“Society is normalizing, and it’s happening quietly, without any big fuss,” Shirlow said, pointing to studies that show that nearly a quarter of long-term romantic relationships in Northern Ireland are between people from different religious communities, and a third of schoolchildren in the region have a nonreligious background. “Taxi drivers tell me now about how on Sunday mornings they are going to the [Protestant] Shankill Road to pick up kids to go visit granny in [Catholic] Ballymurphy.”
Read: The never-ending Brexit crisis
Yet there is nevertheless an urgency to the issue: The consequences of Brexit, in both the short and long term, are unclear. Though the Good Friday Agreement stipulates that the U.K.’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland must call a vote on reunification if he believes there is likely to be a majority for change, in reality the process could be far less predictable and orchestrated. An eventual British withdrawal from the EU could, for example, precipitate Scotland’s seeking, and gaining, independence. Were it to do so, would England, the largest of the U.K.’s constituent nations, want to hold on to distant and troubled Northern Ireland?
“If you have any sense of history,” said Paul Gosling, a Northern Ireland–based English economist who has studied reunification, “you have to recognize that important things can happen quickly and not necessarily in the control of governments.”
If the British government called a “border poll” under the present terms of the Good Friday Agreement, a simple majority would be enough to bring reunification, potentially creating a large, deeply alienated, and possibly violent unionist minority in a newly united Ireland. In light of the bitterness created by the U.K.’s narrow vote for Brexit, some politicians have called for further electoral measures to ensure that such a vote had broad consent, either through a supermajority of, say, 60 percent or through some form of “parallel consent” in Northern Ireland to ensure that both communities were, at least in part, on board with the measure.
But none of these suggestions address the possibility of a chaotic and unintended reunification. The terms of the U.K.’s exit from the EU remain in doubt: The country could leave with a withdrawal deal or without one; on October 31 or months later. It could stay in the EU, and Scotland might leave the U.K. anyway. This uncertainty only feeds fears of what might happen on the island of Ireland.
“Europe and the U.K. are in a muddle, and we could be pitched toward a united Ireland without there being any time to get ready for it,” said Andy Pollak, the former director of the Armagh, Northern Ireland–based think tank Centre for Cross Border Studies. “If it happens that way, it’s going to be messy and angry.”