Why reunified Ireland offers best outcome for North’s future

‘The province’ remains unloved and is also poorly understood by those in Britain

The statue of Sir Edward Carson, a leader of the Irish unionists, seen through a broken link at the Stormont Assembly building in Belfast. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty

The statue of Sir Edward Carson, a leader of the Irish unionists, seen through a broken link at the Stormont Assembly building in Belfast. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty

 

Arlene Foster survived a vote of no confidence at the Northern Ireland Assembly before Christmas. The BBC’s Ten O’Clock News decided to cover the matter at 10.22pm in a 20-second report in a general round-up of the day’s news.

Granted, it was the same day as the attack on a Berlin Christmas market and the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, but one could easily argue that the matter was slightly more important than the BBC decided.

Surely it deserved a bit more attention? For those of us who follow these things, it is, however, just part of a familiar pattern. Northern Ireland barely registers on the British psyche. The truth is we’re just not that into the place.

This may surprise a few on this side of the Irish Sea. But the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is not an arrangement of equals (as the billing suggests). “The province” is an unloved and little-understood appendage.

It’s there on British weather maps (cut off by the Irish Sea, and as near to the “mainland” as France is) but there is little affinity with the place. It’s a far-away land of which we know, and, well, care little.

Brits still struggle to understand why the IRA wanted to blow up our cities and look on in astonishment as men in orange sashes and bowler hats insist on marching down streets where they are not wanted. That is, if we think of them at all.

In reality, Northern Ireland has always had a sort of “associate” status. From partition onwards, it was left alone to do its own thing. Of course, this was the seminal reason for the Troubles.

British disinterest following partition allowed problems to fester.

Decades of British indifference was rooted in a simple assumption: a process of attrition following partition would eventually lead to Irish unity and the problem would resolve itself. Northern Ireland was simply not meant to last this long. Only it has.

But for how much longer? Britain exhibits a maddening contrariness. Successive generations of British politicians have longed to jettison Northern Ireland, but at critical points they lacked the will and the choreography to do so.

Now things are changed. Changed utterly, in fact. The turn of the historical wheel presents new opportunities. It’s symbolic that events of the first World War have now passed from personal lived experience to historical memory.

Small nations

There is no one alive on the unionist side to yell “Traitor!” at backsliding Westminster politicians with any moral purchase, a point clouded still further by the recognition that soldiers from the rest of Ireland perished for a very different promise, the rights of small nations to independence.

Similarly, if Queen Elizabeth could visit Ireland in 2011 and was willing to lay a wreath in the Garden of Remembrance to those who died in the cause of Irish freedom, how can unionists gainsay closer co-operation between our countries?

In fact, beyond the unionist tribe, is anyone in British politics bothered about maintaining the link to Northern Ireland? Back in 2014, English MPs and campaigners were falling over themselves to persuade wavering Scots to stay in the union, during the independence referendum.

Ties of affection and the sense that England, Wales and Scotland were genuinely “better together” meant MPs literally changed their holiday plans to make the trip north. Moreover, Scotland was a prize worth keeping hold of, a valuable source of oil wealth and a base for the UK’s nuclear submarines. Extricating the affairs of Scotland from the rest of Britain would be a fiendish task.

It is improbable – actually, it’s almost inconceivable – that anything similar would happen if it was Northern Ireland on the table, as, indeed one day it will be. I struggle to imagine – a few Conservative “ultras” apart – who would make the trip across the Irish Sea to trudge the highways of North Antrim and the byways of Derry City to persuade the people there to remain in the UK.

When Tory Northern Ireland secretary Peter Brooke famously said Britain had “no selfish strategic or economic interest” in keeping Northern Ireland, he was not kidding. He also said there would need to be a majority that wanted a change and the subsequent Belfast Agreement does indeed copper-fasten the principle of consent, but just think about that. There is no first principles case coming from anyone in British politics about why Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK.

Sigh of relief

The subtext is not subtle: Northern Ireland is parked in an ante-chamber. A British government is prepared to offload the place as soon as it thinks it can get away with doing so. And it would, make no mistake. Probably with an audible sigh of relief. As British home secretary Reginald Maudling put it when he was leaving Belfast after closing Stormont and ushering in direct rule from Whitehall, “For God’s sake, bring me a large Scotch. What a bloody awful country.” By and large, he spoke for every British minister that followed him.

And short of Britain discovering gold in the river Bann, there is absolutely no economic reason to prevent Irish unity from occurring. Northern Ireland’s best bet, economically, is to join with the South and align its economy to benefit from the Republic’s strong record of attracting foreign direct investment. Theoretically, the benefits are clear: the Border is an artificial division and the respective populations are small enough and complementary enough to make uniting their economic efforts a common-sense solution. At present, Northern Ireland and the Republic are the only dinner guests positioned at opposite ends of a banqueting table.

This point was forensically made in a major report on the economics of Irish unity by Dr Kurt Hübner, director of the Institute for European Studies at the University of British Columbia in a study modelling the effects of Irish reunification last year.

