A united Ireland is a proposed sovereign state covering all of the thirty-two traditional counties of Ireland. The island of Ireland currently includes the territories of the Republic of Ireland, which covers 26 counties, and the part of the United Kingdom that is Northern Ireland, which covers the remaining six. A united Ireland, fully independent of the United Kingdom, is supported by many Irish nationalists. Conversely, unionists and British nationalists oppose this and support Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom.
Several different models for reunification have been suggested; the three most common include: a system of government akin to the federalism practiced in Switzerland (e.g. the Éire Nua ("New Ireland") proposal), a confederation, and a unitary state. Article 15.2 of the Constitution of Ireland (enacted in 1937) provides for the possibility of devolution within the present unitary Irish state, originally intended to absorb the old Parliament of Northern Ireland institutions.
In demographic terms, the six counties of Northern Ireland taken as a whole contain a majority of Ulster Protestants who almost all favour continued union with Great Britain, although individually four of the six have Irish Catholic majorities and majorities voting for Irish nationalist parties. The religious denominations of the citizens of Northern Ireland are only a stereotypical guide to their likely political preferences, as there are both Protestant nationalists and Catholic unionists. Surveys identify a significant number of Catholics who favour the union without identifying themselves as unionists or British. Some surveys show a majority of Catholics favouring the union. Recent immigrants, and their descendants, some of whom are neither Catholic nor Protestant, have differing views on the issue.
The majority of people in Ireland rejected British rule in the last all-Ireland election, where all-Ireland independence was heavily endorsed in the UK general election of 1918 in Irish constituencies that resulted in overwhelming support for the full independence party, Sinn Féin. This election result led to the founding of the nascent all-Ireland Irish Republic state which fought the Irish War of Independence (1919–1921). The war ended with the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. These terms resulted in the dissolution of the Irish Republic, which had received little recognition internationally, and acceptance of partial independence for 26 counties, known as the Irish Free State. These 26 counties finally achieved full independence in 1949, becoming the Republic of Ireland.
In political terms, the British monarch and government were reluctant to withdraw their jurisdiction from the whole of the island; for example, to serve as a politician (TD) in the Free State, all elected officials were required, under the Treaty, to pledge fidelity to the British monarch. British policy since 1949 has been to agree to Irish unity only with the consent of a majority in Northern Ireland.
While 26-county Irish governments, particularly under Éamon de Valera, declared themselves in favour of a united Ireland throughout the 20th century, the prospect of a united Ireland assumed particular importance following the outbreak of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s. All major political parties in Britain and in both parts of Ireland now accept the principle that a united Ireland can be achieved only with the consent of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland, known as the principle of consent. Sinn Féin (who were associated with the main Irish republican paramilitary group, the Provisional IRA, during the Troubles) favour a united Ireland, as does the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in Northern Ireland. In 1999, Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution were amended to abandon the Republic's territorial claim on Northern Ireland, although it still refers to itself officially as 'Ireland'.
A united Ireland outside of the UK is opposed by all unionist and Ulster loyalist parties and paramilitary groups in the UK. The UK government is committed under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to following the wishes of the majority of the Northern Ireland population, a position accepted by all other signatories to the Good Friday Agreement and now enshrined in the Irish constitution.
Kings and High Kings
Before the coming of the Normans, there existed the title of Ard Rí (High King), usually held by the Uí Néill, but this was more of a ceremonial title denoting a sort of "first among equals", rather than an absolute monarchy and unitary state as developed in England and Scotland. Most were described in the records as king "with opposition". Nevertheless, several strong characters imbued the office with real power, most notably Máel Sechnaill mac Maíl Ruanaid (845–860), his son Flann Sinna (877–914) and Flann's great-grandson Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill (979–1002; 1014–1022), Brian Boru (1002–1014), Muircheartach Ua Briain (1101–1119), and Toirdhealbhach Ua Conchobhair (1119–1156).
