable in terms of political agency? Lots of people are saying we need to keep Stormont, but my argument is that's the last thing that should be done, there's no point having a zombie parliament 90 minutes up the road from Dublin.
“What you need is strength in local government and perhaps even the incorporation of the British model of metro mayors [local authorities], which is something that would fit quite well, unionists need a sense of autonomy. That would work really well for cities such as Cork and Galway as well. Ireland is over-centralised.
“The metro mayor gives more powers to sub-regions rather than just towns and cities, unionists need to be given something meaningful rather than something tokenistic. Keeping Stormont would be tokenistic, but strength in local government would be more meaningful.”
Mr Meagher said the North has been neglected by British government for years, but he feels it will dominate more attention from Westminster in the next few years.
“Northern Ireland will start to take up a lot more time in Westminster now. It's going to take a lot of effort to make it work because it is a hybrid of UK state and EU anyway, the discussion about unity is not a flash in the pan.
“Northern Ireland consumed enormous amount of political time during the Troubles and the peace process, then there's been a period where Westminster has coasted off the back of the Good Friday Agreement.
“It's a great achievement, but there was a kind of 'oh great, that's sorted' attitude.
“The Good Friday Agreement is a promise of something else and this is where republicans and nationalists are looking at that.
“Devolution works in part but it's not a permanent solution. Managing this endgame scenario will take some real skill at Wetsminster.
"Some of the drivers for this may be more quickly apparent than some in Westminster will be comfortable with, but they're going to have to run to catch up.”
Mr Meagher said recent scenes of violence in the North were worrying, however, he said these pockets of unrest should not be seen as a reason to slow down discussion around a Border poll.
“The Good Friday Agreement is a weather vane, it points in slightly different directions, now it's pointing south, and it's pointing towards unity. You can't say, 'if we go down that road, there'll be trouble'. That's not acceptable.
“Most unionists know that. Democracies can't be held to ransom by small, disaffected groups that have no rational solution.
“There are bigger forces at play and a lot of unionists will become more realistic the closer it comes. I don't expect political leaders to start talking about it but if they lose the Border poll they'll say, well how do we make the best of it? The day after you will still have the same sky over your head.”
Mr Meagher feels unionists need to be given information about how Irish unity would improve or alter their day-to-day lives beyond the grand political debates.
“Let's have a discussion about providing you with things that will benefit you, jobs, public services and political agency as well as cultural things.
“Strong effective local authorities, you could have people from the unionist tradition in centres of power along with a unionist party representing that tradition in the Dáil.
“The political reality of Sinn Féin's surge shows no sign of dissipating, these issues are being talked about now, it's always going to be there, we've got to have some imagination and goodwill for this next period.
“The relationship between a unified Ireland and Britain will be a unique relationship, but it can be a productive one going forward.
“Unionists have to know they're not being abandoned, what people will find is for nationalists/republicans it won't be great as they think it will be and for unionists/loyalists it won't be as bad as they think it will be. The weather will be the same, and for the most part people will go about their lives the same way.
“There will be a difficult period, but I think we'll get through the democratic process in the next few years and what we'll see is lots of people in political leadership in unionism will acclimatise and see the opportunities.
“They will drive a hard bargain, protection of autonomy and rights, but they will get through it.”
It's a bit like zugzwang in chess where you're not at checkmate yet but there's an inevitability to that point in every move you can make on the board.
While Government insist a Border poll will be nearly 10 years away, Mr Meagher is confident we will see it in half that timeframe.
“Belfast feels more like an Irish city to me now, it feels much closer to the rest of Ireland than Britain.
“It's a bit like zugzwang in chess where you're not at checkmate yet but there's an inevitability to that point in every move you can make on the board. It's not about beating unionism, it's realising demographically, electorally, politically your position is eroding and there's no really good argument for sustaining Northern Ireland any longer than necessary.
“Even people who were not that bothered about constitutional change have been pulled in to thinking there's some grand thing and I can be part of it.
“It's the same with Scottish independence, and even Brexit, that's where the DUP has failed to set any vision that gives Northern Ireland any longevity, and they've been overtaken with the political energy in the North invested in the unity discussion.”
Kevin Meagher's new book 'What A Bloody Awful Country' is available to purchase now