A United Ireland would be good for everyone

 

by Matthew Parris
The Times

Faster than many realise, the time is coming to think dispassionately about the unification of Ireland. When the expected border with the rest of the UK is established in the Irish Sea the case for reuniting north and south will get its biggest boost since partition in 1921.

I suggest this may not be a bad thing. Before describing unification on the whole island of Ireland in the language of the “break-up” of the UK we should remember that there will be a corresponding coming-together. We should think about the gains. The idea makes so much sense.

“It is hereby declared” (says what has come to be known as the Good Friday agreement between the British and Irish governments) “that Northern Ireland . . . shall not cease to be [part of the UK] without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a poll.”

The agreement goes on to require the UK government to hold such a poll if “at any time it appears likely to [the secretary of state] that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland”.

And how likely is that? We already have the first straw in such a wind. Four months ago, before we even knew a border was to be established in the Irish Sea, a poll conducted in Northern Ireland for Lord Ashcroft’s Conservative Home website gave — for the first time — a slender margin (51-49 per cent) for unification. The demographics were clear: only the over-65s showed a clear majority against. The younger the respondents, the more they opted for unification. Ninety per cent of nationalists and (more surprisingly) 33 per cent of unionists thought a poll would occur within the next decade. Teasingly, one in ten self-declared unionists either said they would vote in favour or didn’t know how they’d vote.

It is difficult to see how the next few years could do other than accelerate this trend. After Brexit in a fortnight’s time, and unless the whole of the UK later decides to stay within the EU in all but name, then Great Britain’s economic habitat begins to diverge from Northern Ireland’s, which, as the withdrawal agreement stipulates, will remain in close alignment with the EU’s. Divergence is the only rationale for Brexit, and Northern Ireland is not going to diverge: a prospect that Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, has said is good news for the province.

The euro is increasingly accepted there; goods will remain able to travel freely across the land border with the Republic but not the sea border with Great Britain; and though these changes may make little immediate practical difference, there’s such a thing as a change in the weather in the confluence or divergence of cultures. An all-island consciousness is developing steadily, particularly among younger citizens.

But how about the Republic? Though the Irish constitution formally commits the country to unification it has become commonplace in Britain to respond with a knowing wink, and the observation that pigs will fly, and the last thing Dublin actually wants is the ruckus and expense of taking on the burden that is the north. I used to believe this myself. I no longer do. Just think about it: wouldn’t you, if you were an Irish taoiseach, dream of being the statesman who made the dream of a united Ireland come true? What laurels. What a legacy. You’d be a second de Valera, your victory less dubious than his.

And there’s evidence the mood is changing in the Republic. Four years ago a poll there found that a third of voters favoured unification. Last summer two thirds did. Historically the cause had been associated with anger rather than positivity but (said the Irish writer Finn McRedmond in a magazine article last year) “the argument is no longer tied to the Troubles, and an accompanying anti-English sentiment”, but to “economic logic”. Moderate opinion in the south, worried about Brexit-related turbulence, sees the constructive case for unity.

McRedmond cited as sharply instructive the blunder made last year by Mary Lou McDonald, leader of Sinn Fein in the Republic, when she marched behind a banner that read “England get out of Ireland”. “The stunt,” writes McRedmond, “garnered widespread criticism. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s deputy, Simon Coveney, didn’t mince his words when he called it ‘offensive, divisive and an embarrassment’. This incident was symptomatic of a party that has misread the room.”

Mr Varadkar reads the room differently: “People who you might describe as moderate nationalists or moderate Catholics,” he says, “who were more or less happy with the status quo, will look more towards a united Ireland . . . I think increasingly you’ll see liberal Protestants, liberal unionists, starting to ask the question as to where they feel more at home.”

But who will pay? Northern Ireland has been a laboratory test-bed for regional subsidy and the experiment has failed spectacularly. Before we get too excited about “levelling up” in the English north and Midlands, we should take a look across the water. The province has been a bottomless pit. At around £12 billion net per annum, Northern Ireland costs the taxpayer slightly more than our net payments to the EU. We pay more to keep the province in the Union than we’ll get back by leaving the EU.

It would be worth it if it were achieving its object but it isn’t. Beset by corruption and by politically driven public spending on hopeless investments, the province and its people are victims of a political class that Westminster keeps paying not to be difficult, thus engendering a culture of threatening to be difficult. We throw money at them to go away. They are not loved across the water and they know it. It’s a wretched and humiliating fate visited on them, and it’s partly the fault of the English who, to adapt one American journalist’s words, will do anything for Ulster except read about it.

It isn’t working. Not far south of Belfast, in the Republic, it is. Neither side has much by way of natural resources but, instead, tremendous human resources, which only one side has learnt to harness. Meshing the two together will be painful — look how difficult it has proved in Germany — but it can be done; and done better without us. England has not been good to the Irish, or good for the Irish. It is time we had the humility to recognise that. Northern Ireland, I sense, is already on the road to such a recognition.

 

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