His assessment was that “borders matter” and that the economies of both jurisdictions on the island are interlinked and interdependent, but they are not aligned “differ[ing] enormously in terms of structure, output and growth”. A single, unified approach would boost an all-Ireland economy by €36 billion during the first eight years, according to his modelling.

Britain’s role in all this should be to promise to maintain a significant financial contribution over a number of years until both jurisdictions are sufficiently harmonised.

Will the British people stand for that? They currently ladle £10 billion a year on the place. Any prospect of drawing down that figure even over a period of years, is a good deal. And it is in Britain’s long-term interest to make Irish unity work. Relations between these isles are the best they have ever been.

Of course, it is easy to pontificate about what the Irish people should do from my side of the Irish Sea. The whole idea of Irish reunification, in the parlance of eBay, needs the buyer to be willing to collect. If the British stand accused of hypocrisy over Northern Ireland, so, too, do the southern Irish.

A deafening silence is observed here as well. Yet opinion polls show clear majorities favouring reunification, depending on how the question is phrased. Asked if they want it immediately, fewer Irish voters are dead-set on the idea. But if the issue is framed in the slightly longer term, support rises to roughly two-thirds. So why are Irish politicians traditionally reluctant to make the case, beyond the odd rhetorical genuflection?

Looming crisis

Clearly, a majority in the North currently favours the status quo. But we are two to three years away from a crisis as Northern Ireland comes to terms with losing billions of pounds in funding, courtesy of the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, expected in spring 2019. Historically, for unionists, Irish unity represented an unwelcome solution to an invisible problem.

Not anymore. Irish unity now represents an immediate remedy to a pressing concern. That lost money would reappear if the Border didn’t exist. As they ponder this trade-off, will unionist farmers find themselves asking which they are first: a unionist or a farmer?

Still, Brexit is merely an accelerant. It doesn’t alter the fundamentals: Northern Ireland makes no economic sense and the dividend of the peace process is that economics and co-operation can now be unleashed. As they are, the sinews between the North and South will only get stronger.

Despite the 2008 economic crash, the Irish economy has performed strongly in recent decades and will continue to do so. Fortuitously, Ireland has skipped the Industrial Revolution and parked itself in the “knowledge economy”, perfectly placed to capitalise on the value-adding jobs of the future.

Northern Ireland, in contrast, once the economic engine of the island of Ireland, has suffered a precipitous collapse. Like many parts of northern England, Belfast is a shadow of its former self and looking around at how it might be reinvented.

Roles have been reversed. Everyone now looks south to marvel at the Republic’s record on foreign direct investment. So much so, that one of Peter Robinson’s crowning achievements as first minister, as he saw it, was to win permission from the British government to lower corporation tax rates from 20 per cent to match the Republic at 12.5 per cent. This is set to happen from 2018.

The irony of a unionist politician – a one-time beret-wearing hardliner at that – arguing for fiscal harmonisation with the “foreign” state he feigned to disdain appeared lost on him. Loyal to the half-crown and all that.

So pragmatism from within unionism is possible. A similar, through-the-looking-glass moment came when Ian Paisley jnr entreated his constituents to apply for an Irish passport following the Brexit vote. And what will happen if, as seems likely, Protestants lose their hegemonic status in the 2021 census and become a minority community in the North? Could there be a general softening of attitudes to unity?

Grown-up conversation

Either way, what should happen next is a proper grown-up conversation. This isn’t about wearing down unionists, or leaving it to Sinn Féin to bang on about a Border poll, it’s about all parties – Northern Ireland, the Republic and Britain – coming to a shared understanding that we cannot keep making this up as we go along. The political classes of all three parts of this equation need to openly discuss, plan and agree for the long term. Where is Northern Ireland headed by 2030?

What is clear is that, as this debate unfolds, Irish reunification will be the pragmatic, modernising position to advocate. The case for the status quo, for the retention of Northern Ireland, will be made by nostalgic romantics. Indeed, the evidence-based case for unity will be made in flat, sober tones.

PowerPoint presentations, not stirring graveside orations, are the order of the day. Moreover, it will not be through grand gestures that change is arrived at, but by small strokes of the oar.

Ending this self-denying ordinance about openly discussing Irish reunification is the first step. This then begins the process of brokering a permanent agreement and, while this is no small task, the circumstances are better than they have been for a century.

We must not overestimate the difficulties in making the case for Irish unity. Not when all the rational arguments are now so heavily stacked in its favour.

“Ah, but it’s like getting porcupines to mate,” I was told by a friend, a wise old Westminster veteran, as I set out to disprove his worldly cynicism.

“But given porcupines are not an endangered species,” I replied, “they obviously manage to congress when we’re not looking.”

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser to Labour Northern Ireland secretary Shaun Woodward and author of A United Ireland: Why Unification is Inevitable and How It Will Come About, published by Biteback