The Border poll will not be the sole constitutional hurdle that will need to be cleared if Irish unity is to be agreed
Brexit and the fallout over the Northern Ireland protocol have reminded everyone the Good Friday Agreement promises, or threatens, a process of constitutional change with destabilising potential.
The smooth reunification of partitioned countries is rare. The number of independent states in the world continues to rise and states sunder far more often than they coalesce.
There will be no reunification without economic consequences, including budgetary consequences. If a unity referendum is ever put to the electorate in Northern Ireland, the economic and financial implications will add to the political divisions which persisted even when the prospect was remote.
Thirty years have elapsed since the reunification of Germany, a project accomplished without conflict and which saw East Germany absorbed with no serious dissent into its more prosperous neighbour. Had a referendum been held in the former DDR prior to reunification, there is little doubt that it would have been carried by an overwhelming majority.
Northern Ireland exists as a distinct political jurisdiction because most of its inhabitants insisted on separation a century ago and their successors will resist its reversal. There was no serious opposition in West Germany to reunification, and a referendum there would have been carried easily too, despite the economic and financial burden expected to follow. A unity referendum in the Republic would not be so straightforward.
Proponents of Irish reunification expect, optimistically according to the Kantar and several other recent opinion polls, a narrow majority in a future referendum in the North and appear to feel 51pc would settle the matter, with 49pc opposed (shades of Brexit in 2016). They also take comfort from opinion polls in the south which report clear majorities for the aspiration to reunification.
The process which could lead to reunification is not specified in the Good Friday Agreement as clearly as many seem to think. It provides that the secretary of state for Northern Ireland may initiate a reunification poll in that jurisdiction once satisfied that it might be carried, but cannot set the date for the Republic. There is insufficient opinion poll evidence to prompt the current incumbent and better qualified observers do not expect evidence to emerge anytime soon. But let us suppose a future holder of the office concluded differently.
The agreement recognises that “it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish, accepting that this right must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland”.
The phraseology contemplates a collective or aggregate right of self-determination for ‘the people of the island of Ireland’, which appears to require a majority across the whole island, while expressly guaranteeing a veto to a majority of the ‘people of Northern Ireland’. This could be interpreted to mean that a narrow majority for reunification in Northern Ireland would prevail even if there were to be a smaller negative vote in the south, provided the aggregate gave the thumbs up to unity.
Moreover, the implication is that the government of the Republic would be required to conduct a referendum ‘concurrently’ at the behest of a minister of the UK government whose outcome could, at least theoretically, be frustrated by a countervailing vote in another jurisdiction.
The wording in the agreement sought to reconcile a right to self-determination for the island’s inhabitants collectively, a notion dear to nationalists, with a veto for a subset in Northern Ireland, essential to reassure unionists. It does not impose, as widely assumed, on the government of the Republic any obligation to hold a ‘blind’ referendum on the same day as the Northern poll, since lawyers can doubtless construe a range of interpretations for the term ‘concurrently’.
If opinion in Northern Ireland ever shifts towards reunification, the economic and financial consequences will come vividly to public attention in the Republic. There is a parallel to the position in West Germany 30 years ago, where voters faced a solidarity tax, a surcharge initially of 7.5pc on top of personal income tax and some business taxes, to make up for the budget gap in the East.
The tax has been eased substantially but still not finally eliminated for all voters, 30 years down the road.
Asked by Kantar whether they would be willing to pay extra taxes for reunification, 54pc of the sample in the Republic said No, versus only 22pc happy to pay up. Economists John FitzGerald and Edgar Morgenroth gave evidence to the Oireachtas Committee on the Good Friday Agreement last December. They drew attention to the big excess of government spending over revenue in Northern Ireland and the large resultant budget deficit, the same position as obtained in Germany.
Measuring the gap is complicated — not all the spending attributed to Northern Ireland would transfer to a united exchequer and the terms would have to be negotiated with the UK. This did not arise in the German case — the West assumed all obligations since East Germany, a sovereign state, simply collapsed.
The full gap has been computed at more than €10bn per annum, but might be no more than half that figure if the settlement with the UK was favourable. Supporters of reunification might like to reflect that even an optimistic outcome would see extra costs for the taxpayers of the Republic exceeding the entire current revenue from the Universal Social Charge. USC would have to be more than doubled.
An alternative would be to raise the basic income tax rate from 20pc to around 28pc, or to bridge the gap through reducing rates of social transfers in the Republic to the rates prevailing in Northern Ireland. The figures may look different if ever a unity poll arises, but they will not be pretty.