Ireland and Cyprus couldn’t be further apart geographically in the European Union. But many striking similarities have existed between the two islands for decades. After the Brexit result, the island of Ireland is edging ever closer to becoming a mirror image of its Mediterranean sister.
Though Ireland and Cyprus have their own unique histories and complexities, there are several striking similarities between them. Even the Northern state in Ireland can be compared with Cyprus. Communities in the North of Ireland and Cyprus are divided on religious and cultural lines and have been scarred by conflict. Walls divide in Nicosia as they do in Belfast.
And soon, both islands could have a border with a jurisdiction outside the EU. The Republic of Cyprus which encompasses the whole island of Cyprus is an EU member but the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) is currently not within the control of the Cypriot government and is effectively not in the European Union.
Currently, along the Irish border, there is fear, anticipation and much speculation amongst citizens about the consequences of Brexit. Most don’t want to see a return to a militarised border. But with the UK government advocating a hard Brexit and emphasising the immigration aspect of the Brexit vote, the border question is not yet settled.
Sinn Féin, which campaigned for a remain vote, has renewed calls for a border poll, but talk of Irish reunification has been brushed off by Unionist leaders. But the door to talking about unity has been opened again. People in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, defying the Unionist parties who campaigned for a leave vote. People Before Profit, one of the leading radical left voices in Irish politics, which now has two members of the North’s Legislative Assembly, also advocated leaving the EU.
In Cyprus, in recent months, reunification talks have intensified between President Mustafa Akıncı of the TRNC and President Nikos Anastasiades of the Republic of Cyprus. This won’t happen in Ireland, however. Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster would never sit with an Taoiseach Enda Kenny to discuss Irish reunification.
The difference here is due to the historical background to the partition of the two nations, but it does offer hope that leaders of different communities can work together to discuss a new future. The fact that republicans and unionists now share power in the Northern Ireland Assembly is further proof of this. It essentially means that unionists, while being staunch in their belief in remaining within the United Kingdom, are still open to working together with the ‘other side’ when it is in the interest of both ‘sides’ to do so.
Northern Cyprus was declared a separate republic after the Turkish intervention in 1974. The north however continued to be occupied long after the perceived threat of forced Enosis. The so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) has not recognised by the international community (other than Turkey), but has been a de-facto part of the EU since 2004. However, due to an almost impenetrable border and the government of the self-declared republic, the Northern part of the island is still effectively outside the EU. This could be the case in Ireland very soon.
Unionism in Northern Ireland may never sit at the table with the Irish government to talk about reunification. But if it were clearly in the best interests of the people of the North to come to some arrangement with the Republic, perhaps not even reunification- federalisation, for example- would unionists then be open to talks?
Politics can move forward quickly. As Lenin once said, ‘there are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks where decades happen.’ Old tensions and divisions sometimes manifest, but Northern Ireland’s transformation to a relatively peaceful society has been swift.
For many years now, Turks in the North and Greeks in the south have been looking to settle a decades old dispute. They believe this will benefit the entire island. If Northern politicians ever wish to sit at the table with the southern government in Ireland, two referendums will be held on the island/s two jurisdictions. Though some in Southern Cyprus are not supporters of reunification, and bitterness remains, the recent talks must be looked upon as positive.
Here, in Ireland , The prospect reunification seems much further away. A dream for Irish republicans is a nightmare for Unionists and Loyalists, and these two conflicting reactions to the word reunification is the greatest barrier that will be difficult to ever overcome. This is one major difference between Cyprus and Ireland.
But as the talks continue in Cyprus, and if reunification does happen, it would be a good indication of how Irelands reunification, if it one day comes to pass, would manifest.
Times have changed
The old Protestant fears of joining a Catholic country are now no longer feasible. Ironically, if anything, conservative unionists would be more justified in being hesitant about joining a liberal republic.
And real differences between Ireland’s Irish and Northern Irish/British communities are difficult to see on the surface. For now at least, Ireland’s border is hardly noticeable. Often the only indication that you’re in a different country upon crossing the border is the speed limit changes from km to miles on signs. In the coming years, a hard border could be on the cards. And it all boils down to immigration. Theresa May has stated that immigration is to be reduced significantly and that they want control of their borders. Why would this not apply to the only land border between the UK and the EU? Surely this would be of concern for the hardliner Brexiteers who now occupy key positions in the Tory cabinet in Westminster.
The North and South of Cyprus has a hard border: The United Nations Buffer Zone. It was softened in 2008, but it created more division and fear that will take many years to overcome. The border divided two unique cultures exist on Cyprus. Turkish Cypriots in the North have a different language, religion and culture to their Greek Cypriot neighbours in the south.
This is not the case in Ireland. Although most people in Northern Ireland identify with one of the Protestant religions, the culture and language in the North and South of Ireland is not nearly as distinguishable as in Cyprus. Derry people are not that different to Letterkenny people. The same applies to Lifford people and Strabane people, Coleraine people and Monaghan people, Belfast people and Dublin people. Yes, they have their own characteristics and accents, cultural heritage and the like. But these differences have lessened over the years, and they will continue to do so. There may be a time in the future where these differences are so miniscule that reunification is the only sensible path to follow.
All eyes in Ireland are on Cyprus. Or, rather, they should be.