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The current border outline between Ireland and the UK. Shutterstock/zelvan

Emma DeSouza Should we really put a price on a United Ireland?

The writer and campaigner questions whether Irish reunification would be economically detrimental after a report that suggested it would cost billions.


AN ECONOMIC REPORT for the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA) has sparked a fraught debate over the cost of a United Ireland; will the reunification of Ireland cost €20bn a year for 20 years as report authors John Fitzgerald and Prof Edgar Morgenroth assume?

Or will it lead to €35bn in growth over eight years as Prof Kurt Huebner – who worked on German reunification – has predicted? We don’t yet have the answer, but the most pressing question the people of Ireland should be considering is whether a price can even be placed on independence.

Over 150 countries worldwide celebrate independence, but not Ireland because Ireland is not fully independent. The partitioning of the island in 1921 may have delivered an Irish State for 26 of the 32 counties of Ireland, but it did not deliver Irish independence.

Dividing this island led to decades of inequality and sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, which in turn negatively impacted economic and human development in the North.

Partition has acted as a barrier to an all-island economy, from the closing of the rail lines along border counties of Fermanagh, Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan as well as the duplication of public services.

The stagnation in Northern Ireland is rooted in low productivity, poor educational attainment, low wages and political instability – all of which can be addressed and improved in a United Ireland. Discussing the cost of unification is important, but so too is discussing the economic and human cost of partition.

The economic argument for a United Ireland

On day one, duplication of services would become redundant, and Northern Ireland would become further embedded into the all-island economy and European markets. Whilst the figure remains unknown, expect significant investment from the US and EU into bolstering the all-island economy and infrastructure. It could also be hoped that with independence will come an enormous outpouring of goodwill, and many countries will be ready and willing to support Ireland in the transition.

Economic forecasts are based on assumptions; the IIEA report is based on several negative assumptions that the Republic will be burdened with an economic deadweight with no productivity growth.

The IIEA report assumes that the subvention – the amount that London subsidises Northern Ireland on an annual basis, estimated at £10.5bn – would automatically become the Republic’s responsibility. The subvention includes £3.5bn in pensions, £1.6bn in UK debt, and £1.1bn in additional defence expenses.

In the absence of an agreement with the UK government, assumptions like these are inevitable, however, the idea that Ireland would become liable for UK debt, or that Northern Ireland residents would lose their pensions – which are based on contributions and would be no different to a British expat who claims their British pension in Spain – are far from likely outcomes.

To reach the €20bn figure, the authors included the cost of lifting public service pay to current rates in the Republic in the subvention and assumed no economic boost from unity.

In short, it is a deeply pessimistic outlook based on a series of assumptions and variables and one which views the people of Northern Ireland as economic units, or rather, economically inactive units. Unity is about people, it is the logical next step in decolonising this island and deconstructing the borders and barriers that have limited not only our peace but our people, from reaching their full potential.

Yes, as with any goal worth working toward, there will be a cost. But the opportunity to be truly independent, to carve out our own path and reimagine the kind of society that we want to live in, a vision shared by leaders throughout Irish history, from Collins to Hume – is priceless.

A United Ireland will fundamentally transform the Irish state, it is naïve in the extreme to think that the South will subsume the North – and why limit our ambitions? Why settle for a broken housing crisis when we could reimagine housing policies and enshrine the right to housing in the Constitution? Why accept a broken NHS system when we could create a modern all-island free-at-the-point-of-access healthcare service?

Do we really want to give more power to one of the most centralised governments in Europe rather than create a new structure for our political institutions?

The opportunities are boundless. If you could change one thing about the State, or Northern Ireland, what would it be? What is your vision for healthcare? For education? And what would you be willing to compromise on in exchange? Much like the Good Friday Agreement whatever shape the future of this island takes it will be built on compromise.

Political will

In his final interview as Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar stated that “unification should never be about money,” adding that “3 or 4 per cent GDP is a small price to pay” for unity. He joined a long list of political representatives who were critical of the IIEA report.

The report may have its flaws, but it is still a considered piece of research that joins a mounting body of academic work being undertaken across this island, the question is when will political leaders catch up?

One of the most critical aspects to preparing for a border poll is dialogue, and whilst some political parties advocate for the Citizens’ Assembly model, it is too limited in its reach to build the level of understanding necessary in this debate; What Ireland needs is a national dialogue.

The national dialogue model – which includes large-scale interventions within communities in the form of town halls, forums, and smaller-scale dialogue sessions – formed part of Colombia’s peace process and has been praised as an example to the world of the transformative impact of dialogue. Pinning our future on the Citizens’ Assembly model lacks imagination – we need to be much more ambitious about reaching people in their communities.

The people of this island deserve the opportunity to explore the possibilities of unification, a lack of political leadership is depriving this island of a national dialogue on our own shared future.

For those of us in the North who have experienced the sharp end of Brexit, a failure to prepare the population for a referendum of this magnitude appears reckless.

The Good Friday Agreement provides us with a legitimate democratic pathway to independence; given what people endured to achieve that mechanism we should not be so afraid to use it.

Despite being the youngest Taoiseach to take office, and claiming to support a United Ireland, Harris has already beat back efforts to advance unification as a priority. This week marked the 26th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, which serves as a reminder of what real political courage looks like, who will the leaders of unification be? And when will they step up?

Emma DeSouza is a writer and campaigner.

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