Europe and BrexitIssues

Achieving Irish unity

Author and journalist Paul Gosling outlines some of the fundamental arguments included in his recent publication in the second edition of ‘A New Ireland – A New Union, A New Society’, which explores how Brexit has created a different context for discussing Irish unity.

Boris Johnson’s popularity has sunk over his failed handling of Covid-19. But unionism was already disillusioned by his negotiations over Brexit, in which he disregarded his pledges over the treatment of Northern Ireland. David Cameron exercised similarly bad judgement, by launching the Brexit referendum process while instructing government officials not to prepare for an EU exit vote.

Now Northern Ireland is within months of the end of transition period, forcing us into leaving the EU family against the wishes of the majority of the population here. Yet neither citizens nor businesses have a clear idea of what our future relationship will be, not with the EU, the Republic of Ireland, nor with Great Britain. It is even possible that the UK will finalise its leaving of the EU without a trade deal – with a new threat of a hard border in the island of Ireland. Who said history does not repeat itself?

This political roller-coaster has caused an increasing number of people in Northern Ireland to question which is more important: their membership of the European Union or the United Kingdom. The apparent disdain and disinterest of English nationalists to Northern Ireland exacerbates this. That relationship is likely to be under greater tension in the future.

It is clear that, in the short-term at least, Northern Ireland will be financially poorer for leaving the EU. Farmers are at risk of losing most of their income, which comes from EU grants. Consumers may have to pay more for food, with new bureaucracy involved in sending goods from GB to Northern Ireland. Our businesses will find existing trading relationships with GB becoming more cumbersome and less profitable.

These factors have created a different context for discussing Irish unity. For one thing, Brexit is pushing us towards what some unionists have called ‘an economic united Ireland’, involving closer trading links with the Republic of Ireland. For another, referendums in the south on gay marriage and abortion have disarmed complaints from the North that the South is under the control of the Catholic church.

Politics in the south are coming to terms with the concept of Irish unity, with economists and politicians giving it serious consideration. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil seem to recognise that change may be coming. Both parties have promised to invest in the North as a means of strengthening relationships and improving economic conditions here. Meanwhile, Sinn Féin gained the most electoral support in the recent general election – in truth, more for its policies on housing and health than on Irish unity.

Former leaders of the DUP and the UUP, Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt, have warned their party colleagues not to assume a border poll would necessarily go their way. It is time to consider what for many has long been unthinkable, Irish unity is possible. Brexit has opened more minds to this, but the difference in economic performance between south and north in recent decades is just as significant.

Once, Belfast was rich from shipyards and linen, while Derry had its shirt factories to create employment: those days have gone. Now Dublin is a major global hub for digital business, while the country is a global centre for pharmaceutical research and production. The Republic has reaped the rewards of decades of investment into skills development, education, R&D and infrastructure. That could have been the North, but it wasn’t. What, exactly, is Northern Ireland’s USP (unique selling point)?

Yet, it would require a very narrow mindset to think that we could have an Irish unity referendum one day, and a united Ireland the next. Consider how long it has taken to fail to achieve a Brexit conclusion. The handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China took 13 years.

“Without a clear commitment to a free at point of delivery healthcare system in the Republic, it is unlikely that people in Northern Ireland would vote for Irish unity.”

The purpose of my book ‘A New Ireland’ is to consider not just the arguments for Irish unity, but also to consider how it would happen, not with a bang, but a process and a programme. First, the referendum needs to be prepared for, with votes in both jurisdictions on the principle of unity. Secondly, the negotiations take place to determine the terms. Thirdly, a second set of referendums would be held to confirm that the negotiated settlement is acceptable. Then we have the fourth element, which is the period of handover, itself taking the time needed to prepare the way.

I have proposed that this handover might take 10 years. This would be the period in which the core challenges would be resolved. It would enable the Northern Ireland ‘subvention’, the subsidy paid by the British state, to be gradually reduced. Parallel to that, Northern Ireland would have to address its core problems. These include a private sector that is too small and not productive enough. We need to invest more in skills training and education. We also need better infrastructure, including roads, water, electricity, rail and broadband.

But the Republic needs to change, too. The recent general election illustrated the extent of discontent regarding both housing and health. There needs to be more social housing construction, both south and north. And more reform and investment in health, north and south. Without a clear commitment to a free at point of delivery healthcare system in the Republic, it is unlikely that people in Northern Ireland would vote for Irish unity.

The basis for an NHS-type healthcare service has been agreed in the Republic through Sláintecare, but progress towards its implementation has been too slow. It is good to see that the European Union’s recommendations for Ireland’s economic recovery are led by the suggestion to accelerate and extend the adoption of Sláintecare. But a merger of the two systems into a single all-island, free, healthcare system could provide significant improvements in terms of outcomes and service quality, while reducing overheads. This island is too small for two health systems.

Moving towards Irish unity after it has been agreed in a referendum is as much a challenge as winning the referendum itself. But it provides the basis for Northern Ireland becoming a more reconciled, socially cohesive, progressive and economically successful place. That is an opportunity that deserves very serious consideration.

The second edition of ‘A New Ireland – A New Union: A New Society’ has just been published and is available from Amazon and some bookshops.

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