Northern Ireland

Eminent historian AN Wilson says people in Britain support Irish unity

Northern Ireland secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew
Former secretary of state Patrick Mayhew is said to have voiced support for a united Ireland. PICTURE: PA (by Bob Collier/PA)

An eminent English historian has claimed an “overwhelming majority” of people in Britain are supportive of Irish unification.

AN Wilson, a writer and commentator, argues that “some kind of change in Ireland and Scotland is inevitable” and that the “central question” facing politics in Britain is a forthcoming united Ireland. He advocates a “grand pan-British-Irish conference” to discuss future relations.

In a column in The Times on Saturday, he claimed the late Patrick Mayhew, secretary of state between 1992-97, voiced support for Irish unity.

The piece echoes the sentiments of distinguished journalist and historian Max Hastings, who in 2021 said Ireland would be united “within a generation”.

The former Daily Telegraph editor-in-chief, who lived in the Republic in the 1970s while reporting on the Troubles, argued that Brexit has “forged a template for minorities to assert themselves” and that both Northern Ireland and Scotland are destined to leave the union.

In his column, Mr Wilson said non of England’s main political parties were addressing what he termed “the central, existential question” that is being asked across much of Britain and Ireland, namely: “how much longer can the United Kingdom go on being constituted as it is at present?”

Historian AN Wilson

He noted that despite recent setbacks for the SNP, most Scots are “fed up with being governed from Westminster”.

“This has become doubly true since the Brexit vote, when the great majority of Scots voted to remain in the EU,” he said, while also highlighting an increased desire for greater Welsh autonomy.

Responding to a column by Iain Martin in the same paper last week, Mr Wilson rejected the notion that people in Britain are “apathetic and blasé” about the Irish question.

“Imagine there was a referendum of all the inhabitants of the archipelago — the Republic, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and England — who bankroll the Ulster nonsense,” he wrote.

“Imagine that the referendum were to ask us a simple question: should there be a united Ireland? My guess is that an overwhelming majority of the English, Welsh and Scots would vote a resounding Yes.”

He said people in Britain “understand both points of view — the aspirations of Republicans to have a united Ireland and the fears of the Protestants” but that there has been a rapid transformation in public opinion.

But Mr Wilson said the “solution of the future of Britain does not have to be solely on Sinn Féin’s terms”.

“Rather than clinging forlornly to ‘the union’, whatever that is meant to be in the present time, would it not be refreshing if the inhabitants of the whole archipelago were given the chance to rethink their future together?” he said, advocating a “grand pan-British-Irish conference in which the matter of the UK was discussed”.

Yet he argues that Britain’s “so-called sensible parties” will not address the central question – which is not Sinn Féin’s alone — “namely that one day, pray soon, there will be a united Ireland”.