What prevented the consolidation of truly national power even by the Ard Rí was the fact that the island was divided into a number of autonomous, fully independent kingdoms ruled by rival dynasties. The most powerful of these kingdoms in the immediate pre-Norman era were Aileach, Brefine, Mide, Leinster, Osraige, Munster and Connacht. In addition to these, there were a number of lesser subject kingdoms such as Airgialla, Uladh, Brega, Dublin, Desmond, and Uí Maine. Many of these kingdoms and lordships retained, at the very least, some degree of independence until the 17th century.
In 1168–72, the Norman invasion of Ireland ended with the acceptance by some of the Gaelic kings and bishops of the unitary rule of Henry Plantagenet as Lord of Ireland. In 1297 the first Parliament of Ireland sat, modelled on the Norman–English parliament but only representing large landowners and merchants. However, by 1300 the Norman system was breaking down and Norman lords and the former Gaelic dynasties reasserted local control in their areas. By 1500 the area directly controlled by the Lordship had reduced to the Pale. The power of the lords deputy had become similar to the former high kings "with opposition", and they could only succeed in alliances with the local dynasties.
Under King Henry VIII, the Tudor conquest of Ireland included the establishment of the Kingdom of Ireland in 1541–42. The dynasties were to be included in the system and use English law, and the process took decades of treaty negotiations and wars, ending with the Plantation of Ulster that started in 1607.
Confederate Ireland 1642–49
The next significant moment occurred in 1642 when the Confederate Association of Ireland – an Irish Catholic government formed to fight the Irish Confederate Wars, assembled at Kilkenny and held an all-Ireland assembly. The Confederates did rule much of Ireland up to 1649, but were riven by dissent in later years over whether to ally themselves with the English and Scottish Royalists in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Ultimately, they dissolved their Association in favour of unity with the Royalists, an alliance that was in an agreed upon return for religious toleration and political autonomy for Ireland. The royalists however were defeated in the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, and from 1653 to 1660 Ireland was united for the first time under a British parliamentary government, ruling from London.
Although ruled by Britain, Ireland was a united political entity from the end of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in 1653 until 1921. Until the Constitution of 1782, Ireland was placed under the effective control of the British-appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland due to restrictive measures such as Poynings' Law. From 1541 to 1801, the island's political status was that of the Kingdom of Ireland in personal union with the English (and later the British) Crown. Under the leadership of Henry Grattan, the Parliament of Ireland (still dominated by the Ascendancy) acquired a measure of autonomy for a time. After the UK Act of Union, of 1800, Ireland became part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, a single entity, with the act removing the powers of the Parliament of Ireland, upon which time only one, consolidated, UK Parliament sat in London.
Ireland was last undivided at the outbreak of World War I after national self-government in the form of the Third Home Rule Act 1914, won by John Redmond leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party was placed on the statute books, but suspended until the end of the war. It was amended to partition Ireland for six years following the objections of Irish Unionists.
In the Irish general election, 1918, the republican Sinn Féin political party won the vast majority of seats in Ireland. The newly elected Sinn Féin candidates did not take their seat in Westminster; instead they formed a republican assembly in Dublin called Dáil Éireann which declared Irish independence in January 1919. Its claims over the entire island were, however, not accepted by northern Unionists. Under the Anglo-Irish Treaty the Irish Free State became in 1922 the name of the state covering twenty-six counties in the south and west, replacing the Irish Republic, while six counties in the northeast remained within the United Kingdom under the Government of Ireland Act 1920. According to some historians, Sinn Féin had no special policy towards Ulster despite its different religious and political make-up, regarding it as an integral part of an Irish republic.
By the end of the First World War, several moderate unionists came to support the Home Rule movement, believing that it was the only way to keep a united Ireland in the United Kingdom. The Irish Dominion League opposed partition of Ireland into separate southern and northern jurisdictions, while arguing that the whole of Ireland should be granted dominion status with the British Empire.
