May 05

A reply to “Stronger together? Selling the Republic to Unionists”

In response to this post, one of our readers, who wishes to remain anonymous, has produced the following response

Where to begin… Loyalist graffiti fails to give us an accurate picture of the unionist psyche, in the same way that republican graffiti fails to give us an accurate picture of the nationalist psyche. In 2010 91.1 per cent of primary schools in the Republic of Ireland were run by the Catholic church – this despite the proportion of Catholics steadily falling – its lowest ever percentage was recorded in the 2011 Census, at just 84.2 per cent.

Cow-free or not, and all jokes aside, the vast majority of the population of Northern Ireland would be demonstrably worse off in a United Ireland. It is utterly futile to wish away the current (or likely future) economic realities. The public sector in Northern Ireland is huge – it’s amongst the largest for any of the UK’s 12 economic regions – but it exists. Even if the Northern Ireland public sector were to drastically reduce in size to below the UK national average – even if it were smaller than London’s – it would still proportionately form a significantly larger part of the economy than that of the Republic of Ireland. Claims about a booming Celtic Tiger-style economy are at present merely aspirational and baseless, given the probable economic realities on both sides of the border.

If in thirty years’ time we were to take the plunge into the unknown, where would the cuts come? I haven’t the foggiest, but it is frankly both dishonest and disingenuous for any proponent of a united Ireland not to give a complete response to this very valid query. The axe would have to fall somewhere; the economy would destabilise and jobs would have to go. This isn’t pessimism or ‘realism’ on my part – it’s optimism, because I’ve chosen to so far ignore the social upheaval and subsequent civic unrest that most commentators consider to be an inevitability in the aftermath of such seismic constitutional break. Through which part of the public sector do strategists for a united separatist republic believe it would be most appropriate to allow the guillotine to slice?

Some might say: “But after 20 years or so the economy might pick up…” “Might be”? Is that it? If we get the right figures and if the moonlight glitters upon Newgrange at the right angle? If everything goes your way and if the Gods smile on Erin’s green isle? Let’s remember what has been happening to Germany since 1990, and the Republic of Ireland is no economic match to West Germany. It is either naïve or deceitful to claim to know that all would be well. I find it abhorrent to want to put the people of Northern Ireland (and also the rest of Ireland) through decades of economic hardship just to half-fulfill a whimsical notion.

I’ll be blunt (if you think I haven’t been obvious thus far): I think Northern Ireland is economically, socially and politically better off within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (personally preferably with a regional assembly) – definitely in the short-to-medium term and most probably in the long-term also. Upon what to I base this belief? Economics. Hard figures. Beliefs to the contrary are just wish-thinking frrom those in our midst who favour for ethno-nationalistic separatism.

Come Hell or high water, Sinn Féin, like Fianna Fáil before them, will change its spots. Their public image will be transformed from “armalite and the ballot box” towards idyllic constitutional republicanism. This transformation didn’t start yesterday and won’t end tomorrow. It is nevertheless well underway by all accounts. This transfiguration has the potential to occur most quickly in the areas least affected by the IRA’s campaign during the “Troubles” (for reasons into which I shan’t delve at this juncture), such as many areas of the Republic. I am aware of recent opinion polls in the Republic indicating a surge in nominal support for Sinn Féin, I had, however, thought this for quite some time before.

With decreasing levels of support for separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, evidenced since the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998, it seems unlikely that Sinn Féin in its current guise would be able to garnish enough support in Northern Ireland so as to sizeably increase its share of seats in the Assembly (Let’s park low turn-out to one side for a moment.) In the North, both Sinn Féin and the DUP have legacy issues, which limit their support – a glass ceiling, if you will.

Thus, in the Republic, where the direct experience of and stigma against the armed campaign are less of an election-time worry for voters, Sinn Féin is free to grow. (I am obviously ignorant as to whether or not Sinn Féin’s growth can be realised in the next elections in the Republic, but my central tenet is that its legacy is less potent for Southern voters.) I retort that, on the contrary, unionists are not more likely to find themselves governed by Sinn Féin within Northern Ireland than in any United Ireland.

