When it comes to Northern Ireland many years of journalism and cross-border cooperation have taught me to be a hard-headed, cold-eyed realist. Any suggestion of movement towards Irish unity, whether it be a post-Brexit agreement to put border checks down the Irish Sea or demographic increases in the Catholic population, will be fiercely resisted, or wilfully ignored, by the great majority of people in the unionist community.
But I do have one dream. It is that the two parts of Ireland will come together slowly, with an increasing number of Northern unionists realising that a much closer association with the Republic makes huge sense for reasons of economic self-interest. In short, it is that the benefits of an economically united Ireland will over time start persuading them of the merits of a politically united Ireland. I know that Brexit may put paid to such highly optimistic ideas – but this is a dream we’re talking about!
Because when one digs down into the economic performance of the two Irish jurisdictions in recent times, the differences are both dramatic and dramatically in the Republic’s favour. I have been reading a report published last month by the island’s two business confederations, IBEC and CBI Northern Ireland, called Business on a Connected Island. This shows startling differences between economic activity, income, consumption and education levels between North and South.
For example, Gross Domestic Product per capita in 2016 was more than twice as high in the Republic as in the North (€58,800 to €27,400). Even given factors such as the distortion of the Irish economy by profit outflows to the large number of multinational companies here, this is an extraordinary discrepancy.
The export performance of Northern companies is simply pathetic when compared to the Republic’s booming economy. In 2016 the Republic (with goods sold overseas to the value of €119 billion) exported more in one month than Northern Ireland did in the whole year (€9.5 billion).
In that year average hourly wages were substantially higher (Stg£21.47 to £13.87) in the Republic, although again this comparison has to be treated with some caution because of poorer and more expensive public services like health and education. The average weekly expenditure on consumption in the South in 2015 (excluding housing) was €614 compared to €527 in Northern Ireland.
Higher education qualifications, so vital for employment these days, are far more prevalent in the Republic than the North: 53% of 30-35 year olds have such qualifications in the former, compared to 35.5% in the latter.
The report’s authors observe that if you put the North and South together into one all-island economy, that would make it the third largest regional economy in the British Isles, behind only London and the English south-east. If one takes Northern Ireland on its own, it is easily the weakest regional economy in the UK. They conclude: “The opportunities offered by an all-island economy have been used by a wide range of firms in both jurisdictions to grow their businesses and create new jobs. As a result, what was once merely a concept is now an economic reality.”
In a study published in April the Derry-based financial journalist Paul Gosling confirmed this picture of Southern economic strength and Northern weakness.¹ He calculated that since partition the two economies have gone in opposite directions. In 1920 80% of Irish industrial output was in and around Belfast, then the island’s largest city. Just under a hundred years later the economy of the Republic is four times larger than that of Northern Ireland, with industrial output 10 times larger.
According to a recent Economic Eye study from the accountancy firm EY, economic growth in 2017 in the Republic was 4.9% compared to 1.4% in Northern Ireland. In January the Irish Central Bank forecast the creation of nearly 90,000 new jobs this year and next, and that unemployment would decline to just over 5%: effectively full employment. Young people are flocking from all over the world to Ireland to seek employment opportunities in its dynamic IT, pharmaceutical, financial services, aircraft leasing and other sectors.
At the same time, as I have pointed out before, the Republic has become one of the most liberal and open-minded countries in Europe, with same sex marriage and a liberal abortion regime passed by large majorities in referenda; over 90% of people polled saying they want to remain part of the European Union; a gay, half-Indian prime minister; and, despite the huge and recent increase of foreign-born people in the country (11.6% of the population in 2016), not the remotest sign of the emergence of any kind of right wing, anti-immigration party. A poor health service and a scandalous lack of social housing remain major problems. But in the Irish Times and Guardian commentator Fintan O’Toole’s words, Irish democracy has showed itself to be “a strong, vibrant plant” at a time when “a wave of reactionary identity politics is washing over the democratic world.”
What is there not to like in all this? Unfortunately for many unionists, the prospect of becoming part of an attractive and prosperous Irish society is always trumped by their deeply fearful brand of identity politics. For too many of them politics remains about one thing only: remaining British at all costs – even the hugely damaging cost of crashing out of the EU, seeing the break-up of the UK and becoming a second rate nation with a standard of living well below that of its former European partners.
The next part is pure fantasy on my part. Once the Brexit imbroglio is semi-resolved in the next few years, I would like to see Fine Gael and Fianna Fail coming together on a joint electoral platform of starting to get ready for an Irish unity based on economic performance and prosperity (they could add a comprehensive package to deal with the housing crisis). As part of this they would offer unionists a power-sharing regional Assembly in Belfast with all the safeguards enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement; Irish membership of the Commonwealth; an overhaul of the Constitution to remove any remaining elements influenced by 1930s nationalism and Catholicism, notably the preamble, and to recognise the British identity of Northern unionists; a new flag (I suggest St Patrick’s harp on a blue background as used in the presidential standard or the symbols of the four Irish provinces) and national anthem (perhaps Ireland’s Call); and new systems of state education (including an end to compulsory Irish) and healthcare without church involvement.
The Citizens Assembly could have a key role here. It was recently described by two distinguished UCD professors as “a venue for calm, reflective deliberation that fed back into our representative system of politics [so that] Ireland is now seen (deservedly) as a world leader in the use of deliberative democracy.”² The Assembly could be convened in semi-permanent session over a number of years to discuss these proposals and how they might be implemented.
This dramatic démarche by the two largest Irish parties, working together, would have three impacts: it would marginalise Sinn Fein as the party of Irish unity; it would help moderate unionists (who would then, I believe, be facing into a post-Brexit economic meltdown) to begin to contemplate an Irish unity that would not be the creation of their arch-enemies in the republican movement (the political representatives of the organisation that spent 30 years killing and bombing them); and it would force Southern people to face for the first time the far reaching and socially disruptive implications of unity for their cosy little 26-county society.
Remember this is only my dream. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if it started coming true?
¹ The Economic Effects of an All-Island Economy 2018
² Bryan Fanning and David Farrell, ‘Ireland cannot ignore threat of populism’, Irish Times, 17 August