In 1925, the Boundary Commission that was established to fix the future line of the border had to be rescued by an intergovernmental deal signed on 3 December. Essentially the Irish Free State's share of the UK national debt was waived by Britain in exchange for the border remaining as defined in the 1920 Government of Ireland Act. Winston Churchill told the Irish High Commissioner to the United Kingdom in 1946: "I said a few words in parliament the other day about your country because I still hope for an united Ireland. You must get those fellows in the north in, though; you can't do it by force. There is not, and never was, any bitterness in my heart towards your country". He later said "You know I have had many invitations to visit Ulster but I have refused them all. I don't want to go there at all, I would much rather go to southern Ireland. Maybe I'll buy another horse with an entry in the Irish Derby". Subsequently, but without reference to the financial aspect of the deal, the Free State, and its successor, the Republic of Ireland (declared in 1949), both claimed that Northern Ireland was part of their territory, but did not attempt to force reunification, nor did they claim to be able to legislate for it. In 1998, following the Good Friday Agreement (also known as the Belfast Agreement), the Republic voted to amend Articles 2 and 3 of its constitution so that the territorial claim was amended with a recognition of the Northern Ireland people's right to self-determination.
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The leading political parties in the Republic of Ireland, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael (more so the former however), have often made a united Ireland a part of their political message. It is also a main focus of Sinn Féin in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in the latter.
In contrast, the Unionist community – composed primarily of Protestants in the six counties that form Northern Ireland – opposes unification. All of the island's political parties (except for tiny fringe groups with little electoral representation) have accepted the principle of consent, which states that Northern Ireland's constitutional status cannot change without majority support in Northern Ireland.
Many Unionist Protestants in Northern Ireland argue they have a distinct identity that would be overwhelmed in a united Ireland. They cite the decline of the small Protestant population of the Republic of Ireland since independence from the United Kingdom, the economic cost of unification, their place in a key international player within the UK and their mainly non-Irish ancestry. Unionist people in Northern Ireland primarily find their cultural and ethnic identity from the Scottish and English planters, whose descendants can be found in the three counties of Ulster which are governed by the Republic of Ireland. Such individuals celebrate their Scots heritage each year like their counterparts in the other six counties. While Catholics in general consider themselves to be Irish, Protestants generally see themselves as British, as shown by several studies and surveys performed between 1971 and 2006. Many Protestants do not consider themselves as primarily Irish, as many Irish nationalists do, but rather within the context of an Ulster or British identity. A 1999 survey showed that a little over half of Protestants felt "Not at all Irish", while the rest "felt Irish" in varying degrees.
Given that all significant political parties and both the UK and Irish governments support the Principle of Consent the final choice is one for the people of Northern Ireland, alone, to decide. Meanwhile, in certain instances there is already a degree of Irish unity. For example, the Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church are both organised on an all Ireland basis. The Irish rugby football, cricket and international rules teams are drawn from both north and south. Members of the Irish Defence Forces and the Irish Guards regiment in the British Army are drawn from north and south of the border.
Currently, both the Irish and British governments are creating a number of all-island bodies and services, such as the all-island electricity network from November 2007, to be followed by the all-island gas network. Besides these services, governmental bodies such as The Loughs Agency, Waterways Ireland, InterTradeIreland and the North/South Ministerial Council have been set up; with more planned in the near future. Recently, politicians have called for there to be an all-island corporation tax of 12.5% (currently the Republic's corporation tax – the lowest in the European Union), to boost Northern Ireland's economy. Other politicians have called for an all-island telecommunications network, especially within regard to mobile phones. The Irish government are currently investing over €1 billion in Northern Ireland as well, especially in the West, around Derry. Investments include upgrading City of Derry Airport (at a cost of €11 million), building a Letterkenny/Derry–Dublin motorway or high-quality dual carriageway, reopening the Ulster Canal, and improving cancer services in the region for those in the region itself, but also people from County Donegal in the Republic.
Following the United Kingdom European Union membership referendum, 2016, Irish politicians began the discussion regarding possible changes to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. There are several key issues related to the United Kingdom withdrawal from the European Union, including the establishment of a new external border of the European Union, or the withdrawal of access, to Northern Ireland, of the regional development assistance scheme (and new funding thereof) from the European Union. Sinn Féin has used these concerns, which saw the North vote majority "Remain" in the referendum, as the basis for new discussion on possible unification in the future. These calls were rejected by the British government and Unionist politicians, with Theresa Villiers arguing that there was no evidence that opinion in the North had shifted towards being in favour of a united Ireland.
