Whatever happens now with Brexit seems bound to make Irish reunification more likely. A bad Brexit, perhaps with controlled borders, would create economic damage sufficient to encourage voters in Northern Ireland to look south with envy, as the Republic carries on with its fundamentally sound economy. On the other hand, Theresa May’s negotiated Brexit deal potentially delivers the both of best worlds for Northern Ireland – access to markets in both GB and the EU, including the Republic. It will also, bit by bit, bring Northern Ireland closer to full membership of an all-island economy.
That all-island economy makes sense. While Northern Ireland conducts more trade, in terms of monetary value, with Great Britain, it actually carries out more transactions with the Republic. And much of the trade with Great Britain can only take place as a result of cross-border production processes. It is not either/or – Northern Ireland’s economy needs open access north-south, as well as east-west. Some politicians may pretend not to have noticed it, but Northern Ireland is already participating in an all-island economy.
Yet Northern Ireland is not pulling its weight economically. The results are too few high paying jobs, too many people economically inactive, low productivity, over dependence on the public sector. The causes are poor road and other infrastructure, insufficient investment, too many kids leaving school without basic skills, insufficient focus on vocational skills, a small university sector and too few graduates, especially in the high value, high technology disciplines. While the Republic’s economy is far from perfect, in all these regards it substantially outperforms the north. We can learn from the south – and we surely would, if our economies were more closely integrated.
Economies of scale and important infrastructure links make greater north-south co-operation a ‘no brainer’. Northern Ireland has a population of 1.8 million people and reliance on sea and air connections with Great Britain. The Republic, our land neighbour, has a population of nearly five million people. Those geographic connections and larger combined market create an unavoidable logic for greater north-south co-operation.
These truths apply particularly to the agri-food and electricity markets. They apply equally in health, as the DUP’s Edwin Poots recognised while health minister. Hence the cross-border cancer care provision at Derry’s Altnagelvin Hospital and the heart surgery carried out at Dublin’s Our Lady Children’s Hospital for children from both the south and the north. A genuinely all-island health service could raise standards and improve access to services.
But whether we are considering the economic and fiscal weakness of Northern Ireland, or the major health service failings in both jurisdictions, a ‘big bang’ approach will not provide an instant solution. Northern Ireland is being subsidised by the UK Treasury to the tune of £10bn or £5bn according to how the figure is calculated. (The difference is explained by whether you include NI’s share of UK-wide costs, such as debt interest and the armed forces, or only those costs that are specific to NI.) And we invest insufficiently in infrastructure and skills to create enough high paying jobs to turn around our economy and generate higher tax revenues.
Meanwhile, health services in both jurisdictions need radical reform. The flawed structure of the southern health system is consistently quoted as a reason for people in the north expressing doubt about a united Ireland. The Oireachtas has proposed major reforms for implementation over a ten year period that would bring the Republic’s health service much closer to that of the UK’s NHS. It may take a similar length of time for Northern Ireland to implement the Bengoa reforms that will provide the type of service within the NHS that we expect.
It is for these reasons that I believe it is misguided for advocates of Irish reunification to call for a border poll, without having a strategy for how to deal with a ‘yes’ outcome. That was the mistake made in the Brexit referendum. We need a mature discussion about what Irish reunification would mean in practice and how we achieve a united Ireland that respects all its citizens and is acceptable to all.
A ten year plan might address those reasonable concerns. It would provide a timetable that is realistic in turning around two inadequate health services and the north’s weak economy. A negotiated settlement between the two governments, plus the European Union, could lead to a slow turning off of Westminster’s funding tap. In the meantime the European Union could be encouraged to assist with infrastructure investment that brings affluence to those parts of Ireland – north and south – that have been overlooked to date.
Many unionists and loyalists respond with horror to the idea of Irish reunification. Yet Protestants are respected in the south, as are the Presbyterian and Church of Ireland traditions. A political settlement with Dublin is likely to leave unionists with more influence on a continuing basis with an all-island government than they usually have with the UK government. As President Roosevelt said, there is nothing to fear but fear itself.
The hard truth is that the current status of Northern Ireland will almost certainly change and soon. Instead, the real questions are how quickly that change will happen and what type of change there will be. Those who seek to cling to the past must recognise that the future will be different. Demography will have its impact – and I do not mean simply that unionists are no longer in the majority because of birth and death trends. Equally important, many more young people look south to the socially liberal policies adopted in recent years and want the same in the north. The Republic is no longer under the control of the Catholic Church.
Sitting back passively waiting for change to happen is not a good strategy. Neither is pretending that despite Brexit and demography that change can be avoided. We need to have open, polite, conversations about the changes we want and the type of society we hope to see. Those conversations have begun.
Perhaps the most encouraging element of my research over the last few months was the willingness of political and community leaders to engage by talking about the values that are important to them and the future they want – that involved representatives of the DUP, Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the Alliance Party, independent unionists and religious and community leaders. They have shown their willingness to consider the future – more of us should do the same.
‘A New Ireland: A Ten Year Plan?’ by Paul Gosling is available at £8.99 on Amazon and in some independent book stores.