Newton Emerson: Nationalists have nothing to fear from a united Ireland
The two great concerns - redundancies and rioting - are overplayed
There has not been widespread public disorder over a specifically constitutional development in Northern Ireland since the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement - and that was far from spontaneous. Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
“United Ireland now!” demanded Carthy, or words to that effect. “Let us end the waste of duplicated services.”
“So you’d sack public sector workers?” asked Bruton.
“No!” replied Carthy. “Not a one!”
The topic then turned to a Border poll, which Bruton dismissed on the grounds that a nationalist victory, even if possible, would spark loyalist violence.
Listening to this down the line, my first thought was: when will these southerners stop arguing?
My next thought was that nationalism’s two great fears of a united Ireland – redundancies and rioting – are greatly overplayed by nationalists themselves.
Sinn Féin has just arranged its own demonstration of why slashing duplication is a political non-event. A key part of Stormont’s Fresh Start agreement is a huge redundancy deal, initially aiming for a permanent 10 per cent reduction in employment across the public sector by targeting 20,000 staff, although 10,000 is now the official headline figure.
When negotiations on this were revealed last year, Sinn Féin came under pressure from the media and left-wing opponents north and south. The party made as many equivocal noises as it could, at one point claiming it would not agree to any job reductions. Yet within a month of Fresh Start being signed last December, half the redundancy target had been met as civil servants rushed for the gilded exits. In the Stormont election this May, the redundancies were a discernible issue only in the two constituencies where People Before Profit successfully challenged Sinn Féin and it would be fanciful to suggest it was a critical issue even there. Regarding it as an obstacle to Irish unity seems bizarre.
Northern Ireland is a small place with a high level of public employment.
Privileged public sector
Everybody knows the state payroll is far from replete with selfless Stakhanovites. Nobody is keen to die in a ditch for the most privileged part of the workforce, especially as the focus of any all-Ireland rationalisation would be on management and bureaucracy. If Sinn Féin really wants something to worry about, it should consider unfunded public sector pensions – a liability so horrendous that London and Edinburgh simply blanked it during preparations for the last Scottish independence bid. Ironically, EU rules mean a rump UK could not help a united Ireland with this cost even if it wanted to. However, that is all the more reason to ditch the North’s surplus paper-pushers as quickly as possible. Every day they linger builds up the pensions they think they have earned.
Fear of loyalist violence in a united Ireland is understandable but inconsistent. A fundamental basis of nationalist ideology is that Britain is responsible for the organised manifestations of loyalism, from the strategic down to the detailed operational level. If the UK is about to break up, casually or even willingly, this can no longer apply.
That leaves disorganised loyalism, which is certainly not to be disregarded. If removing one union flag from Belfast City Hall can convulse Northern Ireland for months, how much chaos would ensue from dismantling the union itself?
This question, which is frequently heard, makes too neat an association between the flag and the union. Those protesting the flag’s removal from 2012 onwards complained first and foremost not about their place in the UK but about the erosion of their culture and identity. The rest of society, including many unionists, found this laughable – protesters seemed to have little knowledge of British culture beyond its basic symbols. Nevertheless, that is what exercised them, to an extent that suggests symbolism might ease a transition of sovereignty en route to a united Ireland.
Parade-related violence could be seen the same way. Rather than being a harbinger of worse to come in a constitutional conflict, it may be as bad as it gets in a cultural conflict. There has not been widespread public disorder over a specifically constitutional development in Northern Ireland since the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement – and that was far from spontaneous.
Sinn Féin took down the flag from Belfast City Hall as an act of antagonism, openly indicating that it considered unionist insecurity to be fair game.
There have since been numerous signs of the party moderating this view, although it is too much to hope that any organisation led by Gerry Adams will abandon troublemaking entirely. Unionism is disturbingly lacking in leadership for the momentous challenges ahead – Arlene Foster’s performance as First Minister has been graceless and arrogant so far. Despite campaigning for Brexit, she seems glibly unprepared for what it has unleashed.
However, on nationalism’s two specific concerns about mass lay-offs and mass disturbances, calamity is not inevitable.