Thursday 13 December 2018

Martina Devlin: Bring in the deal-makers, it's time to knuckle down... the case for Irish reunification is overwhelming

Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams and North leader Michelle O’Neill, left, hold a press conference at the party’s headquarters in Belfast after it increased its vote significantly in the Assembly election.Photo: Getty
Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams and North leader Michelle O’Neill, left, hold a press conference at the party’s headquarters in Belfast after it increased its vote significantly in the Assembly election.Photo: Getty
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Bring on the deal-makers. Time to knuckle down to business. To set Stormont functioning again? That, too, but there are more pressing matters to address than a provincial parliament in Belfast - another strand of discussion needs to be opened.

The end of partition: that's what is crying out to be negotiated. Theresa May is due to trigger Article 50 within weeks, bouncing a reluctant Northern Ireland out of the EU. That timetable means serious horse-trading has to start now, shaping Ireland's future in a post-Brexit world.

The Border has to go. The case for Irish reunification is overwhelming - over time, the two parts of this island will be more prosperous together than apart. Politicians from Ireland, north and south, from Britain and the EU need to sit around a table and agree a financial plan and outline for how a post-Brexit united Ireland would function.

By all means, let's have negotiators from the DUP and Sinn Féin in another room, discussing how to jumpstart devolution. But Brexit is the issue which clamours for attention, not the 'cash for ash' scandal or the push for Irish language legislation.

A united Ireland is the clearest way to minimise the fallout from Brexit, provided it can be handled sensitively and a carefully plotted, long-term approach taken. The economic case is compelling. But within the new framework there must be solid guarantees for the Unionist culture. Above all, the Republic needs to be genuinely welcoming and embrace inclusivity for Unionists.

Last week's Northern election result does not show a more polarised society. It is evidence of an outward rather than inward-looking population, angled towards Europe rather than Britain. The majority voted for parties in favour of remaining in the EU. The DUP, which lost significant ground, is out of step with an electorate which understands its economy will be shredded by Brexit.

Theresa May is due to trigger Article 50 within weeks, bouncing a reluctant Northern Ireland out of the EU. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Theresa May is due to trigger Article 50 within weeks, bouncing a reluctant Northern Ireland out of the EU. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Various political parties from Dublin and Belfast have engaged in dialogue with British representatives about soft borders, free movement of people and e-customs. But those are sticking-plaster solutions. There is no upside for Northern Ireland from Brexit. As for the Republic, it will be negatively affected if its nearest neighbour is forced out of the EU because it would hamper north-south trade and the all-island economy.

A united Ireland would be stronger in the long run. However, challenges lie ahead, especially during the transition period.

Discussion needs to begin on how to stimulate economic growth, provide services, run education programmes and foster social cohesion. Also how to finance reunification.

An economic stimulus package needs to be put in place and Britain would have a responsibility to contribute. But, however expensive, there would be an end in sight. The EU would have financial obligations, too. Perhaps Irish-American well-wishers might also put their hands in their pockets. The financial support package would need to cover at least one decade and possibly two, with a variety of targets including reorientating the entire business culture in the North.

The region was once Ireland's industrial powerhouse but has been reduced to reliance on British subvention - some £10bn (€11.5bn) a year. Investment is essential to boost the weak Northern private sector where entrepreneurs are thin on the ground. But there is a lower cost base north of the Border, so the lack of an entrepreneurial culture is fixable via supports to investors and by offering training and financial supports to start-ups in a transitioning economy.

Germany should be able to offer advice, having taken on its own reunification project.

Northern Unionists and Nationalists will need reassurance that their incomes will be protected in an all-Ireland economy within Europe - rather than exposed to risk in a Brexit-Britain which doesn't value the sons (or daughters) of Ulster.

Unionists must be persuaded, too, about the benefits of an enhanced ethnic status in the Republic.

Sustained outreach will have to take place, guaranteeing that their voices will be heard and respected, as will their traditions.

A key message to advance is that the Republic has changed, and the Catholic Church's role in Irish society has diminished greatly. Steps, finally, to separate Church and State must take place.

Unionists and Northern Nationalists alike may be nervous at the loss of benefits emanating from Britain, especially the health service. Again, these anxieties can be addressed. Britain's health service is no longer the shining example it was once. One positive message to put forward is that social welfare is higher in the Republic, and Northern benefits would have to rise in tandem after reunification. That carries further financial implications but it may be an inducement.

And so to education. Integrated education is the way forward. But reunification must be supported, as well, by long-term investment in educational initiatives for adults. On the ground, major steps would have to be taken towards tackling sectarianism, with the focus on the future rather than the past. Education and jobs are essential - studies show that working-class loyalists are more likely to leave school without qualifications.

Educated Unionists could be incentivised to stay and make a contribution. Currently, bright young Unionists are more likely to go to university in Britain - and not return. Persuade this educated cohort to stay by reducing or eliminating third-level fees.

On the financial front, it's not all a drain. Economies of scale and merged services could achieve savings - one parliament, one health service, one education service, and so on. A united Ireland would have a larger domestic economy, and there should also be a tourism boost.

The North would end up joining the euro, which would require work to re-denominate savings and loans, but it would then be well placed to attract investment as an English-speaking euro user within the EU.

The DUP is arguing from a weak position in seeking to retain a Border which poses severe economic problems. Meanwhile, there are moderate Unionists who could be convinced about the benefits from reunification. Some of them realise the British have no interest in Northern Ireland and, after all, why be loyal to a government which feels no loyalty in return?

Much work needs to take place before plebiscites north and south can be called. Rather than foist imperfect solutions on the unwilling, let's make haste slowly and get this right. Wouldn't it be something if Nationalist and Unionist labels became historic footnotes?

Irish Independent

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