Thursday 29 September 2016

Martina Devlin on Brexit: The game changer that could finally bring unity

Published 02/07/2016 | 02:30

Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness in the famous 'Chuckle Brothers' photograph at Stormount
Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness in the famous 'Chuckle Brothers' photograph at Stormount

A sense of common purpose has not been visible in the North since United Irishmen days - when Belfast was known for its radical ideas about social justice and democracy, and denounced by its rulers as a hotbed of sedition.

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More than 200 years have passed since that imaginative leap taken by United Irishmen across religious, ethnic and class divides. It seemed as if there would never be another meeting of interests compelling enough to trump tribal anxieties.

And then Brexit happened.

This week, for the first time, Northern unionists and nationalists are standing shoulder to shoulder - an extraordinary sight - in their determination to maintain an invisible border with the Republic. They are matched in that goal by the Irish Government.

Brexit is a game changer. It has softened the edge of some unionist attitudes towards the Republic, while Enda Kenny's support for Scotland to remain in the EU is driven, at least partly, by his desire to preserve the status quo regarding Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Positions are shifting but Irish reunification is not the automatic corollary. Recognition of mutual unionist and nationalist interests is promising, and may lead to further convergence. For now, both parts of the island and both traditions on it are in historic agreement about maintaining freedom of trade and movement between North and South. This represents an advance.

British PM David Cameron meeting members of the North’s government in July 2014, including Secretary of State Theresa Villiers (second from right) former First Minister Peter Robinson
(second from left) and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (far left) in London. Photo: Stefan Rousseau
British PM David Cameron meeting members of the North’s government in July 2014, including Secretary of State Theresa Villiers (second from right) former First Minister Peter Robinson (second from left) and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (far left) in London. Photo: Stefan Rousseau

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However, calls for a poll on the border are premature. Sinn Féin is making the case on the basis that 56pc of Northern voters prefer to stay in the EU and ought not to be ejected. But any plebiscite on reunification is unlikely to be passed in the North, even allowing for changing demographics which point towards a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland within a few years.

Most people's immediate response, in both jurisdictions in Ireland, hinges on one visceral question: how much would reunification cost me?

Fundamentally, people need reasons to vote 'Yes' to a reunited Ireland and citing lofty Republican ideals won't work, even in the aftermath of the 1916 glow. Economic growth and jobs - now those are logical incentives.

The challenge is to present a cogent case for mutual benefits stemming from alliance, and to ensure sufficient funding to underpin the transitional period. Britain and the EU have a role to play there. Aside from that, Unionist buy-in is essential.

Visiting the North a matter of days ago, I was struck by how some DUP politicians - officially on the 'Leave' side - privately were floored by the result. It was as if the party's Eurosceptic stance had less to do with anti-EU sentiments than with adopting the opposite position to Sinn Féin. More realistic is the advice to constituents from the DUP's Ian Paisley junior: apply for Irish passports. This is not evidence of hell freezing over but recognition of changing realities. Such swings are significant but they do not add up to a 32-country Ireland.

There can be no presumption of Catholics in the North voting instinctively for reintegration - their concerns include tax rises to offset the loss of Britain's €6bn annual subvention.

In the Republic, there is a soft vote for reintegration which leaches away once possible tax hikes are mentioned.

A cross-border poll by RTÉ and BBC NI last year found only 30pc in the North would like to see a united Ireland in their lifetime. Some 66pc in the Republic favoured it, but numbers halved when tax increases to pay for unity were suggested.

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However, reunification could bring substantial economic advantages for North and South. A recent independent study predicts long-term growth in an all-island economy. The study, 'Modeling (sic) Irish Unification', was conducted by Canadian consultancy KLC and University of British Columbia academics, who did similar reports on German and Korean unification. It said a united Ireland could result in a €36bn boost to the island's economy within eight years of reunification.

But what happens during those eight years? Negotiations with Britain would have to be conducted to guarantee that €6bn subsidy for a specified period post-reunification, say a decade, perhaps augmented by EU money.

The selling point for Britain is there would be an end in sight.

Once, the North was an economic powerhouse, while the rest of Ireland largely was agrarian. Now it is a public service economy, and needs help to move away from that model.

Start by making the IDA a pan-Ireland entity authorised to encourage multinationals to locate north of the Border, where a 12.5pc corporate tax rate is envisaged by 2018. Knock-on benefits include a ready supply of office space to take the pressure off Dublin, which is running out of land. The US could be called on for assistance in the form of American companies bringing jobs and business.

It is important that assurances should be provided for the unionist population, with a devolved parliament in Belfast within an all-Ireland framework as one possibility. Consensus with unionists needs to be built - there is no advantage to having an unhappy unionist bloc in a united Ireland. All the same, they could make a worthwhile contribution - that alternative voice was a loss to the Free State and the Republic.

A reunification campaign won't succeed if it is spearheaded by one party.

It needs to operate on the basis of a broad coalition of leaders and opinion formers advocating an all-island unit for economic reasons - because those are the grounds that will convince voters rather than national aspirations. But any referendum now is doomed to fall.

A likelier plan is less attention-grabbing but more viable: to engage in the painstaking process of shoring up the arguments for unity over the next two years, in parallel with Brexit negotiations.

Just before Ian Paisley senior was sworn in as First Minister at Stormont, sharing power with Sinn Féin, he said: "People have come out of a dark tunnel and they can see there is a path out there for us."

The challenge ahead is to map out an expansion of that path, persuading people on both sides of the Border that cooperation can lead to a stronger future.

But let's not frighten the horses.

Irish Independent

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