Peter Robinson is correct in calling for unionists to consider demands for a united Ireland – but, I suggest, for the wrong reasons. A united Ireland would be much stronger economically than is Northern Ireland, while potentially providing people from a traditional unionist perspective with substantial influence over the way a Dublin administration is run.
Northern Ireland is economically weak and a bad Brexit would make it very much weaker. There is enormous uncertainty about what deal, if any, will govern the UK’s future relationship with the EU. But economic studies have predicted that the Brexit impact on Northern Ireland is likely to be an economy that is between 2.5% and 12% smaller than it would have been without Brexit. Even ardent Brexiteers are now talking in terms of very long-term benefits, rather than short-term gains. CBI director for Northern Ireland, Angela McGowan, has warned that Northern Ireland is now at risk of recession.
Economically, Northern Ireland could benefit substantially from merging with the Republic. The economic policies of Northern Ireland have long been inadequate. We have underinvested in skills and infrastructure – the core elements of a modern economy. The Republic has done much better with both, assisted by a lower corporation tax rate. The result is much higher levels of productivity. Accountancy and consultancy firm PwC calculates that RoI is an astonishing 60% more productive than NI.
Moreover, as someone who has lived in the north west for the best part of two decades, the level of neglect and under-investment in and around Londonderry is shameful. The employment rate in the city is 57%, compared to 70% across NI and 76% in the UK as a whole. And, amazingly, the gap between the employment rate (the percentage of working age adults who are in work) of NI and the rest of the UK has widened since the signing of the Belfast Agreement. Nor does the low employment rate reflect the number of our young adults in higher education – we have the UK’s lowest proportion of undergraduates studying in NI because of the inadequate investment in our universities.
While the economy of RoI has expanded substantially since the global recession of 2008, that of NI stutters along, over-dependent on the public sector. We have high value transactions of manufactured goods sold into GB that we need to protect, but we also have a larger number of smaller transactions between north and south that are endangered by Brexit. We are especially reliant on an agri-food sector that faces very severe damage without a good Brexit deal.
In recent weeks I have interviewed well-known political and community leaders from across our divide, asking them about their vision for the future of Ireland. What is significant is that many people who are unionists – or would until recently have regarded themselves as such – are now open-minded about the future of Ireland. Several are converts for a united Ireland. They welcome the adoption by the Republic of socially liberal values and the fundamentally much stronger economy in the south.
But voices across NI require further change in the Republic in order that a mature conversation takes place about reunification. Above all, an all-island society needs to adopt an NHS style health service – but one that works more effectively than that at present in NI. The Republic needs to do more to convince unionists they will be welcomed and treated as equals in an all-island nation. The UK government should tell those born in Ireland – now, as well as in the future – that they can obtain a British passport, if they choose to identify as British.
And unionists should consider that, given the political divisions in the Dail, their representatives are likely to have a stronger influence over government in a united Ireland than they usually have in Westminster. The objective would be to create a new union that could genuinely represent the interests of everyone across the island and win the respect and loyalty of all.
So yes, the time is right to debate a united Ireland.