In Northern Ireland
Opinion polls of the Northern Ireland population have consistently shown majorities opposed to a United Ireland and in support of Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom. For example, the 2013 annual Northern Ireland Life and Times survey conducted by the Queen's University Belfast and Ulster University found that a united Ireland was the favoured long term option of 15% of the population while remaining part of the United Kingdom was the favoured long term option of 66% of the population.
In 1973, the population of Northern Ireland was granted a referendum on whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom or join with the Republic of Ireland to form a united Ireland. The result was 98.9% in favour of union with the rest of the UK, but the poll was overwhelmingly boycotted by nationalists, and the turnout was therefore 58.7%. The pro-UK vote did however represent 57.5% of the entire electorate, notwithstanding the boycott.
A possible referendum on a united Ireland was included as part of the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. Currently about 40% of the Northern Ireland electorate vote for Irish nationalist parties that oppose the union with Great Britain and support a united Ireland as an alternative, although it is not the only issue at election time so it is difficult to take this figure as a direct indication of levels of support for a united Ireland.
A 2011 survey by Northern Ireland Life and Times found that 52% of Northern Irish Catholic respondents favoured union with Great Britain over a united Ireland. This is despite the fact that most Catholics who vote do so for political parties that are Nationalist.
Since Brexit, support for reunification has increased, with 22% of respondents favourable towards reunification, up from 17% in 2013. 43% of Catholics would now back reunification, up from 35% in 2013. According to this survey, support for a referendum stands at 53% of Catholics, while 72% of Protestant respondents were opposed to the idea.
|Belfast City||Greater Belfast||Down||Armagh||Tyrone/Fermanagh||Londonderry||Antrim|
|Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom||60%||77%||66%||64%||53%||55%||84%|
|Northern Ireland to be joined with the Republic of Ireland outside of the United Kingdom||20%||9%||18%||21%||19%||23%||13%|
|Would not vote||11%||11%||12%||10%||21%||16%||1%|
|Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom||65%||53%||66%||62%||70%||74%|
|Northern Ireland to be joined with the Republic of Ireland outside of the United Kingdom||16%||22%||17%||23%||14%||12%|
|Would not vote||18%||20%||11%||9%||12%||7%|
|Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom||92%||38%||60%|
|Northern Ireland to be joined with the Republic of Ireland outside of the United Kingdom||2%||35%||7%|
|Would not vote||4%||18%||27%|
Another opinion poll of 1,089 people conducted by LucidTalk in 2014 around the time of the Scottish Referendum posed several questions, one of which was "If a referendum on Irish Unity was called under the Good Friday Agreement would you vote: Yes for unity as soon as possible, Yes for unity in 20 years, or No for Northern Ireland to remain as it is". The results were as follows.
|Answer||All persons||Religion||Age band|
|Yes, for unity as soon as possible||5.7%||1.8%||9.8%||12.2%||5.5%||3.8%||3.3%|
|Yes, for unity in 20 years||24.0%||9.6%||39.5%||27.8%||26.6%||23.0%||19.7%|
|No for Northern Ireland to remain as it is||44.1%||57.8%||20.7%||36.6%||38.0%||45.6%||53.9%|
|No opinion / would not vote||26.3%||30.8%||30.1%||23.4%||29.9%||27.6%||23.0%|
In the Republic of Ireland
Support for Irish unity is a feature of all major political parties in the Republic of Ireland. Some very small pressure groups do exist, such as the Reform Movement and lodges of the Orange Order in the Republic of Ireland, that are sympathetic to Northern Ireland remaining within the UK for the foreseeable future, but their impact on the broader political opinion is negligible. A Dublin riot in 2006 prevented a march organised by "Love Ulster", though the rioters did not have a wide support base. A minority of politically conservative Catholic writers from the Republic of Ireland, such as Mary Kenny and Desmond Fennell have expressed misgivings about a united Ireland, fearing the incorporation of a large number of Protestants would threaten what they see as the Catholic nature of the Republic. A Red C/Sunday Times poll in 2010 found that 57% are in favour of a united Ireland, 22% say they are opposed, while 21% are undecided. A 2006 Sunday Business Post survey reported that almost 80% of voters in the Republic favour a united Ireland: 22% believe that "achieving a united Ireland should be the first priority of the government" while 55% say they "would like to see a united Ireland, but not as the first priority of government." Of the remainder 10% said no efforts should be made to bring about a united Ireland and 13% had no opinion. This poll was markedly up from one year earlier when a Sunday Independent article reported that 55% would support a united Ireland, while the remainder said such an ambition held no interest.
