“No man has a right to fix a boundary to the march of a nation” is the inscription on the statue of Charles Stewart Parnell at the less elegant end of Dublin’s main thoroughfare, O’Connell Street. Parnell, often better known for the adulterous love affair which ended his career, was that rare creature, a nationalist from a wealthy background, Anglo-Irish and Protestant.
To the committed nationalist, obstacle after obstacle has been placed in the way of one united Irish nation, most particularly partition in 1921.
On the other side of the question, unionists declare that the six counties are an inalienable part of the United Kingdom. The split in opinion has had a bloody aspect with 3,000 people dying in “the Troubles” as years of violence from the Irish Republican Army and splinter groups, as well as militant unionists, are euphemistically labelled.
Simon Coveney, the Irish deputy prime minister and foreign minister, put the cat among the pigeons last November when he told an official committee: “I would like to see a united Ireland in my lifetime”.
This echoed the words of former prime minister, Bertie Ahern, during his premiership (1997-2008). However Ahern, who remains on the fringes of public life, has recently said any referendum on all-Ireland unity would be “dangerous”, as the Guardian reported. Referring to the history of bloody sectarian conflict between Catholics and Protestants, Ahern commented: “If you want trouble again in the north, play that game [referendum]. It’s a dangerous game.”
‘A nation once again’?
The sentiment of “a nation once again”, ever controversial, has been heard regularly in the past six months. The controversy over the border between the two jurisdictions of Ireland once the UK leaves the European Union brought the issue into the spotlight.
With Sinn Féin in the ascendant (see Deaglán de Breadún’s article for WikiTribune) the question of unification is lurking at the edges of political discourse in Ireland, for Sinn Fein is committed to a 32-county democratic socialist republic.
But could Ireland, with only a fraction of the UK’s population, at 4.8 million, afford to take over the UK’s poorest region without significant financial costs? Northern Ireland, with 1.9 million, relies on significant financial transfers from wealthier parts of the nation.
Most public surveys done in recent years have shown the majority in the south (Ireland) are not keen on the idea of subsumption, or at very best the split would be 50/50. But at the end of last year, a national survey threw up a surprising result: 60 percent in favor of unifying, opposed to 40 percent against. The ‘yes’ response was highest among men under 44, where the figure was 72 per cent. The results were notable because a poll in March 2017 on the same issue had led to a 50:50 split.
Political scientist Dr Kevin Cunningham runs Irish polling company Ireland Thinks, which carried out the survey. It interviewed 1,144 people across the Irish Republic between December 14 and 22. Cunningham thinks the timing was key: it was just after the fevered period leading up to a EU summit in Brussels, when it was not impossible that the question of the Irish border would derail the progress of Brexit. “I think it was down to that, that particular period in December,” he told WikiTribune. “Those weeks were key, with the border issue in focus, and the appearance of Leo Varadkar [Irish prime minister] as a more modern leader, against the old image of Ireland as a backward kind of place.”
Brexit has been portrayed as bad business for Ireland by most of its media, he says. But he doesn’t think the sentiment for reunification is Brexit-fuelled, nor the gradual growth in popularity of nationalist party Sinn Fein. “I think Sinn Fein, if anything, would not be broadly popular. Their support has gone up by about one percent in the past year, so I don’t think that has so much to do with this particular change.”
“The debate about the south being willing to pay for the North is where the question of reunification will go.”
On the economic question, although not tackled specifically, Cunningham says the €9billion figure bandied around is somewhat misleading. “The UK’s subvention to Northern Ireland each year is about £10 billion sterling ($13.5 bn). Of that, about £4 bn is payment for army garrisons and other benefits. “It is big, but some part of it goes back,” he told WikiTribune. “So to say that amount would apply if the Republic were paying is double accounting.”
Peace agreement said no change without a vote
The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 addressed the question specifically:
“It is for the people of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a United Ireland, accepting that this right must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland.”
The largest political party in Northern Ireland continues to be the Democratic Unionist Party. This is a party committed to the United Kingdom, and with a history of extreme Protestantism – their founder considered the Pope to be the anti-Christ. With Sinn Fein boycotting the House of Commons the DUP currently accounts for 10 of the 11 Northern Ireland MPs who attend Westminster, and they have significant influence over the current UK government – which depends on their votes. The DUP will never accept Irish unification under any circumstances.
Sinn Féin, whose commitment to Irish unity was underlined by outgoing president Gerry Adams, has prepared costings and regularly states that the amalgamation would benefit both parties. This comprehensive article from Irish news site The Journal refers to SF’s position that objections constitute an “unaffordability myth”.
Edgar Morgenroth, an economics professor and member of Ireland’s Economic and Social Research Institute, wrote a news article minimising the appeal of economic unity in March 2017. In that, Morgenroth noted one cost: the public sector pension liability, which would double in a 32-county republic of Ireland from its current estimate of €98 billion ($117 bn). And that is only one consideration. Morgenroth likened any incorporation of Northern Ireland into the larger neighbour to East Germany being subsumed into the richer West.
He told WikiTribune: “Political acceptability might just happen – it did in East Germany and this came as something of a surprise, so the same could happen here. The German authorities were not prepared and made some mistakes on the economics – there should be some more serious analysis and planning done in Ireland for such an eventuality. The probability of reunification might be low but the impact would be very significant.”
Cliff Taylor, managing editor and economics specialist of The Irish Times, says there are too many “unknowns” about a merger between the two parts of the island. “One problem is that there has been very little work done on this, at government or research level. The costs are pretty evident, but the benefits are uncertain,” he toldWikiTribune.
On whether reunification was a practical possibility in economic terms, he said: “Not in the next 10 years; maybe in the next 20 years, but it depends on many factors – including the Brexit effect.”
In a lively blogpost, the economist David McWilliams wrote last June: “The demographic sands are shifting towards a United Ireland; Brexit and the attendant political car crash in England have accelerated this process immeasurably.”
To end with a venerable journalistic cliche: only time will tell.