This is from one of readers in the Republic of Ireland; he works in the Irish legal profession and is a former British soldier.
For generations it seems to have been a central plank of Unionist thought that an independent, and latterly united, Ireland would represent a Doomsday scenario. A hundred years ago, newspapers were filled with dire warnings about “Rome Rule” and cartoons showing cattle grazing on an overgrown, post-apocalyptic Donegall Square. These misconceptions have never really gone away. Loyalist graffitti proclaims that it’s “Better to die on our feet than to live on our knees in a United Ireland”. Let me allay some of those fears; the days when RC Church held sway south of the border are long over, and our cities remain largely cow-free.
But what would a United Ireland actually look like? My contention is that in the future, Ulster Unionists’ interests would be best served in an all-Ireland state.
There’s no doubt what Sinn Fein and all the parties to the left of them want; a 32-County socialist Republic. But they aren’t a majority in Ireland, not even close. Sinn Fein won 14 out of 166 seats in the last General Election and that was considered a triumph. Unionists are more likely to find themselves governed by Sinn Fein within Northern Ireland than in any United Ireland.
Luke Sproule’s column of February 10th touched on a number of oft-considered points. In particular this excerpt “As is often noted the Republic of Ireland can’t afford the economic basket-case that is Northern Ireland. Would their people, or indeed Chancellor Merkel, be willing to risk their slow economic recovery by taking on the huge public sector economy in the north?”
This hints at a common misconception when discussing unification; that the North would be absorbed into the Republic. For many reasons, that simply wouldn’t happen. Any new Irish state would be just that; a completely new country with a new system of governance, new symbols and a new demographic make-up. More than 1/5th of the population would be Unionists. If anyone could unite them, they’d represent the single biggest voting bloc in the country at around 20%, and that’s just to start with.
Take away the whole “Simply British” thing and the pro-farmer, socially conservative Unionist core values would find a lot of support in the Irish midlands and South. It’s really not hard to imagine a Unionist party being the dominant partners in a Government. Especially when one considers that they’d be stealing votes away from their main rivals in Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, and that’s before we consider the damage that Alliance would do to those parties amongst the urban Irish middle class. A further 1/5th of the population would be foreign-born (with 230,000 of them British) and their votes are definitely up for grabs. (And if you think Unionist parties gaining votes South of the border is unrealistic, I ask you; is it more unrealistic than Peter Robinson wooing nationalists up North?)
And what would this Unionist government be able to do? Well, for starters they’d get to run a country for the first time. They could set foreign and taxation policy and seek to amend the Constitution. As regards their Unionist aspirations, easing the Irish back into the Commonwealth under King William and Queen Kate would be pushing an open door. The recent State visits have shown there is a huge appetite amongst the Irish for reconciliation with the British.
Luke Sproule is right when he says that Northern Ireland is an economic basket-case. The public sector is bloated and this is primarily because private investment is so low. And it always will be. 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? You wouldn’t.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. With it’s low corporation tax and highly educated workforce the Republic has done an excellent job in this area, and even now is creating over 1,000 jobs per week. Why couldn’t this inward investment benefit Belfast as much as Dublin? Wouldn’t native businesses do better if they had a lower corporation tax than their counterparts across the water? Industriousness is surely a more valuable part of Unionist culture than burning flags on the 11th.
What I’m talking about is very much a long-term project. There are too many people alive now who’ve lost too much too recently and feel too bitter about it. There would also be a transitional phase during which the North’s economy would have to be weaned off the British public sector and the Republic just can’t afford that right now. But all recessions are temporary. Once this transitional phase is completed all of Ireland would be materially better off, with a larger population of tax-payers, a smaller public service and a Government who answers to us alone. Not to mention the fact that creating a new state gives us all a chance to un-make the mistakes of the past. It’s a blank slate.
The alternative is to continue living off England’s largesse and hope that they never get sick of footing the bill. As time goes on, Northern Ireland is becoming a more and more Nationalist place. I’m sure lots of Nationalists are happy to keep taking money from the British to build new gyms in their GAA clubs and fund their bi-lingual roadsigns. And why wouldn’t they be? There’s money flowing up from South of the border too and they get their Irish passports. But think about it in the long-term, would Ulster Unionists really be best served by being a forgotten >2% of the UK, a minority in a Nationalist region? Are they happy to continue to be failed by London governments when it comes to education and job creation, and keeping quiet about it because the only thing that matters is the Union? That sounds to me like living on your knees. Surely it’s better to play a major part in governing Britain’s closest partner, as equals and friends. To take your place on the world stage as a nation, not a province. As they say in Scotland, we’re stronger together.
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