In October 2015 an opinion poll commissioned by RTÉ and the BBC and carried out by Behaviour & Attitudes asked those in the Republic of Ireland the question "There are a number of possible options for the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. In the short to medium term, do you think Northern Ireland should…" with the following responses,
|In the short to medium term, do you think Northern Ireland should…||Proportion|
|Remain part of the UK, with direct rule from Westminster||9%|
|Remain part of the UK, with a devolved assembly and Executive in Northern Ireland (the current situation)||35%|
|Unify with the rest of Ireland||36%|
|None of these||2%|
|Would you like to see a united Ireland in your lifetime?|
|Yes – would like to see a united Ireland in my lifetime||66%|
|No – would not like to see a united Ireland in my lifetime||14%|
|Would you be in favour or against a united Ireland if it meant ...|
|You would have to pay less tax||There would be no change in the amount of tax you pay||You would have to pay more tax|
|In favour of a united Ireland||73%||63%||31%|
|Against a united Ireland||8%||14%||44%|
In Great Britain
There has been significant support in Great Britain for Ireland to reunify as a political entity. The last British Social Attitudes Survey to ask the question in 2008 found that 34.94% supported Irish reunification while 44.30% supported Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK. The poll was run 19 times between 1983 and 2007, with each result being in favour of Irish unity, then again in 2008 with the result being against Irish unity for the first time. The highest support for unity came in 1994 with 59.36% of the respondents supporting Irish reunification, while 24.09% supported Northern Ireland remaining in the UK.
Political support and opposition for unification
Opposition to reunification comes mainly from Unionist political parties in Northern Ireland, particularly the Ulster Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party. It also comes from loyalist paramilitary groups such as the Ulster Defence Association and Ulster Volunteer Force.
Nationalist parties in Northern Ireland support the independence of Northern Ireland (and of Ireland as a whole) from the United Kingdom and all nationalist parties support a united Ireland in some form. Sinn Féin is currently the largest nationalist party in the Northern Ireland Assembly (and the third largest in the Republic's Dáil). Until recently, it had a policy of violent intervention through the Provisional Irish Republican Army but since the mid-90s had adopted a policy of achieving a united Ireland through constitutional means only. It supports integration of political institutions across the island of Ireland. For example, the party has proposed that Northern Ireland should have some form of representation in the Dáil, with elected representatives from either the Northern Ireland Assembly or the British House of Commons able to participate in debates, if not vote. The major parties in the Republic have rejected this notion on a number of occasions. Should Irish reunification ever occur, Sinn Féin has stated that it would wish to amend the Irish constitution to protect minorities, including the Protestant and Ulster Scots communities, that are already protected by the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Social Democratic and Labour Party had previously been the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland, but has suffered in elections since Sinn Féin abandoned armed politics. As with Sinn Féin, it is committed to achieving a united Ireland. However, throughout its history, it has believed that reunification should be accomplished through constitutional means only. It would support a united Ireland only if a majority of both parts of Ireland voted for it in a referendum. In a united Ireland, the SDLP would support the continuation of a devolved Northern Ireland, governed by a local assembly. Aside from the major parties, Northern Ireland has several minor Nationalist parties. Among these, some parties are tied to paramilitary organisations and seek the reunification of Ireland through armed politics. These include the Irish Republican Socialist Party, which supports a united socialist Irish state and is affiliated with the Irish National Liberation Army. Another such party, Republican Sinn Féin, linked to the Continuity IRA, does not believe that the Irish government or the Northern Ireland Executive are legitimate as neither legislates for Ireland as a whole. Its Éire Nua (in English, New Ireland) policy advocates a unified federal state with regional governments for the four provinces and the national capital in Athlone, a town in the geographic centre of Ireland. None of these parties has significant electoral support.
