Is Now The Time For A United Ireland?
Thoughts on the re-unification of North and South
Watching the recent 2019 Oxford Union debate on whether or not Ireland was ready for reunification, I laughed. One of the speakers, Richard Humphreys, said (in 2019) with the whole of Brexit happening, things were just too complicated to discuss a reunification. Well, what about now, Richard! When Brexit is probably only the third-biggest disaster happening at the moment! With the Coronavirus taking first and the ensuing economic collapse on the silver medal, surely we would be mad to continue on such a conversation? Yet, there are genuine signs that a united Ireland could be the best strategy out of this debacle and for the future of the island of Ireland.
The nationalist aspiration of a unified Ireland, which I always would have known, is no longer the best argument for reunifying the North and South. I don’t ever believe in arguing for the sake of things. I’m not a debater. I support a United Ireland because I genuinely believe the reunification of the North and the South can benefit both sides in the long run and all of the people who live on the island. If I thought reunification would bring about violence and insurgency, then my position would be not to sacrifice peace. If the reunification did not bring about economic prosperity for both North and South in the long run, I would suggest we do not proceed. There is no shortage of roadblocks to the path of reunification; I mean, if we can’t answer healthcare? Will medical-assistance be free at the point of contact? Can we even get started? (I will address this later on) Why wander in this minefield? Of two police forces, two armies, separate governments, and an entire law system that has emerged separately in the hundred years of partition, why not stay as we are? The answer is things are already changing, and it was the British that changed them; Brexit. Remember that?
It was almost refreshing to read about Brexit instead of the Coronavirus. I felt a sense of nostalgia for all the Daily mail’s annoying cliches. The turn around in the reunification argument was that a majority of people in Northern Ireland in 2016 didn’t want Brexit and rejoining with Ireland is one way to stay in the EU and avoid the trappings of a hard border. People want to stay in the EU because they want open economics, jobs and investment opportunities, progressive societies, and environmental protection. There was a time when unionists wished to stay with Britain because it was the most prominent trading block globally, but now Britain is leaving the North’s main trading partners? If the UK is committing economic suicide for the North, would more people be more tempted to reunify? Yep.
As a result of Brexit, many people who found themselves in the middle of the conflict between reunification and partition have shifted to the other side. Brexit was pushed mainly by the DUP, which might prove to be an ‘own-goal’ as 60% of Northerners favor entering into an economic alliance with the Republic if it would help the economy. Pre-Brexit, reunification was something we talked about after a rake of pints and listening to the fields of Athenry, now there is an earnest Economic argument to be made. Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU by 56% to 44%, but this does not mean those people would vote for a United Ireland if there were a border poll tomorrow. If we were to have a border poll, we would need something similar to Scotland’s referendum for independence where they had three years to prepare.
In a December 2017 poll by market Research company Lucidtalk, it showed a majority of 48% in favor of a united Ireland, with many Northerners opting for their Irish passport over the British. Even Boris Johnson’s decision to place the border in the Irish sea rather than across the country is also quite telling that maybe even the British have no desire to revisit the Irish border’s complicated history. So could a united Ireland be the sensible step forward? I don’t know because it’s so unbelievably cumbersome, but the logistics of a hard border is probably even worse. The thought of British soldiers in Ireland, physical checks, sends shivers down the spine of any Irish person and would feel like a massive step backward in time. A hard border would be a nightmare for cross border people like myself, living in Belfast but being from Dublin and vice versa.
I have now been living in Belfast for almost two years, and I’ve learned a lot. The North is making massive progress and is on the up and up, but Britain’s relationship critically hampers the economy. If you look at the South, my friends’ wages for similar jobs are much higher (income per head in the North is roughly 22,000 euro on average while in the South it falls at 38,000 euro). Even those who don’t have jobs get better social security, in the North 73.10 GBP per week, and the Republic is 204 euro, and then the Coronavirus super dole (350 euro a week, jealous)! Still, then again, housing and everything else is more expensive down South, so you can say things even out?
This reasonable standard of living is why many Catholics support the system in the North because of the benefits of the NHS, free school books, and low-cost housing. I mean, I am reaping the benefits of this myself, I choose to live in Belfast? Not Dublin? However, many of my Northern friends don’t. They have ambitions of going to Dublin and further afield, and even low house prices can’t tempt them to stay, most seem to leave the North after getting their degree. I get the impression is that jobs in the NHS and the civil service in the North are slow-moving and prone to stagnation - it seems like to get promoted or move up, someone needs to die or retire. In the civil service, as far as I can tell, a lot of the labour is not productive, and people get paid to watch Netflix series on their phones (this is a joke, sort of).