With regards to what shape a future 32-county separatist republic might take, none of us has a clue. One needs only ask half a dozen nationalists and one will in turn hear no fewer than two dozen answers. Would it be federalised or a unitary state? A republic? In the Commonwealth of Nations? Within the Free Travel Area? With devolution for Northern Ireland? With “devo-max” for Northern Ireland? How would current residents of Northern Ireland be dealt with in Great Britain? Citizenship(s) as per today? And fairly fundamentally, would a pro-separation vote be final and irreversible? Self-determination must continue to cut both ways.

Going on experiences from the recent past within Europe, Northern Ireland in all likelihood would simply be absorbed into the Republic. At least, that was how it happened in Germany – the East Germans were subsumed into the EU overnight. Ireland might break this precedent. It is possible that we, Northerners, might not be absorbed in the same manner, but ultimately we don’t know.

To blindly believe, in spite of the evidence, that the pro-UK population of Northern Ireland serves in any way a cohesive voting block is beyond me. To further suggest that this currently non-existent entity would continue to exist (despite not having previously existed) in a hypothetical separate all-island republic is barmy. They’re united by a few core things though, which the article addresses thus:

“Take away the whole “Simply British” thing …”

Some people really just don’t get it, do they? They simply don’t understand that Britishness in Northern Ireland is a palpable identity shared by many people of different political persuasions across the region because there is a common identity across the United Kingdom – some would even say that it extends across the British Isles. For some it is a badge of identity, for others it is a nationality. Such dismissal negates the nationality of the individual. The author of the above quote may not have wanted to say it, they may not have wanted it to come across like that, but there it has been said.

“And what would this Unionist government [of a united independent republic] be able to do?”

Sorry, what unionist government? If there was a unionist majority government in the parliament of a 32-county separatist republic, I suggest that they may wish to organise a referendum on re-joining the UK. No matter how favourable the people of the Republic of Ireland have reacted in recent times towards Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, it seems very apparent that they do not wish that she be their sovereign.

“… a huge appetite amongst the Irish for reconciliation with the British.”

I contend merely with terminology. What with people from the Republic of Ireland coming from the British Isles, they are geographically British. Therefore it sounds odd to claim that they want to forgive themselves.

Northern Ireland is currently an economic basket-case, yes. Has it always been? No. Will it always be? Probably not. The assertion that private sector investment will always remain low in Northern Ireland is seemingly without foundation. One cannot claim to know that for certain. And it ignores both the historical context (the decline in heavy industry across the British Isles in the mid-20th century and the civic unrest of the “Troubles” which destroyed the smooth switch over to the service sector) and the region’s recent economic history.

In the post-“Troubles” era, between 1998 and 2007, Northern Ireland was the fastest growing UK regional economy (out of twelve), with GDP per capita leap-frogging Wales and the northeast of England, with Belfast ranking in the UK’s top 7 NUTS-3 statistical areas for GDP per capita in 2007. Foreign direct investment grew substantially and in more recent years Belfast has become the largest banking centre in the whole of the UK, save London, and we are making progress too in certain areas such as financial services.

Am I ignorant of GDP per capita figures being significantly higher in the Republic of Ireland? No. I am also not ignorant of higher minimum wages and living costs. My point is that the Northern Ireland economy has shown that it is capable of drastic improvements in a relatively short period of time. It is therefore too narrow-minded to say that the region’s economy is to be an eternal basket-case.

“If you were locating your company in the UK, why on earth would you look outside London to a place that’s across the sea?”

The author of the above comment must be oblivious to lower start-up costs, competitive wages and a highly educated work force that Northern Ireland has in abundance. In European-wide reports, Northern Ireland comes top of the class in the whole of the British Isles for both primary and secondary education. Needless to say, the United Kingdom’s universities are amongst the world’s finest. The UK is in the EEA and English is our first language. And, despite only having the 22nd largest population on Earth, the UK’s economy is the 7th largest globally and our national currency is the fourth most traded on the planet. All in all we, here in Northern Ireland, can appear very attractive to some investors. Therefore, predictably, Northern Ireland can attract certain types of businesses very successfully – and in a modern economy there are plenty of businesses for whom the sea isn’t a problem at all.

We do not have the easy option of clinging to the Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card that is the 12.5 per cent rate of corporation tax in the Republic of Ireland. It is worthy of note, however, that the Republic’s levels of business start-ups and entrepreneurship is lower than the United Kingdom’s, and very low considering the more favourable tax regime.

“Taking away the safety net provided by English taxes would allow and require Ulster Protestants to get back to what they were historically best at; private industry.”

