I READ WITH interest Pearse Doherty’s interview with the Journal.ie last week. What caught my attention was not his musings on whether he would lead Sinn Fein but his economic ideas surrounding Ireland’s economic performance in a United Ireland.
Since January, Sinn Fein has made a push to hold a border poll during the lifetime of the next assembly. I argued in a previous column that this push was not only misguided but could also be detrimental to communal relations in Northern Ireland. Reading Doherty’s interview on the economics of a United Ireland, I am now even more confident in that view.
A United Ireland
Here it is important to point out that I am not coming at this from a Unionist perspective. Personally, I would be open to the idea of a United Ireland. I have a lot more in common with the average person in Dublin than I do with somebody in London or Manchester. Yet when I hear what George H W Bush once described as ‘voodoo economic’ strategies to achieve reunification, I literally despair that a change in Northern Ireland’s constitutional status will never come about.
Let’s deal with some facts about the Northern Ireland economy. In his interview, Doherty said that the public sector workforce is no bigger in the North than in any other part of the United Kingdom. However official figures show that this is not accurate, as around 31 per cent of the work force in Northern Ireland is employed in the public sector compared to just 20 per cent in throughout the United Kingdom. We would seemingly be able to merge the huge monolith that is the Northern Ireland Civil Service with a dramatically smaller Irish Civil Service with no need for redundancies at all.
The most politically viable form of unity would be a federal arrangement
Then we have the claim that the British subvention to Northern Ireland is nowhere near the £10 billion that is constantly claimed. Sinn Fein regularly cites a report by the Northern Department of Finance that shows Northern Ireland’s contribution to the British Exchequer rising to £12.7 billion. Yet as Newton Emerson points out, public spending is increasing to £23.2 billion which keeps the £10 billion subvention from the British government intact.
This, combined with other costs and savings, brings the tab for the Irish government to pick up to £8 billion. That is more than double the Sinn Fein estimate. Plus none of this takes into consideration that the most politically viable form of unity would be a federal arrangement which would in effect keep in place much of the duplication that occurs at the moment.
It is little wonder that in most of the debates that have taken place since this push for a border poll began that Unionist politicians and commentators have demolished Sinn Fein’s economic proposals on Irish Unity as economically unviable. It seems that the party’s desire to simply get a border poll is seeing them make huge errors.
The old republican strategy of ‘It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose but how you’ve played the game’ is precisely why we have achieved next to no success in ending partition. Instead of coming up with common sense proposals and some new thinking on what a united Ireland would look like, we hark back to events that happened over a century ago.
It is all too easy to look backwards. What will determine my decision and thousands of others’ are basic questions such as ‘Will I get the NHS or the HSE in a United Ireland?’, ’How will the education system be different?’. These are just some of the basic questions that people on both sides of the border will ask themselves before they cast their ballots. So far, I haven’t heard any answers.
There is a case for a United Ireland but it does not lie in voodoo economic plans that involve spending the same money twice and deluding yourself that billions of pounds exist when they don’t. We need to get away from the notion that reunification would be a one way bet. There would be hardship for some people and a dramatic change in lifestyle for others. The real approach should be convincing people that, in the longer term, it would be worth it.
Support is falling
Support for reunification is falling in Northern Ireland. People who should be naturally supportive of a United Ireland are turning away because those advocating for a change are not speaking to them. No one party or leader will unite this country. The only way to win a referendum is to form a broad-based coalition between political parties and other sections of society.
So instead of a gimmick, let’s develop a game plan. Instead of cooking the books to make the figures fit the facts, let’s develop a new economic vision for this island.
Like most things in life, you get one chance to make a good first impression. We need to drop the voodoo economics and embrace some realistic solutions for the economic future of our country. Otherwise we are on the road to defeat and, if it’s all the same to you, I’d quite like to win this vote.
David McCann is a PhD researcher in Irish politics at the University of Ulster. To read more articles by David for TheJournal.ie click here.