Those who wish to see the reunification of Ireland are pouncing upon the uncertainty of Brexit and using it to advance their dream of a 32-county state.
Immediately after the majority of the British electorate voted Leave in 2016, Sinn Fein IRA and their followers intensified their efforts in trying to navigate a border poll onto the frontline of political discussion.
Whilst SFIRA have kept plugging away at the idea, the media have grown numb to their outbursts and the public clearly don’t share the same appetite or support for reunification (Queens University Poll in May 2018 – 59% In favour of NI in Union; 23% Against). All the more surprising therefore that it would be Peter Robinson, the former First Minister and Unionist political veteran, who would further oxygenate the Republican cause by saying Northern Ireland should prepare for reunification.
Despite a bombardment of criticisms toward the former DUP leader, there is an implicit logic in contingency planning and “insuring your house” so to speak. That being said, Sammy Wilson put it best when he described Robinson’s words as an “invitation for republican arsonists to burn the house down.” Robinson’s comments, logical as they are, fail to appreciate how they will be used as cannon fodder for the reunification agenda and add to the myth of its inevitability – for that he is rightly criticised.
Around the same time a report was published by Irish Senator Mark Daly for the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. It was described as “the first ever report to look at the issues, policies and planning required for the peaceful unity of Ireland.” The Belfast Telegraph headlined, “Northern Ireland could be better off financially in a United Ireland – claims new report.” Again, it was another beat of the reunification drum launching an attack on one of the greatest reasons for Northern Ireland remaining in the UK – economy and finances.
For many Unionists this would have been unsettling. There has always been a relatively unchallenged understanding that Northern Ireland’s place in the world’s 5th largest economy is a good thing and dislocating us from that would have no financial reward. The report desperately tried to reverse that assumption and was again endorsed by many SFIRA members and reunificationists.
Frankly, upon inspection, the report is over simplistic to the point of amateur, naively idealistic and completely neglects the obvious and ominous hardships that come with reunification.
It attempts to eliminate Northern Ireland’s £9.2billion deficit by removing all the financial contributions Northern Ireland makes toward UK defence, UK debt interest, pensions, and central UK accounting matters. Additionally, it argues for the public sector to be more aligned with that of the Republic of Ireland – reducing its expenditure and therefore a significant part of its workforce.
Dr. Morgenroth, a Professor of Economics at Dublin City University, questioned the report saying he was “surprised and a little bit bemused” at some of the calculations. He claimed the report failed to mention that “in a unified Ireland, Northern Ireland would be making financial contributions to Dublin,” and if put into practice, “there could be an increase in unemployment which would have to be paid for.”
The report fails to clarify whether the UK would realistically be willing, or legally obliged, to pay NI pensions accrued when part of the UK and how the public sector could be reduced in such a way that would save so much money, when the cost of redundancy and increase of unemployment would come with a burdensome upsurge of benefits – not to mention the added social unrest of many being laid-off.
Additionally, there was no telling of what finances must be paid to the Irish government, what share of debt Northern Ireland could take on for the Republic and what adverse effect creating barriers in Northern Ireland’s trading relationship with the mainland UK would have on the economy.
Whilst the report itself is wide of the mark and promises far more than it delivers, I do suspect we will be seeing much more of this type of argument in the near future. The economic benefit to Northern Ireland being in the United Kingdom is so damning to the Republican cause that efforts will be made to reduce its importance and deny its advantage.
Unionism must however take note of the ongoing demographics in Northern Ireland and engage in the debate. The aftermath of the Brexit referendum has developed an even more polarised and partisan society that SFIRA and fellow reunificationists are seeking to capitalise on.
Unionists must stand up, make their voices heard and robustly promote the plethora of advantages that being in this great Union rewards us with, not to oxygenate the Republican agenda but to refute it. Not to comply with the myth of inevitable unification but to contest it.
A form of positive Unionism that emphasises the economic, political and social benefits of the Union must take the mantel. A positive Unionism that belongs to everyone and is proud of the rich history of the United Kingdom and its significant role throughout the world. A positive Unionism that is not afraid to engage in the debate, that does not bury its head in the sand but confronts the challenges head on and demonstrates with reason and rhetoric just why this Union of nations is perhaps the greatest Union of all.
The majority of people in Northern Ireland are overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the United Kingdom – a positive Unionism will raise awareness of why it should remain so.
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