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Disaster of a reunited Ireland may come one step closer this summer

UK Labour leader frontrunner Jeremy Corbyn is a longtime supporter of Irish unification. What would his election mean for Northern Ireland?

Aaron McKenna

THE SURPRISE FRONTRUNNER in the UK Labour Party leadership election, Jeremy Corbyn, is throwing quite a few curve balls into the mainstream political discussion next door. Corbyn is a hard-left MP who divorced his second wife in an argument about her wanting to send the kids to private school, and he is in favour of nationalising various industries, driving taxes through the roof, getting rid of nuclear weapons and the monarchy.

Corbyn has been on the right side of history in quite a few moral arguments during his time as an MP. He was a supporter of Nelson Mandela long before it was fashionable, and was a leader in the anti-war movement in the UK that so irked Tony Blair. He was also a defender of the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six, and has long maintained a comradely relationship with Sinn Féin going back to the height of the troubles. He believes, rather interestingly for us, in Irish unification.

Unmitigated disaster

It looks like the UK Labour Party membership has lurched incredibly far to the left, and if they elect Corbyn leader there are many who fear that they will be gifting the Conservatives an even bigger majority at the next election. Then again, electorates are unpredictable these days; and the UK wouldn’t be the first country to elect a left-wing maverick to deliver panacea solutions to all the ills of the nation.

If the fixed term parliament act is followed to the letter, the next UK election will be in May 2020. Here at home, if we go to the polls in early 2016 and then run another full term, we’ll be due an election in early 2021. It is almost inevitable that Sinn Féin will come to government at some point in the future, and many would place the election after next as their likely first stab at it.

It is worthwhile for this reason, and as we are entering a period of undoubted fever pitch nationalism around the 1916 Rising commemorations, to consider just what an unmitigated disaster Irish unification would be. The same economic and societal difficulties that might make it attractive for a future UK government to offload the troublesome province would sink the Republic under their weight.

Public sector reliance 

Northern Ireland is a non-functioning economic entity. Peace has failed to bring a particularly bountiful economic return, as a welfare and public sector dependent population has struggled with the idea that they might have to compete and pay their own way. The public sector in Northern Ireland employs nearly one in three people, versus 15% of the workforce in the Republic; a share that is dropping as private sector employment increases at speed down south. It is amazing to consider how reliant on public sector spending the North truly is.

The UK government spends 24% more per head in Northern Ireland than it does in England, some £10,876 for every person in the province. If we got Northern Ireland tomorrow, that would translate to €15,464. In the Republic, we spend €11,120 per head.

Of course, the Northerners could spend what they like if they earned it. But the deficit in Northern Ireland is staggering, and on a per head basis is about double what it reached even in the worst years of the recession in the Republic. Its deficit has reached as far as £5,311 (€7,549) per head, vs the €1,001 it stands at down south today. A reunified Irish state would require taxes or borrowing to increase by up to €13.67bn per year.

That is the immediate consequence of unification: The taking in of 1.8 million people who can’t support themselves, to a Republic that can barely stand on its own two feet as it is today.

Union stability

Quite why people in Northern Ireland would want to join the Republic, all sectarianism aside, is beyond me; and polls indicate that support is only at around 33% even among Catholic communities. The UK brings economic support and stability.

The much maligned union, and you cannot underrate this, brings the UK civil and public service with it. They are by no means perfect, but if you’re a Northern Ireland resident it is pertinent to consider that senior doctors in the UK are kicking up major fuss because A&E overcrowding in the NHS is reckoned to have contributed to 500 deaths last year.

In the Republic, population 4.6 million to the UK’s 64.1 million, doctors reckon that A&E overcrowding kills up to 350 people per year. The HSE, if it operated at UK scale, would probably kill the 4,900 person population of Crumlin, County Antrim, each year. If you assumed absolute proportionality, a person in Northern Ireland would have to consider that overcrowding in the NHS could have accounted for 14 deaths last year. If they got HSE standards overnight, that could become 138.

Put up with a union jack over city hall… Or give up the NHS? It’s not a choice, really.

Labour leadership contest Anti-austerity candidate Jeremy Corbyn is the favourite to win UK Labour's leadership election. Source: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

Special policing needs

If we got unification there is also the small matter of security to consider. The PSNI employs some 7,200 officers, a ratio of 1 officer per 251 people. They have a budget of £836.7m (€1.19bn). The gardaí have 13,093 officers, one per 350 people; and a budget of €1.426bn.

Northern Ireland has very special policing needs. There’s a lot more rioting, bomb squad call outs and euphemistically titled peace walls to maintain. It would be interesting to see what would happen if we suddenly got Northern Ireland handed over to us. I’m going to say there would be a few unhappy campers with folk memory on the making of pipe bombs and the handling of small arms.

It wouldn’t take long, I’d wager, before we’d see the Defence Forces drafted to assist in keeping order some fine July day. You can almost picture the scene: Orange Order marchers plodding along calling for their rights to be respected. Loyalist paramilitaries mingling among the crowd and atop roofs. Patrick O’Something, three-star private, local GAA legend and all-round great guy takes one in the neck. What happens next is history, redux.

Keeping the peace

The situation in Northern Ireland today is kept at a simmer through a totally artificial and really quite undemocratic political construct for a government, and by lavishing money on communities that are kept as far apart as humanly possible.

It is probably in everyone’s self interest, except that of politicians who espouse the theory of manifest destiny, that Northern Ireland just continue to be this half-baked country where, hopefully, some foreign direct investment will trickle in and normality will see economic prosperity grow over time. People with jobs, decent houses, schools to send their kids to and money to spend on a holiday are less inclined to want to kill one another.

We will not see peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland continue to take root if we achieved, overnight, the misguided aim of fervent nationalists. The economic instability, if not sheer collapse, of the Irish state under the weight of Northern Ireland would drive us all backwards. The political and security instability would probably see sectarian conflict reignite as the Irish Defence Forces quickly have to start reading up on Israeli Defence Forces field manuals.

It’s probably a slim to unlikely chance that Irish unification will occur overnight, no matter who is running the UK and Irish governments. But as we do march into 2016, it would be refreshing if parties calling for unification would consider and address the real issues that arise if they got their way. 2016 will be tiresome enough for posturing without having to listen to guff about a united Ireland that nobody really thinks is feasible, and few enough want.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and columnist for TheJournal.ie. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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