GROWING up as a strong proponent of a united Ireland on the island itself isn’t always easy. The expressions you hear such as ‘we can’t afford it’ and ‘nobody wants it,’ were regular utterances from some I knew throughout my youth and into my adulthood. It wasn’t that I wasn’t nuanced enough to counteract the conjectural arguments others made; it’s just the information wasn’t out there to make any counter-argument. That, thankfully, has changed.
I could make the traditional Republican argument all day long—and have done on occasions. Partition was sold as a gesture towards Britain’s loyal subjects in the North of Ireland for the blood that they shed at the Somme and other places in World War I—the Not-So-Great War. A closer examination would tell you that Ireland—as a whole—ceased being a net-contributor to Britain in 1911. The north-east of the country, though, was an industrial powerhouse. Belfast and its surrounding satellite towns being responsible for 75 per cent of the economic output for the entire island. The cynic in me—and you’d be right to be when it comes to colonial powers—says that the partition of Ireland was more to do with Britain protecting their own economic interests than anything else. Keeping the economically beneficial small section of Ireland for themselves —the North had a higher average GDP than England itself at the time—and disposing of the agriculturally based wasteland that became the Free State in 1922.
They looked at their bottom line and, to some degree, so does everyone on the same matter. That’s why those who believe in Irish unity need to look away from the traditional Republican talking point of 1916 and the 1918 general election, because largely, the general population doesn’t care and fails to see the relevance of it—even if some do. Luckily, the past few years prior to Brexit, has seen a closer examination of the possible sustainability of a unified Ireland. And, thankfully, they’ve all been positive indicators to the gut feeling that many have had all along—that the unnecessary duplication of tax codes, currency, public services and government bureaucracy on such a small island was hampering our progression in a social and economic sense.
The popular myth of the £10 billion grant given by Britain to keep the North afloat has also blown out of the water. In his paper Making the Economic Case for a United Ireland, English economist, Michael Burke, breaks it down into simple arithmetic. Citing recent data from the Office of National Statistics, he showed that each household in the North—from a total number of 739,000—receives an additional £982 per annum in state awards, including NHS contributions, then what they pay in taxes and rates, making the subvention approximately £730 million and not the £10 billion stated.
Fianna Fáil Senator Mark Daly’s report Brexit and the Future of Ireland-Uniting Ireland and its People in Peace and Prosperity, found that the £10 billion subvention largely went back to Britain on projects that would have no relevance in a unified Ireland. Britain’s various costly wars; aircraft carriers; nuclear weapons and the refurbishment of the House of Commons are all helped to be paid for by the northern state all out of the subvention they receive from Britain. It would seem it is given in one hand, and largely taken back with the other.
The game-changer in the debate was the study commissioned by KLC Consulting and led by Dr Kurt Hubner of the University of British Colombia in Vancouver, Canada. A German, who witnessed the re-unification of Germany, and an expert in European affairs, his report Modelling Irish Unification, took data from both states and availed of familiarity with similar work done during the German unification. The findings were nearly all positive. They found that ending the unnecessary barriers to trade on the island that partition brings and with the harmonisation of the tax codes on the island it would result in an injection of €36 billion over an eight-year period into any resulting all-Ireland economy, with most of the benefits going to the economically disadvantaged north.
And that’s an important component of the debate. While partition has benefited nobody, it has been especially bad for the North.
A debate reignited
Brexit has reignited the debate on Irish unity and it has shone a light on the results of partition and, with that, has illuminated a light on the regression of the north-eastern part of Ireland under partition, with articles even from respected economist David McWilliams on the subject. He advised that the 26-county economy—while it has two-and-a-half times the population of the North—had a much more dynamic economy, with its exports adding up to £77 billion per annum, while the North’s is a paltry £5.25 billion—a complete ‘180’ from the time of the Treaty. The United Nations’ Human Development Index which measures health, education and income levels puts Ireland at eighth in the world. The North—if it stood alone—would rank at a mere 44th. That is expected to worsen with Brexit: they’re expected to drop out of the top 50.
McWilliams also made a telling observation that immigrants go where they think they and their family will have a good life and prosper. It was a little indicator of how both states are viewed by others outside of Ireland given that one in six people in the 26 counties are immigrants, while only one in a hundred in the six counties are—a huge disparity on a small island and a very, very, telling indicator that immigrants coming to Ireland for a better life shun the British-run entity on the island. He also came to the same conclusion that myself and many others have come to—partition has been an economic disaster for the people of the North.
Brexit and the border
Things might not be getting better any time soon either. Brexit now has made the border a real issue again and with huge amounts of trade being done across it—which may now be coming with tariffs once Brexit has been fully implemented—the economic situation for the North’s citizens is unlikely to improve, especially in the agricultural sector, where EU grants make up a large part of their income. Brexit has also seen a change in those who are looking towards a united Ireland as the answer to the problems Brexit will pose for the island. The latest Lucid Talk poll commissioned a few months in the wake of Brexit showed the combination of those who want Irish unity and those who want it in light of Brexit came to a combined amount of 44 per cent, and interestingly those from a Protestant background supporting Irish unity in light of Brexit quadrupled. Don’t get too excited though, that’s still only 8 per cent support up from a low bar of 2 per cent, but it’s an interesting statistic all the same.
I—like many others—think that Brexit fatigue has now set in and we’re tired of the incessant talk about it, but it’s true that it has put a united Ireland on the agenda and for people like me it’s heartening to see.
A new future?
I think partition was the antithesis of democracy, given that it ignored the wishes of the Irish people and gerrymandered a sectarian border to placate a hostile minority on the island and conveniently suited Britain’s economic interests at the time. Should we in the 21st century continue to have a border separating us that based on a sectarian head-count? Should we continue to make women in Donegal take a seven-hour round trip to Galway to get mammograms when they could easily take the short trip to Derry? It’s wrong. It was wrong in 1922, and it’s wrong now. A wrong does not suddenly become right, and in my opinion, Britain should declare their intention to withdraw from Ireland, allowing us the space to grow and prosper, which no doubt we would if allowed to look after our own interests, and not London’s.
My dream—and that of many others—won’t come about like that, unfortunately. That said, I can’t fail to see the new dynamic that has been introduced with the change of circumstances and the analysis done by Dr Kurt Hubner and Michael Burke, coupled with the Brexit Report by Senator Mark Daly. The struggle for Irish freedom is filled full of hard-luck stories from failed rebellions, with even the weather to blame on occasions, to mix-ups on the Lonely Banna Strand, but something tells me our luck could be about to change. I no longer have to listen to the lazy ‘we can’t afford it’ or ‘it would never work’ arguments. One radio host tried them with me last year, but he knew after trying it that Republicans now are empowered with the facts and can challenge those lazy conjectural assertions with confidence.
Those facts have given a renewed confidence to Republicans like myself and many others. The arguments can be now more clearly formulated, unlike never before. The battlefield for Irish unification is now taking place around the homes, streets and work places around Ireland and even amongst the diaspora. As a famous man once said, we all have our role to play; at home, and abroad. That includes you all reading this. It’s time to arm yourselves with the readily available information and set about changing hearts and minds.
Irish unity makes sense on every level and holds the key to a more socially just and prosperous Ireland. A Nation Once Again? I’m beginning to think we can make it a reality.
Patrick Donohoe (above) is the secretary of the United Ireland Society