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Opinion: A united Ireland is a realistic possibility now so we need to prepare for it

There are serious challenges to creating a united Ireland but with proper forward planning it could be achieved, writes Paul Goslng.

Paul Gosling

For the first time since partition, reunification of Ireland has become a realistic possibility. The twin pressures of Brexit and demography have changed the political context.

To add to this, the failure of devolved government to create a financially sustainable Northern Ireland is encouraging people to consider different arrangements for future governance.

It is essential to recognise, though, that whatever governance structure is adopted for Northern Ireland, and whatever jurisdiction it is part of, the same underlying problems must be addressed. Northern Ireland is not self-financing, it is wasteful and it needs fundamental reform. It also remains a deeply divided society.

Those who argue for a united Ireland need to recognise these facts, otherwise they are engaged in a level of dishonesty that is similar to those Brexiteers who pretended that leaving the EU would be simple to negotiate on terms that were beneficial for the UK.

The challenges of a united Ireland are severe. At their heart is addressing the economic weaknesses that are inherent in Northern Ireland.

Subsidised 

According to the UK Treasury, there is an annual subvention to Northern Ireland from the taxpayers of Great Britain of around £10 bn.

If you strip out the costs that would perhaps not transfer to a united Ireland, such as interest on government debt and the armed services, for example – then you might bring the amount down to about £5bn.

A much smaller, but still vast, figure. A realistic plan for reducing that would certainly help reunification. Achieving a more integrated society – particularly through integrated education – might shave around £1bn a year off that amount. But that is not a change that could be achieved at the flick of a switch.

Public Sector

Another difficult challenge is the reliance of Northern Ireland on public sector employment.

There are around 50,000 more people in the public sector workforce in Northern Ireland than there would be if it were the same size, pro rata, as that of the Republic or England.

A programme, conducted over a number of years, might reduce the size of the public sector, alongside increasing the size of the private sector.

Northern Ireland’s economic challenge is closely related to its unbalanced public spending. Public finances need to be re-prioritised, with much more allocated towards investing in skills and infrastructure, while addressing regional inequalities.

Productivity in Northern Ireland is horribly weak, which points to a lack of investment, insufficient skills and inadequate infrastructure. This needs to be corrected if the north is to have a vibrant economy and higher tax revenues.

Health

Reform is also needed urgently to Northern Ireland’s health service. Waiting lists and waiting times are too long. A proposal for fundamental change – the Bengoa report – is sitting on the shelves, waiting for a minister to implement it.

Yet, when you ask people in the north about a united Ireland, the Republic’s health system is cited as a major blockage.

Each system needs reform: integrating the two, based on the NHS principles of being free at the point of delivery, would improve the cost-effectiveness of both. The Oireachtas report on SlainteCare represents an important move by the Republic towards the creation of a healthcare system much more acceptable to people in the north.

Changes

Irish reunification is only possible if a majority in both jurisdictions want it. But it also requires changes to how those jurisdictions operate.

If the Irish state is willing to consider seriously the prospect of reunification then it would help if it could make some changes quickly.

They might include doing more to demonstrate that Ireland as a whole values the traditions, culture and contributions of people from Protestant, unionist and loyalist backgrounds.

There should also be a recognition by the UK government that any person born in Ireland, on either side of the current border, has a right to either Irish or British citizenship, or both. This would mirror in the Republic the settlement in Northern Ireland, as established by the Good Friday Agreement.

Creating greater cohesion between all communities across the island is the major priority, and will also take time. Simply achieving a united Ireland is not enough. It has to be an integrated nation, a new society, which brings people together and increases collective prosperity and well-being.

Attempting to achieve a massively difficult task too quickly is a path to confusion and failure.

Irish reunification must be a medium to long term project if it is to be successful. A ten year plan to achieve it will provide a strong foundation that can and should lead to success.

‘A New Ireland – a ten year plan’ by Paul Gosling is being launched today Friday 7th December, at 9am in Buswells Hotel, Dublin and at 2pm at The Europa Hotel, Belfast.

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Paul Gosling

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