For generations the goal of Irish nationalists has been a 32 county United Irish Republic where the whole island is free of British rule. In theory all Irish political parties support this, even if there isn’t much they can do about it. With the centenary celebration of the 1916 Rising (and the War of Independence soon to come) there has been a celebration and an examination of national pride. In Northern Ireland, higher birth rates means that the number of Catholics is catching up with the number of Protestants and may soon over take it. This has led to a number of people to suggest that a United Ireland may soon happen.
However, the thought of a United Ireland doesn’t fill me with patriotism and I don’t see it as something to rejoice. If I was ever given a choice, I would vote against it. This might seem treasonous from someone who was raised as an Irish Catholic but the thought of a United Ireland fills me with dread and were it to ever happen, it could bankrupt the Republic of Ireland. A United Ireland would lead to crippling taxes, drastic reduction in services, widespread unrest and a return to the violence of the Troubles.
The first thing to remember is that Northern Ireland is a poor region. It used to be based on textiles and shipbuilding but both of those industries have disappeared. As a result the economy is heavily dependent on the British state, both in terms of state subsidies and public sector employment. Over 30% of the workforce is directly employed in the public sector, especially in security. There is high levels of unemployment and poverty. The British state heavily subsidies the Northern Irish budget by ten billion pounds a year.
Nationalists usually don’t give much thought to such unromantic thoughts as paying bills, but economic problems do not disappear just because they are inconvenient. During the Celtic Tiger we thought we could just ignore the economy and presume it would take care of itself, but we all know how that ended. The subsidy of £10 billion is relatively small compared to the size of the British government budget and economy, but it is massive compared to the Irish budget. This is as much as the entire healthcare budget of Ireland. This subsidy would be an enormous burden on the Irish economy. The Irish economy is currently in a deep enough hole, but even if the economy was doing well, it would be a crippling burden.
The only way to pay for it would be through large tax increases and spending cuts. In other words we would have to go through another decade of austerity. It is easy to wave the green flag and talk of unity, but it is far more difficult to pay for it. I believe that support for reunification would drop sharply once people knew the economic cost of it. This would not be a temporary adjustment cost, but a continual drain on resources to tackle the systemic unemployment of Northern Ireland. Even a large investment may not succeed and we could end up with the formation of ghettoes and neighbourhoods where people feel they have no opportunities.
Some claim that unification will lead to economic gains that will offset the costs, but this is wishful thinking. There is no reason to expect an economic boom from unification. After all, there already is free trade between both parts of the island so unification would do little to change the economic picture. There would be little synergy or economy of scale benefits to be reaped, rather there would instead be transaction costs as the economy adjusted.
But far greater than the economic cost is the risk of violence. Irish Nationalists have a long tradition of ignoring Protestant Unionists and pretending or wishing they didn’t exist. The Easter Rising and the First Dáil claimed to represent the whole island despite a significant minority vehemently contesting this. During the Troubles the IRA assumed that if they just drove the British army out then there would be no problem reuniting the island. The idea that the Protestant community would oppose this peacefully or violently, didn’t cross their mind. A surprisingly large number just assume that the Protestant community will be neutral or even welcoming of rule from Dublin. They seem completely unaware of an entire community of people whose traditions and culture are built around their British identity and membership of the United Kingdom.
I am shocked at the number of people who presume that the day the Catholic population reaches 51% and the Protestant 49%, there will be a successful referendum for unification without any problems. They don’t seem to see the problem with dragging an entire community against its will into a country they view as foreign and alien. I have been told many times that the Unionists will simply accept the democratic majority, obey the law and join with Nationalists for a prosperous shared future. Or they believe that because the Catholic community suffered for so long, it is now the turn of the Protestant community to suffer. I shouldn’t have to say that revenge is a terrible public policy that only ends in disaster.
Many Nationalists seem to believe that the Unionists will not oppose living in the Republic of Ireland because the Republic has done nothing bad to them. They will be full citizens and be treated equally. They would have a much stronger proportionate voice in the Dáil than in Westminster. Without discrimination, they will have no cause to complain. Perhaps even economic prosperity will weaken opposition and make people support unification if it will make them richer.
But let me ask you this, if tomorrow, the British government were to propose that Ireland would return to British rule but would be treated as full and equal citizens with devolved powers and subsidies, would you accept? I think the vast majority of Irish people would automatically reject it. They simply wouldn’t trust the promise of equality because too much damage has been done in the past. Nor can the loss of national sovereignty, that feeling of belonging in your own country cannot be simply bought with a subsidy. Just as most Irish people would refuse to bow to British rule no matter what, so too would most Unionists reject leaving what they see as their homeland and their nation.
It is hopelessly naive to bury your head in the sand and deny that any violence would occur. Relatively petty things such as parades and the flying of a flag are often enough to set off a riot in Belfast, can you imagine what actually joining the Republic would do? Even if only 1% of the Unionist community acted violently, that is still thousands of people, enough to wage a guerrilla campaign for years. Nor would the violence stay in Belfast, the paramilitaries would likely take the war to Dublin to strike at the heart of the Republic. The IRA could never hope to militarily defeat the British army, one of the largest and most effective in the world. The Irish army in contrast is nowhere near as large or effective, leading to a real danger that it could be overwhelmed and lose control of large areas of the North.
The IRA showed that even a small minority can fight a guerrilla war for decades and kill thousands of people. A second Troubles could be even worse as the Unionist community is larger and unlike the Nationalist community, has never been under Irish rule. While Catholics had grown accustomed to British rule over centuries and many doubted it could change, Protestants would know that British rule is not a pipe dream, but a realistic option. Unlike during the 70s, there would be a realistic chance that the paramilitaries could overwhelm the state. Once a war starts, it acquires momentum of its own and people who were previously neutral get drawn in when their community comes under attack. It is extremely difficult if not impossible to enforce laws and collect taxes from a community that refuses to recognise the state as legitimate.
So that is what awaits us if a United Ireland would ever occur. A crushing economic burden and violence worse than the Troubles. Unless the Protestant drastically changes its view of the Republic of Ireland and a large majority of it supports unification, then a United Ireland would only be a disaster. A simple majority of the people of Northern Ireland would not be enough, there would have to be a majority of both communities and the minority would have to accept the result, conditions that I don’t believe will ever be met. There have been increasing calls for unity as the Catholic share of the population increases and many hope that if/when they outnumber the Protestants, a successful vote on reunification will occur. I hope that day never comes.