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Sinn Féin is still trying to wish away economic realities of a united Ireland

Newton Emerson: Party is peddling frustrating nonsense about the UK subvention

Economics should be the interesting and constructive part of discussing a united Ireland, elevating debate above sterile or dangerous arguments about nationalism and identity. That was how the SNP-led Scottish government saw the subject ahead of the 2014 independence referendum. Economic issues were the focus of its engagement with the Scottish people, culminating in its 2013 White Paper on an independent Scotland. There were terrible sins of omission, inaccuracy and spin in the SNP's case, but many challenges were acknowledged through an economic lens, purposefully chosen to manage public passions and expectations.

It is even more important to attempt this in Ireland, where debate otherwise slips at once into the rights and wrongs of history. So it is truly frustrating that Sinn Féin keeps repeating an economic argument that is trite, petulant, vaguely Anglophobic and transparently absurd.

First rolled out seven years ago, it will get another airing on Friday when the party publishes a discussion paper entitled “Economic benefits of a united Ireland”.

A press release already issued by finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty rehashes the same old central claim that Northern Ireland's subvention – its UK subsidy – is about half the official figure, which is approaching £12 billion in a normal year, although it could be closer to £20 billion in this exceptional year.


Sinn Féin’s trick to halve the subvention is to write off Northern Ireland’s entire share of UK-wide public spending.

Known as non-identifiable expenditure, its largest items are debt interest, defence, borders and immigration, foreign aid, embassies, membership of international organisations and the costs of tax collection.

All would have their equivalents in a united Ireland, many on the same per capita basis. They are basic functions of every state on Earth, with citizens expected to share the burdens as well as the benefits.

Sour reference

Sinn Féin usually adds a sour reference to the royal family, as if this was another major non-identifiable expense, rather than £2 million a year.

It also likes to imply that vast amounts of Northern tax revenue are being concealed because the perfidious UK treasury will not provide a precise regional breakdown. This cannot be provided for certain taxes, but it is not a conspiracy, and estimates have a maximum statistical error of 5 per cent either way.

Lo and behold, Doherty’s press release states: “The real figure for the subvention is at most £6 billion.”

However, Friday’s publication will not be without innovation.

In 2018, Fianna Fáil senator Mark Daly, now Cathaoirleach of the Seanad , produced a report claiming a united Ireland would cost almost nothing because the UK would continue paying Northern Ireland's pensions. Daly has specifically mentioned "RUC and British army pensions", apparently his equivalent of the royal family.

Sinn Féin is about to pick up this cudgel. Doherty’s statement says the pensions bill is £3.5 billion, so “the final subvention cost could be as low as £2.5 billion.”

That bill is £2 billion for state pensions, with the remainder for unfunded pensions for public sector workers, such as teachers and nurses.

All these schemes are paid directly out of general taxation, with no legal or contractual obligation for a future UK to continue paying them to another country.

The spectre of Brexit hangs over Sinn Féin's promise of holding all the cards in the easiest unification deal ever

Doherty says: “The British government accepted during the Scottish independence debate in 2014 that the pension rights of Scottish workers have been accumulated by citizens over the years.”

He neglects to add the British and Scottish governments then agreed Scotland would assume full and immediate responsibility to meet those obligations. This was never in serious doubt. The difficult question was how to continue operating funded employee pensions, as EU law requires such schemes to be fully funded at all times if split across borders.


Doherty concedes a pension problem by saying payments “will clearly be part of a wider negotiation in the event of a United Ireland”.

Republicans have made the same claim about the £1.5 billion per year debt interest, which convention dictates a united Ireland would inherit, as the White Paper accepted for Scotland.

So what would be Ireland’s leverage in negotiations to overturn all these precedents? Would it have to threaten to give Northern Ireland back? The spectre of Brexit hangs over Sinn Féin’s promise of holding all the cards in the easiest unification deal ever.

Of course, a united Ireland is economically viable and has every chance of being prosperous after a suitable adjustment period and some basic, obvious and mainstream economic reforms. Discussing how to get there has the potential for shared appeal if it honestly confronts Northern Ireland’s financial dependency – something no unionist can take pride in and everyone should want to address. As the economist David McWilliams once pointed out to a Belfast audience, “the subvention makes you poor”.

Yet Sinn Féin continues to pretend the issue can simply be wished away, making claims that cannot fool even the credulous faithful, while still slyly stoking grievance and blame.

Any “unity” this heralds would have faults well beyond its accounting.