Such stereotypes need no further analysis (although it does imply sweeping public sector cuts to take away that ‘safety net’).

“Why couldn’t this inward investment benefit Belfast as much as Dublin?”

This is currently nationalism’s most crucial error. Just because the Republic of Ireland is rich does not mean that in a united Ireland the North would become rich. It would not, at least not in the medium-term, and probably not in the long-term. (Again, based on Germany’s experience, and putting the wrath of loyalist paramilitaries to one side, and parking the fact that more Northern Irish Catholics think that the best policy for the long-term future of Northern Ireland is for it to remain in the UK than to leave the UK.) Either severe taxes on the Southern Irish would have to commence to maintain Northern Ireland’s living standards, or there would have to be severe reductions in living standards for the Northern Irish population. Or, perhaps a mixture of both?

“Wouldn’t native businesses do better if they had a lower corporation tax than their counterparts across the water?”

To use that argument in reverse, if in 40 years’ time one wanted to locate in a hypothetical united independent all-island republic with a 12.5 per cent corporation tax rate, why would you invest in Belfast? It would be just another regional Irish city. Nothing special. You might not like this, but the fact is that Belfast, as a regional capital, has a certain status. As a capital of a distinct UK and EEA region, Belfast is at the heart of a distinct economic (and political and financial) zone. If the border were to be shifted from between Belfast and Dublin to between Belfast and Glasgow we would certainly lose our influence internationally, and, with it, the associated economic clout.

“Industriousness is surely a more valuable part of Unionist culture than burning flags on the 11th.”

Again, I cannot fathom why one opines that it is appropriate to claim that “industriousness” is wired into “unionist culture” – whatever your definition of “unionist culture” is! Nor do the overwhelming majority of pro-UK people in Northern Ireland do not burn flags on the 11th night. To exaggerate a link between the two overlooks the variation of opinion amongst pro-UK people in Northern Ireland. [There’s also nothing about this industriousness that could not be secured within the Union – if unionists were to ask for massive public sector cuts it seems unlikely they’d need to secede to get them. – Editor].

All recessions are indeed temporary. But at no stage in recent history has the Republic been in a suitably sustainable economic position so as to afford the associated costs of economically taking on Northern Ireland. Since 1922 a united, 32-county, ethno-nationalistic, separatist republic has not been an economically favourable option for the people of Northern Ireland. This renders any chance of such a state coming into reality as very slim in the short-to-medium term, and quite slim in the long-term.

There are now two Irelands. They both look different ways. They view themselves distinctly because they are distinct. One is a nation state. The other is part of a state of nations. Irish national identity in Northern Ireland in the most recent UK census in 2011 came in at 28 per cent – far lower than I myself had previously thought. When you subtract those who said ‘British and Irish’, it fails to just 26%. People having a dominant Irish national identity formed a majority in only 2 of Northern Ireland’s 26 district areas; Londonderry at 53 per cent and Newry at 51 per cent. I highly doubt that the aforementioned whimsical notion will carry support amongst the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland.

“The alternative is to continue living off England’s largesse and hope that they never get sick of footing the bill.”

In every sovereign state there are regions which outperform the national average in terms of productivity and tax returns. By that same definition, there are also regions which underperform to the national average. If you are suggesting that the national government of the UK would choose to sever off part of itself (Northern Ireland) for economic reasons, then logic dictates that it would first rid itself of Wales and northeast England where GDP per capita is lower. If you recommend this policy, will you be consistent and advise the Republic to relinquish sovereignty over Counties Donegal, Monaghan and Mayo? Should France abandon le Massif Central? Ought Germany to reverse re-unification? Should Italy abandon the sole of its own foot? Would you counsel the Spaniards to rid themselves of the burdens of Andalucía and Extremadura?

Of course you wouldn’t. Because at the end of the day, when push comes to shove, Irish nationalism believes there should be a separatist all-Ireland state for the sake of having a separatist all-Ireland state. Insofar as Northern Ireland leaving the United Kingdom is concerned, Irish separatism’s principle interest is not for the betterment of the Northern Irish people. Some of it isn’t even overly concerned with the wishes of the Northern Irish people. Come hell or high water, separatists go’na be separatists, agus sin a bhfuil fá dtaobh dó – and that’s all there is to it.

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1 comment

  1. Andrew

    Enjoyed this.

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