Saturday 24 August 2019

Dr Ciara Kelly: 'We need to think hard about the realities of a united Ireland'

How much would we pay for a united Ireland? It costs the UK around £10bn a year for the upkeep of NI at present, writes Dr Ciara Kelly

Britain’s Chancellor Sajid Javid welcomed Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe to Downing Street this week. Photo: Reuters
Britain’s Chancellor Sajid Javid welcomed Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe to Downing Street this week. Photo: Reuters
Dr Ciara Kelly

Dr Ciara Kelly

I was born in the 1970s. I grew up in a time when Northern Ireland dominated our news bulletins. Bombs, punishment beatings, knee-cappings and murders were an almost daily headline. A kind of fear convulsed all of us down here when we thought about it. The hunger strikes. The almost palpable anger when NI politicians spoke. Indeed, Sinn Fein politicians weren't allowed to speak at all. We read their words on a screen. Listening to them speak was forbidden.

It was considered too dangerous for our ears. I remember my parents telling me why we never went there - "It's not safe." I remember the line: "They have more in common with each other than with anyone else."

We drove through Bray once during a paramilitary march. Men in combat gear with black armbands and berets took over the main street. Black flags hung from lampposts. "Don't look at them," Dad said.

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What I'm saying is, I'm of a generation that not only accepted the North was a different country, I was glad it was. In the 1970s and '80s, it was a frightening, violent place. Far from recruiting us to a cause, the Troubles alienated a lot of my generation from the politics and even the people of the six counties.

And although, like every Irish person, a rousing rendition of A Nation Once Again stirs some latent nationalist sentiment, I wouldn't lose any sleep if we were never united.

Having said that, I would have no particular objection to it either - but I am not sure how high a price I'd be willing to pay for it.

Around £10bn is what the UK pays towards the upkeep of Northern Ireland annually. That's £2bn more than its net annual contribution to the EU.

Security, social welfare and public sector pay account for the bulk of it.

The history of violence meant that, unlike the south, the North didn't attract overseas investment. The Troubles wrecked their once-healthy economy.

Our social welfare payments and wages are considerably higher than Britain's so that bill - all else being equal - would probably be north of €12bn. So at least in the short term, were we to take on the funding of the North, we would be impoverished both nationally and individually.

Equally, we would have to take on the reality of around a million Irish citizens living here who don't really want to. Irish citizens who identify as British and whose core beliefs are tied up in that British identify. How would the unionist community react to being Hibernicised? I suspect - unless many concessions were made to them - not very well.

And what would those concessions look like? We can talk about the Tricolour representing peace between the green and the orange communities until we're blue in the face, but it is seen as a nationalist flag nonetheless - so we would likely have to bin it. Amhran na bhFiann too might be offensive - so we could have the equivalent of an Ireland's Call inflicted on us.

The Constitution would pretty much have to be torn up and rewritten. This, I have no problem with. I don't particularly like us being dictated to by last-century values. Or having to have a referendum every time we want to change our position on something. So my preference would probably be to not rewrite it at all but to move towards a Republic governed by our legislature - not a document frozen in time.

But would we have to give up Irish as our primary national language? Or adopt yet another official, and indeed unused, language in Ulster Scots?

And perhaps the hardest pill to swallow - would we have to rejoin the Commonwealth? Rejoin the fraternity of former colonies and recognise the Queen of England as its head. Have God Save the Queen played at matches? And a monarch's photo stuck up in official buildings?

I think many of us wouldn't mind the North being just subsumed into the Republic, but for that to happen without a loyalist backlash, I suspect we would have to let the unionist tail wag the 32 county dog - at least for a while. If we didn't, would loyalist violence - perhaps not on the streets of Belfast but on the streets of Dublin - be the result?

Having the threat of violence hanging over us and thus influencing our behaviour is not a prospect I relish.

And even if we managed all of this, 100 years of partition has meant there are cultural differences north and south of the Border. They have British health and education systems. They aren't used to paying to see a GP or for school books. But equally there's a larger element of hardcore conservatism up there. They have no abortion in Northern Ireland. No same-sex marriage. Would we simply impose our laws on them? Or would they get some kind of special dispensation?

Would their existing MPs sit here in Leinster House? Would Stormont become the new Dail? Would it be called the Dail? And - as already often feels like the case - would Northern Ireland's issues and politics dominate our own?

There is much to consider. I think Leo Varadkar was right when he said at the West Belfast Feile that if we were to reunite with Northern Ireland it would be a different state. The question is, is it a state that we like the look of?

We aren't Germany. This isn't two groups who necessarily really want to come together. This is far more complicated. And while I think it looks more likely now than at any other time in my life, we most definitely need a grown-up conversation about all of this - and that will need to include unionist communities - who very likely don't want to talk about it at all.

It's a romantic notion, but we will need more than romance to carry us if we're talking about becoming a nation once again.


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