Reunification is inevitable: 
rational conversation is overdue

 

A series of powerful trends is combining to make the prospect of Irish reunification a reality. It’s time we started discussing how we respond. Author of A United Ireland: Why Unification Is Inevitable and How It Will Come About and erstwhile special adviser to the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Kevin Meagher unpacks his analysis.

This may come as news to an Irish audience, but the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is not an arrangement of equals. The ‘province’ – bolted on the end – is an unloved and little-understood appendage. As near to the British ‘mainland’ as France, we have little affinity with the place. It’s a far-away land of which we know, and, well, care little.

The plain truth is that Northern Ireland was not meant to last this long. Created as a back foot political compromise by inter-war statesmen trying to split the difference between loyalists they felt they owed and nationalists that were too numerous to subjugate any longer, they reached an awkward compromise and partitioned the country.

It was a classic British halfway measure, assuming that subsequent politicians would sort out the messy legacy. However, like the proverbial broken gate, Northern Ireland has endured longer than anyone imagined.

As we crawl towards its centenary in 2021, there will be little to celebrate for the union’s shrinking band of devotees. Northern Ireland’s place in the union has never looked weaker or more irrelevant, while the prospect of Irish reunification has never been more confidently asserted or empirically justified.

Most Brits still struggle to understand why the IRA wanted to blow up our cities and look on in astonishment as men in orange sashes and bowler hats insist on marching down streets where they are not wanted. That is, if we think of them at all.

British indifference towards Northern Ireland cannot be overstated. In 2014, MPs were willing to change their holiday plans to trek north and try to convince Scots their best future lay in remaining part of the union. Moreover, Scotland was regarded as prize worth keeping, a valuable source of oil wealth and a base for the UK’s nuclear submarines.

Even so, in the face of a concerted effort by London’s political, business and media elite, 45 per cent of Scots opted for full independence and subsequent election results show this tide is not dropping back. At some stage in the next decade the issue will be revisited and then Scotland will be gone.

It is improbable – actually, it’s almost inconceivable – that a similar effort will go into convincing Northern Ireland to stay when a border poll on its future is also held in the next few years. I struggle to imagine – a few Conservative ultras aside – who would make the trip across the Irish Sea to trudge the highways of North Antrim and the byways of Derry City persuading people there to remain in the UK.

The brutal truth is that the British Government will offload the place as soon as it thinks it can get away with doing so. And probably with an audible sigh of relief. As British Home Secretary Reginald Maudling put it as he was leaving Belfast after closing Stormont and ushering in direct rule in 1972: “For God’s sake, bring me a large Scotch. What a bloody awful country.”

His successor as Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Brooke, said as long ago as 1989 that Britain had ‘no selfish, strategic or economic’ interest in remaining in Northern Ireland if a change of sovereignty could be arranged peacefully and by exclusively democratic means.

This ‘principle of consent’ was incorporated in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Northern Ireland’s constitutional status will not change unless a majority wants it to. Flip that argument around though and it guarantees there will be a change once there is such a majority. This effectively leaves Northern Ireland in an ante-chamber. The door to the union has closed behind it and the door in front opens out onto a unified Ireland.

This, then, is the bedrock of why I assert in my book that Irish reunification is inevitable. Britain simply has no long-term stake in Northern Ireland, particularly when it has to grapple with the more significant prospect of Scotland leaving the union. Meanwhile, the transformed economic fortunes of the Republic in recent decades makes integrating Northern Ireland into a new Irish state perfectly feasible, not to mention there are clear economic benefits of unity.

That’s because the border is an artificial division, leaving Northern Ireland and the Republic as the only dinner guests positioned at opposite ends of a banqueting table. So much more can be done to maximise trade and growth. This point was forensically made in a major report on the economics of Irish unity by Dr Kurt Hübner, director of the Institute for European Studies at the University of British Columbia, in a study modelling the effects of Irish reunification last year.

His assessment was that “borders matter” and that although the economies of both jurisdictions are interlinked and interdependent they are not aligned, “differ[ing] enormously in terms of structure, output and growth”. A single, unified approach would boost an all-Ireland economy by €36 billion during the first eight years, according to his research.

 

“The evidence-based case for unity will be made in flat, sober tones. PowerPoint presentations, not stirring graveside orations, are the order of the day.”

Britain’s role in this transition should be to maintain a significant financial contribution over a number of years until both jurisdictions are sufficiently harmonised. Will the British people stand for that? Given the British state currently spends £10 billion a year on the place, any prospect of drawing down that figure, even over a period of years, is a good deal.

Of course, it is easy to pontificate about what the Irish people should do from my side of the Irish Sea. The whole idea of reunification, in the parlance of eBay, needs the buyer to be willing to collect. In this regard, opinion polls in the Republic show clear majorities of up to three-quarters in favour of reunification.

Over the next few years, the demand for constitutional change in Northern Ireland will become too acute to ignore. Already, the gap between parties supporting unity and those wishing to maintain the status quo with Britain was as close as 30,000 votes in elections to the Assembly back in March. Unionism is in long-term decline, standing on a burning electoral and demographic platform.

A majority of Northern Ireland’s under-35s are Catholic, providing unionists with an impossible medium-term challenge in fending off Irish unity.
Given that even Sinn Féin is not calling for a border poll for the next five years, there is ample scope to construct a majority for change by the mid-2020s, now the prospect is truly out in the open and the benefits of reunification are being widely discussed.

It is in Britain’s long-term interest to make Irish unity work. Relations between these isles are the best they have ever been, Brexit notwithstanding. Britain’s self-ejection from the EU serves as an accelerant, making all these other slow-burning trends towards unity even more urgent, not least because Northern Ireland will lose €600 million of funding a year that it would retain if it was part of the Republic.

What is needed now is a three-pronged conversation about the future, involving Northern Ireland, the Republic and Britain. We need a shared understanding about where the north-east of the island of Ireland is heading by the mid-2020s.

What is clear is that Irish reunification will be the pragmatic, modernising position to advocate. Indeed, the evidence-based case for unity will be made in flat, sober tones. PowerPoint presentations, not stirring graveside orations, are the order of the day. The case for the status quo is the argument of the nostalgic.

To be sure, there will be differences of opinion, but surely we can all agree that we have prevaricated long enough? The time to discuss the future of the whole island of Ireland is upon us.

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