Republic of Ireland
Historically the largest party in the Republic, and the governing party for most of the last 80 years, Fianna Fáil has supported reunification since its foundation, when it split from Sinn Féin in 1926 in protest at the party's policy of refusal to accept the legitimacy of the partitioned Irish state. However, in its history since, it has differed on how to accomplish it. Fianna Fáil rejected the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, which gave the Republic of Ireland an advisory role in Northern Ireland, claimed the agreement was in conflict with the then Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution of Ireland because it recognised Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. It later oversaw the removal of these articles from the constitution and today fully supports the Good Friday Agreement, which it negotiated in coalition with the Progressive Democrats (see below). On 17 September 2007 Fianna Fáil announced that the party would, for the first time, organise in Northern Ireland. Ahern said that, "it is time now for this Party to play its full role, to take its proper place, in this new politics – in this New Ireland." By 2009 Martin Mansergh accepted that a united Ireland was not a major priority.
Historically, the second-largest party and, following the 2011 General Election, the largest party in the Dáil, Fine Gael, a descendent of the pro-Anglo-Irish Treaty section of Sinn Féin upon the partition of Ireland, has also supported reunification as one of the its key aims since its foundation. It supports the Good Friday Agreement and had previously negotiated the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
The Labour Party, likewise, has also supported reunification since the foundation of the state, although it has always considered this aim secondary to social causes. It also fully supports the Good Friday Agreement, and supported the Anglo-Irish agreement. The former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, resigned from the Irish Labour Party because she objected to the exclusion of unionists from the talks that led to the 1985 agreement.
The now defunct Progressive Democrats, a liberal party, which split from Fianna Fáil in the mid-1980s, supported reunification since its foundation, but only when a majority of the people of Northern Ireland consent to it. The party fully supported the Belfast Agreement. Former party leader, Mary Harney, was expelled from Fianna Fáil for supporting the Anglo-Irish agreement. The party was one of the key negotiators of the Belfast Agreement.
The Green Party support the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, which takes the possibility of Irish unification into account as the basis of simultaneous referendums on the issue being successful in the Republic and in Northern Ireland. The Green Party are active in both the Republic and Northern Ireland. It currently has two TDs and one senator in the Oireachtas and two MLAs in Stormont.
Sinn Féin is also an active party in the Republic, where its policies towards a united Ireland are the same as in Northern Ireland.
In Great Britain, all major parties support the Good Friday Agreement. Right-wing groups tend to be Unionist in outlook. Left-wing and liberal groups have traditionally been more open to a united Ireland.
Historically, there has been strong support for a united Ireland within the left of the Labour Party, and in the 1980s it became official policy to support a united Ireland by consent. The policy of "unity by consent" continued into the 1990s, eventually being replaced by a policy of neutrality in line with the Downing Street Declaration. The current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn personally supports a united Ireland, although he has said that it is "up for the Irish people to decide" whether to remain part of the UK.
The Conservative Party has traditionally taken a strongly unionist line in relation to the United Kingdom as a whole by opposing nationalism in Scotland and Wales as well as Northern Ireland. Until 1974 they had a parliamentary alliance with the Ulster Unionist Party and the two parties retained formal ties until 1985. The Conservatives' current position is to "[work] in Northern Ireland to restore stable and accountable government based on all parties accepting the principles of democracy and the rule of law." The Conservative Party is the only main UK party to contest elections in Northern Ireland.
The Liberal Democrats have a close relation with the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland and share their policy of supporting the Belfast Agreement whilst expressing reservations about what they perceive as its institutionalised sectarianism.
- Proposed referendum on Irish unity
- Politics of Northern Ireland
- Demography of Northern Ireland
- Protestant Irish Republicans
- The Troubles
- Éire Nua
- Scottish independence
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