Tuesday 18 June 2019

David McWilliams: 'Star Trek' boldly predicting return of the North in 2024 might yet come to pass

'Now with Brexit looming and the concrete and more profound underlying changes in demography, the issue of a united Ireland may be back on the table quicker than most of us imagined - or cared to dread' Photo: NASA/Jeff Schmaltz

David McWilliams

Are you a real Trekkie? If so, you'll know the answer to the following question: which was the only episode of 'Star Trek' ever banned in Ireland and Britain - and why?

'Star Trek' is many things, but is it really so incendiary as to be worthy of censorship? Yes it is!

The 12th episode in the third series of 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' was banned and never shown on terrestrial television in Britain or Ireland. That's because in that episode Commander Data, musing on terrorism in the year 2364, noted that Ireland had been reunited in 2024.

This episode was due to be aired here and in Britain in 1990 but was pulled by the censors in both jurisdictions.

The question is whether Commander Data's time horizon is right?

2024 isn't too far away, in fact the North's centenary is four years away. In 2021, Northern Ireland will be 100. Will it make it much past its 100 birthday?

Probably, but now that the EU is apparently preparing to coax the North back to the EU in the event of Irish reunification, the EU is forcing us all to focus our minds on the prospect of Irish unity, by positioning it at the centre of the Brexit negotiations.

Whereas Brexit is an event, the main determinant of whether Northern Ireland lasts much beyond 100 will be demography.

Let us be clear, the demographic forces are unambiguously on the side of nationalism.

The Northern Ireland 2011 census is absolutely definitive in this regard.

One of the most interesting statistics shows the proportion of Catholics and Protestants in various age groups.

If we look at the elderly, we see 64pc over the age of 90 declare themselves to be Protestant, whereas 25pc are Catholic and 9pc had no declared religion.

This split reflects the religious status quo when these people were born, in the 1920s, and more or less reflects the realities of the 1921 Treaty.

So these are the oldest people in the North, but when you look at the youngest, the picture changes dramatically.

Examining religious/ethnic trends in those children and babies born since 2008, the picture changes.

The corresponding figure for those under the age of five is 31pc Protestant and 44pc Catholic. In one (admittedly long) lifetime, the Catholic population in the youngest cohort has nearly doubled, while the Protestants in that cohort has more than halved.

Even given the fact 23pc of parents of infants declared themselves as having no religion, we seem to be en route to a united Ireland, pronto.

Admittedly religion doesn't automatically imply political preference in all cases, but I do think we should be adult enough to accept that, broadly speaking, Catholic means nationalist and vice versa.

Up to now, there has been a significant number of Northern Irish Catholics who might have felt staying with the UK was the right thing to do for their back pockets. But when you look at the numbers you can see clearly that this is a myth or at least they've been sold a pup.

Quite simply, the union has been an economic disaster for all the people of Northern Ireland. Everyone has been impoverished by the union and this shows no sign of letting up.

The contrast between the economic performances of the North and south is shocking. If we go back to 1920, 80pc of the industrial output of the entire island of Ireland came from the three counties centred on Belfast. This was where all Irish industry was. It was industrial and innovative; northern entrepreneurs and inventors were at the forefront of industrial innovation. By 1911, Belfast was the biggest city in Ireland, with a population of close to 400,000, which was growing rapidly. It was by far the richest part of the island.

In contrast, the rest of the Irish economy was agricultural and backward and the only industrial base we had could be termed a 'beer and biscuits' economy, dominated by the likes of Guinness and Jacobs.

Fast-forward to now and the collapse of the once-dynamic Northern economy versus that of the Republic is shocking. Having been a fraction of the North's at independence, the Republic's industrial output is now 10 times greater than that of Northern Ireland.

Exports from the Republic are €89bn while from the North, exports are a paltry €6bn. This obviously reflects multinationals, but it also underscores just how far ahead the Republic's industrial base is. Producing 15 times more exports underscores a vast difference in terms of the globalisation of business.

The Republic's economy is now four times that of the North, even though the labour force is not even two-and-a-half times bigger.

In terms of income per head, the Republic is now almost twice as rich per person as the North. The average income per head in the Republic is €39,873, while it languishes at €23,700 up North.

The differing fortunes of North and south can be easily seen in the fact that, having been smaller than Belfast at the time of partition, the population of the greater Dublin area is now almost three times bigger than the greater Belfast metropolitan region.

Obviously there are significant differences in terms of prices, access to public services and housing between the two parts of the island, but the fact remains the union has been an economic calamity for everyone in the North. The contrast is made more significant by the fact that economically the North was, at one stage, so far ahead of the south. So where does that leave us? Well, in the distant past, there was good reason to believe that the union preserved living standards in the North, but this is a myth and has not been the case since 1990.

Indeed, the end of the Troubles, which should have marked the resurgence of the relative performance of the North, has actually delivered the opposite.

Even allowing for the 2008 crash, relative to the south, the Northern economy has fallen backwards since the guns were silenced.

If there was an economic peace dividend, it went south.

Now with Brexit looming and the concrete and more profound underlying changes in demography, the issue of a united Ireland may be back on the table quicker than most of us imagined - or cared to dread. Star Trek might have been right all along.

However, if the EU plan for NI in the future is to make reunification more palatable by increasing grants to a united Ireland, we should reject it. Making any economy a concubine makes it unstable and dependent. Only a free-wheeling capitalist Ireland can sustain unification.

More on this anon!

Irish Independent

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