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Thursday 30 March 2023 Dublin: 11°C
DPA/PA Images A queue of Trabants passes Checkpoint Charlie on their way to West Berlin in Berlin, Germany, 10 November 1989. Millions of GDR citizens travelled to West Germany for a short visit after the opening of the German-German border on 09/10 November 1989.
Opinion What lessons, if any, can we learn from German reunification in considering a united Ireland?
In the wake of Brexit, as some debate continues about a united Ireland in the future, Dr Thamil Ananthavinayagan looks at the reunification of Germany and the lessons it can provide.

YESTERDAY, IN THE UK, a former cabinet minister, Lord Blunkett predicted that Brexit would “accelerate the possibility of a united Ireland within the next 25 years”. He’s not the first to turn the spotlight onto that subject, nor will he be the last.

What will the future hold in 2021 for the island of Ireland, in this sense? As the Brexit question has only recently been answered politically, one prevailing issue that brought the Brexit talks to the chasm of the abyss and the eventual breakdown of the talks was the status of Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement.

As the political and public landscape is increasingly vested in the discussion on the possibility of a united Ireland - especially against the background of Brexit - the question is: what are the stakes and the perspectives for the reunification of the island?

To this end, some lessons from the German reunification will be drawn upon to discuss to highlight the lessons learnt.

Lessons from Germany

As a young German, I remember the reunification of my country as a seven-year-old child. I remember the images of people hugging their relatives and friends. They cried tears of joy after decades of separation.

I remember the images of the iconic Trabant cars, ‘Trabis’, crossing the border, a border which was a painful reminder to people all around the world of the existence of the Cold War. Germany was the flashpoint of the global trouble for years.

Shortly after, I made my first best friend at elementary school in 1990 who came from the East. I recall how his mother told me – long after they had moved to the western part of Germany – that there was a certain ‘Sehnsucht’ (yearning) for the reunification, and euphoria and hope were penetrating the political landscape – while others were cautious.

reunification-opening-of-the-border DPA / PA Images GDR's border police forces have to cope with an enormous amount of validating passports in Berlin, Germany, 10 November 1989. DPA / PA Images / PA Images

Willy Brandt, Germany’s legendary first social-democratic Chancellor of post-war Germany and former resistance fighter against the Hitler regime, called the reunification of Germany as: ‘es wächst zusammen, was zusammen gehört (‘now what belongs together will grow together)’.

The cost of unification

The Chancellor who oversaw the reunification of Germany, Helmut Kohl, promised ‘blühende Landschaften (blooming landscapes)’ in East Germany.

review-opening-of-the-berlin-wall-in-1989 DPA / PA Images East Berlin mayor Erhard Krack, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, West Berlin mayor Walter Momper and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher make their way through a crowd of people in front of the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, 22 December 1989. DPA / PA Images / PA Images

The German Unification Treaty set the stage for the legal and political changes to follow. It was in fact Germany’s Good Friday Agreement, which ended the Cold War due to the will to political comprise by the powerful states that had to cast their final vote on the reunification.

At the time of the German reunification, Margaret Thatcher famously objected to it citing fears that an enlarged Germany would become too powerful.

Last year, in the midst of the pandemic, Germans ‘celebrated’ the 30th anniversary of German reunification. Fittingly, the German government decided to end the so-called Soli-Zuschlag, the solidarity tax in 2021 for the majority of its tax-paying population (a tax, which generated approx. €18.9 billion in 2018; it was first introduced in 1991 to support the financial costs of the German reunification).

Media pundits, academics and politicians attempted to assess and take stock of the shortcomings and achievements of the German reunification, 30 years after. One voice has offered the nuanced and distinct view that Germany is still an area of two countries: socially, economically and politically; she argues even the civic movements in Germany were elite-driven.

Despite the economic progress in many parts of the eastern part of Germany, one cannot ignore the blind spots.

Many citizens feel abandoned, lacking access to health, infrastructure and employment prospects. They are pessimistic and not convinced in the state’s institutions, while frustration and opinions towards minorities are low.

Exploiting the disenfranchised sentiments, the far-right AfD’s success in this part of Germany is much higher than in the western part of Germany. The Germans in the eastern part feel like second-class citizens in a country that promised to give them blooming landscapes. 

Northern Ireland & the legacy of colonialism

So, what are, if any, are the lessons for this island? One commentator writes: ‘The 2017 Northern Ireland Assembly election showed unionists had lost their majority in Northern Ireland for the first time ever. By the hundredth anniversary of the division of Ireland in 2021, it’s entirely plausible we will have overturned that catastrophe entirely.’

The reality is that the existence of Northern Ireland is not only the remnant of colonialism on the island, it is the Trojan horse of the British Empire. It would go beyond the scope of this article to discuss every facet of the partition of the island in 1921, but the most pressing aspect to stress is that it was not about to happen that the Irish would become “British”, the common strategy the British in their various colonial endeavours.

The English maintained and fostered the colonial antiques of the Empire in the North to create their self-imagined community and affirm their hegemony over the island. The Good Friday Agreement disrupted this hegemony, for a large part at least, as it paved the way for the formal end of colonialism. 

In fact, the Good Friday Agreement stipulates that any consent for a united Ireland must be “freely and concurrently given” in both parts of the island. To this end, ‘this is widely interpreted to mean that future border polls must be held in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland at the same time.’

There are opponents of the reunification of the island of Ireland, and the reasons are manifold. Some fear the fiscal consequences, others political. In fact, a recent poll conducted by Liverpool University and Britain’s Economic and Social Research Council found that a majority of the people in Northern Ireland are against the reunification of the island.

Against this backdrop, there has also been an increase in paramilitary attacks. However,  economic stagnation, Brexit, a leadership vacuum and also the global pandemic have illustrated the need for a coherent and robust response to the challenges the island faces. 

Where to from here?

So, quo vadis? As one who has lived seven years in Ireland now, there are concerns to be considered around a renewed conflict in the case of a reunification and a certain ‘Unbehagen’, a discomfort to foot the bill for Northern Ireland which is largely financially sustained by London. 

Germany – like the island of Ireland – was a hotspot of violence and tensions. The disenfranchisement of large parts of the populace is still prevalent, while there is the necessity of financial aid to sustain the economy and, last but not least, the engagement of powerful actors who had their role to play in the creating peace.

In the Brexit referendum, an affirmation of false imperial grandeur, the voices of Northern Ireland spoke against ‘Empire’, but for a project of peace. And the European Union, to this end, is the crucial guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, a document which foresees populace-led decision-making to find a reflective and self-conscious decision in light of demographic changes.

Eventually it is the populace of the island which deserves its opportunity to make a decision on its own terms to formally end the vestiges of colonialism and decide: that a country can grow together, which was meant to belong together. 

Dr Thamil Venthan Ananthavinayagan, LLM. (Maastricht University), PhD (NUI Galway) is a lecturer for international law, international humanitarian law and international human rights law at Griffith College Dublin.

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Dr Thamil Venthan Ananthavinayagan
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