Due to the rising number of Catholics as a share of Northern Ireland’s population and the possible ramifications of Brexit, there has been an increased pushed for a border poll, especially by Sinn Féin. A United Ireland, long a nationalist dream, for at least a hundred if not a thousand years (depending on how you view history) might actually become a reality. But despite the wishes and efforts of nationalists, there seems to be very little idea of what a United Ireland would look like. How would the Republic deal with the expansion? Can we afford to pay for it? How will we deal with an ethnic minority who may not recognise the state?
There has been a shocking lack of thought as to how to deal with these issues and some people are deliberately burying their heads in the sand. Some nationalists believe they can just wish away the problems, or overcome them through force of will and national spirit. Economic problems that have plagued Ulster for decades are dismissed with hand-waving because a united Ireland will make us rich (for unexplained reasons). Minority issues are ignored because in a united Ireland there will be a blank slate and a fresh start where all ethnic tensions are forgotten. Many are so ignorant of Unionism that they can’t imagine why Unionists would possible oppose a united Ireland. Protestants didn’t suffer Bloody Sunday or sectarian gerrymandering, so they musn’t have any grievances, right? Darker forces even mutter that if Unionists don’t like Ireland they can just move to Britain.
Most of the focus is on getting a border poll but it’s hard to find much if anything on what will happen next. A simple majority (50%+1) is deemed sufficient for a united Ireland, but it doesn’t answer what to do with the remaining 49%. Is it even feasible to run a state in a region where 49% of people don’t recognise or support it? Most political parties don’t have any plan and there aren’t any prepared NGOs or pressure groups. Fianna Fáil promised they would soon release a white paper, but nine months later it still hasn’t appeared. After much digging, I finally came across Sinn Féin’s plan Towards A United Ireland that they released last year (for some reason it’s no longer on their website, but I don’t think they’ve disowned it).
First, I want to give credit to Sinn Féin for what they got right and the document is much better than I expected. There seems to be an actual effort to include Unionists by introducing a constitutional amendment to recognise their identity and their connection to British culture. Loyalist institutions such as the Orange Order will be recognised as will the connection between loyalists and the British monarchy. People born in Northern Ireland will still be able to access British citizenship and there will be a new constitution and new emblems for a new Ireland. All overt religious references will be removed from the constitution and a constitutional guarantee will be made of the North’s pluralistic education system. Both the Irish and Ulster-Scots languages will be promoted by the state to all citizens.
What to do about the Protestants?
Unfortunately, most of these promises are quite vague and may not be feasible. What exactly does recognising their identity actually mean and will it really have any impact? How will recognising the Orange Order their affect parades? Will they be allowed to march through Catholic areas? I doubt they will appreciate empty recognition if they feel their activities are overly restricted. Rewriting the constitution is an enormous task that will face major opposition. By and large our constitution has served Ireland well and there is little that a new constitution could add. In 2010, Eamon Gilmore promised a major review of the constitution that never got off the ground (the Citizens Assembly is a pale shadow) and I suspect Sinn Féin’s proposals would go the same way.
Creating new emblems and symbols is well-meaning but unlikely to happen, what important symbols will they change? The flag and anthem are sacrosanct so the new symbol will probably be meaningless and quickly forgotten. Speaking of the national anthem, how will Amhrán na bhFiann fill this role? The national anthem is supposed to be a symbol that represents all citizens and something they can all unite behind (which the flag is actually very suitable for). How can a song in a language they can’t understand, about rebellion against their ancestors, be a symbol of unity? It would be like asking Catholics to sing The Sash My Father Wore.
Promising to keep Protestant schools has its advantages but it also continues the sectarian divide and contradicts the claim to reduce the role of religion. Promoting Ulster-Scots is also a nice gesture but completely unrealistic because most Irish people consider it a joke, not a real language. There is neither the teachers nor the material to teach it in Northern Ireland let alone the whole island. The idea that it will be treated the same as Irish, the first official language, is ridiculous.
The document, like most political declarations, looks serious but is actually quite light on details. Although it may look like an impressive 60-page document, half of it is merely duplicated in Irish and a large number of pictures and colours are used to pad out the remainder. What’s left is vague political talk about the need for a new vision and various things that “could” happen. There “could” be changes to the constitution. A united Ireland “could” be a unitary state or it “could” be a federal state, even though the difference between the two is enormous and would decide whether the effort fails or not.
Just as worrying is what the document doesn’t mention. There is little or nothing about the main issues that have divided Northern Ireland over the two decades. Will there be restrictions on Loyalist parades? Will Stormont continue to operate? Will it have the same powers? Will there still be power-sharing and a Unionist veto? What about the PSNI? Will any current Northern institutions be retained or will they all be absorbed into their Irish equivalents? What role will Britain play and will it be similar to the one Ireland currently plays in Northern affairs?
If the Unionist community is completely opposed to the Irish Language Act, how do you think they will feel about Irish on every road sign and as a compulsory subject for all school students? Most Irish students have little interest in the language, so imagine the resistance British students would have. But if we give them an opt-out we risk undermining the position of the Irish language (as well as provoking major resistance from the Gaeilgeoirs). Nationalists don’t realise that a united Ireland could undermine the Republic of Ireland’s position as a nation-state and instead turn it into a multicultural state where not everyone is Irish and therefore the state cannot only promote Irish identity.
