Newton Emerson: Walking into the trap of the Sinn Féin numbers game
Party’s campaign video seeks to convince voters that North is an economic miracle
Máirtín Ó Muilleoir: says Ireland can no longer afford the cost of partition. Photograph: Mark Marlow/Pacemaker
Far from being an economic basket case, Northern Ireland is an economic miracle, requiring barely a quarter of the £10 billion (€11.7 billion) subsidy that official figures suggest. So claims a new campaign video from Sinn Féin, which aims to convince southern voters that Irish unity is affordable. Its release coincided with an article in a Dublin newspaper by Stormont finance minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, arguing that Ireland can no longer afford the cost of partition.
Moving its argument on to financial grounds, mirroring the strategy of the Scottish National Party, is deliberate centrist repositioning by Sinn Féin.
This carries the danger of making it look as if Northern Ireland works, or at least that it can be made to work, which is SDLP or even unionist thinking. It also alienates those who find talk of filthy lucre demeaning to the cause. Responding to the video on Sinn Féin’s Facebook page, one Dubliner said the only response to unionism is to “out-breed and outvote them and if they don’t like it they can f**k off back to where they came from” – a prospect I find particularly alarming, having been born in Lurgan.
On the other hand, financial republicanism compels unionists to argue that Northern Ireland is an economic basket case, and to do so in terms of costing Irish unity, both of which are wins for Sinn Féin by default.
Even knowing these traps, I cannot resist rushing into them, such is the audacity of the subsidy-shrinking claims.
In order to make £7.5 billion (€8.8. billion) a year – or the need for it – vanish, Sinn Féin has engaged in a three-pronged attack. First, it claims that the UK treasury will not supply accurate figures, implying that the true worth of London’s Ulster El Dorado is being deliberately concealed. In fact, it is simply the case that not all taxes and spending are audited regionally.
At Stormont, Ó Muilleoir is responsible for offsetting long-haul air passenger duty. He cannot say exactly how much this costs in Co Antrim, but he can estimate it, within known margins of error, by conducting surveys – and that is what the treasury does for Northern Ireland. This appears to have genuinely confused Gerry Adams, who has mocked the VAT survey for only covering 147 households, precisely the number needed for a 5 per cent margin of error.
The second prong of attack is to accuse London of stealing our tax revenue. Fuel duty is often mentioned as an unjust outrage, the irony of which will not be lost along the Border. More significantly, corporation tax is alleged to be vastly underestimated because profits made in the North are booked in London. Sinn Fein has even given its own estimate of this, claiming to have identified £6 billion (€7 billion) of such internal offshoring.
That is half the size of Northern Ireland’s public sector in profits alone, which is plainly ludicrous. Even if it was true, and fully taxed at the current rates, it would only raise a fifth of the magic £7.5 billion.
Corporation tax receipts in Northern Ireland were painstakingly assessed ahead of their imminent devolution, which Sinn Féin has signed up to under the official figures. It must know this claim about a missing £6 billion is nonsense.
The third prong of attack is to absolve Northern Ireland of all the costs of belonging to a nation state. Known as non-identifiable spending, this covers things such as defence, the national debt, foreign aid, embassies and membership of international organisations. A united Ireland would have these costs too, and they would only be around £700 million (€818 million) lower than present, but Sinn Féin ignores that. It seems the North will stop contributing to the UK but never contribute to Ireland. Even our accounting charge for depreciation – normal wear and tear – is waved away, Sinn Féin being above the laws of London, Dublin and entropy.
But I digress (at length) with an argument that republicans presumably want to have. No matter how dodgy the numbers, many will see this debate as an improvement on hopeless identity politics. It is no worse than the SNP’s creative accounting and better than being sent back to Lurgan.
Still, given all who have killed and died for the cause, there is something grotesque about Sinn Féin’s refusal to face up to mere numbers. The economic modelling exercise the party commissioned last year from a German academic, and which is cited in the new animation, closed the subsidy gap by just cutting public-sector jobs, an inevitable consequence of merging two jurisdictions and one that would hardly trouble Sinn Féin supporters beyond the hard-left heartlands of west Belfast and north Dublin. The bulk of northern nationalists and unionists, being natural conservatives, might even approve. Yet addressing this cannot be countenanced. Like all martyrdom cults, Sinn Féin must send us straight to paradise. It is the final insult.