Many younger people straight out of college are craving advancement in their careers, productive employment, and growth, which they are not getting in the North. That is a problem with incentivization and productive labor, which we have answered in the South with so many fast-growing industries to join up with. Far from the saber-rattling unionism and combative nationalism of the past, most young protestants and Catholics just want to get on with living their lives now and progress their careers. They want what’s best for them and their family and their friends. This desire might prove the deciding factor for a United Ireland because while the North is viable now, in the post-Brexit future where the UK is struggling, their interests won’t be well represented, and the North could face a big step back into poverty.
A hard Brexit would destroy the fragile infrastructure of the North, already Northern Europe is amongst the poorest in the EU, with the North being the poorest within the UK that could make the Northern one of the poorest countries in Europe! And who is to say Westminster are looking out for their best interests? The big problem is we don’t see any realistic offers from Dublin. Most unionists are unionists because they believe the union with Britain is in the best interests of Northern Ireland, and they will continue to feel that way until representatives from the South put forward an argument; otherwise, what does a united Ireland offer the one million unionists in the North? And why would they willingly make themselves a minority for it? That is an important question to address.
In his article for the financial times, David McWilliams points out that partition has been a disaster for all protestants and Catholics alike as an economic experiment. Pre-partition in 1921, 70-80% of the industrial output of Ireland’s whole island came from the North, and the North-East alone was far more productive and more powerful than the South. Now 100 years later, the tables have turned dramatically with the exports of goods and services from the South exceeding 282.4 bn and total exports of the North standing at 10.1 bn. Mcwilliams puts this down to the investment in the South of Multinational companies, which the North has missed out on under the union. McWilliams writes that London’s handouts have made the Northern Irish economy more fragile and notes that economic supplicants can rarely stand on their own two feet. Most look at the 10 billion supplication to save the North, but actually, this could well be what is keeping them in a deficit.
Gunther Thurmann, senior German economist at the German desk for the IMF during German reunification, argues that Irish reunification could balance the Northern Irish budget! He explains this is the case by breaking down the deficit. (His figures were from 2014 when the gap was 9.2 billion, which isn’t a mile off as the 2019 difference is 9.4 billion). He explains that the reality of reunification is that 2.8 billion of the deficit is pensions, which has to be paid by the UK, at least for a time. 2.9 billion is UK defense expenditure and UK debt interest, 1.1 billion in accounting adjustments that don’t relate to Northern Ireland, and 1.7 billion is saved in restructuring the public sector more like the Southern model, leaving a deficit of 0.7 billion. Even if you don’t care about the facts and figures, the point is: reunification is much more possible than you think, and the 10billion supplication is not an insurmountable obstacle.
McWilliams illustrates how the 10bn supplication from London could be absorbed by Dublin and would cost on 4% of Ireland’s debt/GDP annually, which would be even lower because of the combined GDP of the North and South would be over 300 billion. He says this is before the ‘commercial dynamism’ of reunification kicks in, which I could certainly picture being a massive attractor to industry from America and other countries, interested in the reunification. Tourism would undoubtedly receive an enormous boost, and being able to make all-Ireland tourism initiatives would attract more foreign investment.
A report by Canadian firm KLC Consultants Kurt Hubner finds that a hard-Brexit would cost Northern Ireland’s GDP about 10.1 Billion from 2021-25, while Northern Ireland remaining within the market and customers union of the EU would cost about 3.8 billion. Unification is the only situation that would increase the GDP of the North, and it would do so by 17.9 billion. If a long term reunification is not selected, the second-best chance the North would have is to take at least the ‘special status’ offered by the EU, which would be a massive boost to the economy and make them a trading hub between Europe and the UK. However, Stormont and the Ulster Unionists rejected this offer, who do not consider it a way forward. What do you do when you have a group who are actively working against the best interests of not just themselves but also the rest of Northern Ireland?
And then there is the question of how has the Coronavirus affected all this? Obviously, the pandemic has changed the game entirely, but is it in favour of a single market Ireland or not? I mean, everyone is hanging on by a thread, and a massive constitutional change probably isn’t the best response? But as Sun Tzu said, ‘in chaos, there is also opportunity.’ The Coronavirus has shown an epidemiological perspective, the nightmare of having to separate healthcare systems on the same island. While there were great promises of cooperation and coordination, what we saw was more chaos: clashes over when to close schools, the Northern being forced along with Herd immunity, and the abandonment of the containment phase, which led to higher numbers earlier on. Then, one of the first cases of the Coronavirus came in through the South and into the North ‘the super-spreader’, partition making detection and containment of the person much more difficult. Post-pandemic, most experts recommend an all-island approach as the Coronavirus does not recognize borders.