The document argues that Unionists will actually have more power in a united Ireland than in Britain because they will be 20% of the population instead of 2%. This is a silly argument that convinces no one because they would rather be 2% among fellow British people than being 20% and outnumbered by a foreign ethnicity. Catholics had one third of the population before the Troubles but that obviously didn’t give them any power or prevent discrimination against them. The document makes frequent reference to the need to respect the democratic will of the people, but what if this strips Protestants of power and influence? Will they have any special rights and protections? The only thing this document offers is seats in the Seanad could be reserved for Unionists but this is useless because the Seanad has no powers.
Threat of violence
There is a stubborn determination among Republicans to completely ignore the risk of violence that unification would bring. Either they have so little understanding of Unionist culture that they can’t imagine it, or they believe that the threat of violence is extortion that shouldn’t be considered. But all Northern politics takes place behind the threat of violence, it is the basis for power-sharing and community vetoes. Sinn Féin of all people shouldn’t dismiss the use of violence for political motives. There is no denying that unification carries a high risk of violence, in either the form of riots or paramilitary activity.
Many Republicans mimic the traditional Unionist response to violence, arguing terrorists should never be negotiated with and it is merely a law and order matter, not a political one (which is ironically similar to the stance of Margaret Thatcher). Loyalists would turn to violence the for the same reasons the IRA once did (you know, the people Sinn Fein considers brave freedom fighters) because they believe their identity is under attack, their community is being oppressed and they wish to live in a state with their fellow ethnicity. Just as Unionists believed Nationalists would gradually assimilate and be won over by economic prosperity, so Nationalists believe the same will happen to Unionists, as if 400 years of division will quickly fade away. If removing the flag from Belfast City Hall provoked riots, what will be the reaction to removing British rule?
How will we pay for it?
The other major issue regarding unification is the economic cost, as Northern Ireland is a relatively poor region compared to Britain and Ireland with high unemployment. Britain heavily subsidises the region through a large public sector (one third of the workforce) and through direct subsidies, which even Sinn Féin admit could be as high as £24 billion. Some nationalists consider it blasphemy to profane the sacred flame of nationalism by putting a price on it and that unity alone is its own reward. That’s fine for the songs, but we can’t eat flags and slogans don’t put food on the table. After independence, we got a clear example of how economics trumped nationalism when huge numbers of people emigrated from free Ireland (often to perfidious Albion) to escape poverty. A state that cannot provide for its citizens is a failure regardless of whether it partially or fully covers the island.
So how will a united Ireland cover the £24 billion gap? Regrettably, Sinn Féin doesn’t have a plan, instead it tries to ignore the problem or wish it away. They call it a “myth” and try to twist the numbers to make the hole seem much smaller. Unfortunately, bills have to be paid regardless of whether they suit your ideology or not and budgets can’t be balanced with slogans alone. So they argue that some of the deficit is due to payments on the British national debt, but it is ridiculous to think Northern Ireland can just walk away from this. Some of this debt was accumulated by spending on Northern Ireland, so it will be passed onto a united Ireland. Thinking they can leave and abandon all obligations is as unrealistic as the Brexit plan for leaving the EU and ditching those obligations. If Northern Ireland takes a per capita share of the national debt with them, this will add €64 billion to the Irish national debt.
It is extremely difficult to estimate exactly how much Northern Ireland will cost due to the wide differences in taxes and spending levels between Ireland and Britain. Generally speaking there is no reason to expect it to cost less as welfare rates are more generous in the Republic. To give on example, unemployment benefits in Britain are £71 (€80) per week for those aged over 25 and £56 (€63) for those between 18 and 25, whereas in the Republic the figures are €188 and €100. Sinn Féin gives no indication as to how we double unemployment payments without significantly increasing costs. However, there is no doubt that it will cost more and will require tax rises and spending cuts in the Republic of Ireland. A recent opinion poll found that 72% of Irish people supported unification but that figure dropped massively to only 32% if it requires tax increases.
Sinn Féin has some half-hearted attempts to explain how unity makes economic sense, but these are little more than slogans. It repeats that unification will make us richer but without giving any solid economic reason why. The argument is essentially that a mixture of economies of scale and removal barriers to trade will massively boost economic growth. Unfortunately, this isn’t good economics. As part of the EU pretty much all barriers have been removed and most of those benefits have already gained, yet the North still has an underdeveloped economy. There is little room for synergy or expansion as even a united Irish market would still be quite small and could be harmed by loss of access to the British market. There is no reason to suppose that a united Ireland would be any more attractive to investment or tourists despite the empty claims in the document.
To give a final example of how poorly thought through Sinn Féin’s plan for unification is their proposal for an Irish NHS. Personally, I support this and think it’s a good idea, but it’s painfully obvious that no one in Sinn Féin has given this any thought beyond a slogan. Completely overhauling the health service is a massive challenge, especially when piled on top of the other challenges unification would bring, yet none of this is considered. The document even mourns that Ireland only spends 6.3% of GDP on the health service instead of 9.5% in the North, yet there is not a single word as to how we will pay for this massive investment.
Unification would bring enormous challenges and place a heavy burden on the Irish state. Expenditure would soar as we tried to absorb an underdeveloped economy with a large public sector amid rising ethnic tensions. The Irishness of the state would come into question due to the influence of an ethnic minority with a different identity and history, often on the opposite side of the battle to most Irish heroes. There is a new generation in Northern Ireland that is moving beyond past sectarian divisions but a border poll would destroy this progress and reopen old wounds. A border poll would force everyone to take a side and make it impossible to stand on a neutral middle ground. No one is prepared for a united Ireland, not even those who are fighting the hardest for it.