One thing that has come out of the whole pandemic is a sense of possibility. I mean, if we can stop the entire economy and grind the whole country to a halt, surely re-unifying Ireland is not as unrealistic as six months ago? If you had told me where the pandemic was going six months ago and what we were going to have to do, I would have said you were talking science fiction, and that all this was improbable nigh impossible, and yet here we are? Ireland is currently moving towards a Slainte Healthcare system that is more similar to the NHS. The aim of Slainte care is a single health & social care based on clinical need, not ability to pay, but funding was and will be a big challenge. Perhaps there are more advantages to be offered in an all-Ireland system, which was more of a middle ground between public and private healthcare. You must remember the NHS isn’t a free healthcare system and is paid for by mandatory national insurance contributions similar to the German system. The German system, which is so often the object of praise, charges a tax of 14% on all working people’s wages for healthcare, but uses several private health companies to deliver the service while the NHS is government-funded. The NHS is not perfect, and the possibility of American investment post-Brexit is making many people worried about the future of the service, that the NHS would be ‘sold-off’. Either way, post-coronavirus, the health service in both parts of the country, is going to experience a massive overhaul and, hopefully, investment. A united Ireland offers an opportunity to bring the two systems together and improve an all-island health service that can have a coordinated plan for future pandemics.
Of course, my final argument is usually really the first argument, which is especially pertinent because next year will be a hundred years since Ireland’s partition. I think it is fair to conclude partition is a failed experiment that has crippled the North and estranged the South. A once-prosperous place, the Northern has marvelous peace, which is allowing them to progress forward but seems to be taking them from the union, and maybe to independence as an individual state? Or to reunification with the Republic? The unionist community faces a paradox: the prosperity of themselves as Northern Irish people or their identification with the union? The only way to approach reunification would be to assure that their integrity could still be maintained. The Good Friday agreement ensures equality of identity and beliefs going forward in the case of unity. Still, the South needs to make a compelling argument for why Unionists should be a part of a United Ireland and the North in general, and a renewed commitment to freedom of identity and expression, even if you do not agree with it personally. Mike Nesbitt, former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. Is against Brexit, and his sons are Irish passport holders who attend Trinity College in Dublin. Pre 1920, most unionists would have been proud of their Irishness while remaining British subjects within the empire - their nationality was not defined by Britain's connection but was more qualified by it.
The idea that home rule is Rome rule is also not the case anymore. We now have a younger population in the North and the South increasingly concerned with social justice issues and unwinding the history of colonialism. The South, Dublin in particular, is now a multicultural hub with a secular society and many different kinds of people. Reassurances that the South’s progressive politics do not threaten to destroy the conservative politics of the Unionists because, what else is there? We have to share this world? Winners and losers isn’t an excellent option for the future of a United Ireland.
One solution to this problem could be to have a federal all-Ireland Republic, which would mean you could maintain separate health care systems for a time, armies, policing, and the people of Northern Ireland would retain a Northern Irish identity. As I feel this is what a more significant proportion of younger people want; protestant and catholic alike. Many are Irish or British, but many prefer to view themselves as Northern Irish. Getting the North away from being a dependant culture on Britain and instead of attracting investment to the region and boosting production is something Ireland could do that Britain probably won’t, and Ireland has the EU at its back. Germany is now taking the EU’s helm and would almost certainly be of assistance to the Irish reunification, not to mention this makes Brexit a lot less complicated for the EU. Researching this topic has made me feel this is possible.
I see Unifying Ireland as an opportunity to release this little island’s potential, form a new identity for young people growing up in the confusion of the modern world, and create a future with perhaps a little more coherence than the one we are already facing. I don’t know if now is the right time for a United Ireland but is the right time to start planning for one, while I don’t think now is the right time for a border poll, now is definitely the right time to start the conversation, an actual conversation, which can lead to a better Ireland, and one we can all believe in.
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Links & references.
David Mc Williams (2018), Why The Idea Of A United Ireland Is Back In Play, https://www.ft.com/content/7d5244a0-f22d-11e8-ae55-df4bf40f9d0d
Gunter Thurmann and senator Mark Daly (2018), Northern Ireland’s income and expenditure in a reunification scenario.
Brian Walker (2018), A Riposte To David McWilliams, https://sluggerotoole.com/2018/12/05/a-riposte-to-david-mcwilliams/
Oxford Union (2019), Reunification debate,