Thursday 17 October 2019

Liam Weeks: 'Are we really united about our lost fourth green field?'

Some people think a united Ireland could be an answer to the Brexit impasse - but a close look at hard realities suggests otherwise, writes Liam Weeks

Impasse: Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen speaking on Friday at the European Economic and Social Committee conference at Queen’s University in Belfast. Photo: PA
Impasse: Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen speaking on Friday at the European Economic and Social Committee conference at Queen’s University in Belfast. Photo: PA

'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."

The prospect of Brexit has raised the spirits of those wishing to realise this aspirational clause from the Good Friday Agreement.

Months after Britain voted to leave the EU in 2016, the then Taoiseach Enda Kenny said that Britain's withdrawal could result in an ''uncomplicated route'' to unification.

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Those agreeing with Kenny see its prospects in the medium term as being more likely now than at any stage since partition, certainly far closer in time than envisaged when the Good Friday Agreement was signed.

There are also those who argue - in private at the moment - that in the more immediate future, unification could be an obvious solution to the current impasse over Brexit.

Why? Consider the demands of all the various actors involved.

The Irish Government's main concern is to prevent the return of a hard border. With unification, this would be permanently removed as a threat.

The biggest thorn in the side of the British government is the backstop issue. Northern Ireland leaving the United Kingdom would resolve this, and Britain could then leave the EU and the customs union in a more seamless fashion. This would undoubtedly also please the Brexiteers, ensuring that Brexit would mean Brexit.

Many in British government circles would also no doubt be pleased to be rid of the undesirable temporary reliance on the Democratic Unionist Party and the permanent drain Northern Ireland is on the British exchequer.

For the people of Northern Ireland, the majority of whom voted to remain, unification would mean their wishes being respected to stay in the EU.

Overall, it almost sounds too easy a solution to be true.

There's just one stumbling block. An elephant in the room. The people on the island. Do they want to be unified?

Most of the commentary on the potentiality of this outcome has focused on a referendum in Northern Ireland. While there has been much discussion about fertility rates, and the changing attitudes of middle-class Protestants and Catholics, another former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, last week said that ''bringing a Border poll into the middle of this is irresponsible''.

Two years ago, Ahern also said: ''The only time we should have a Border poll… is when we are in a situation where nationalists and republicans and a sizeable amount of unionists and loyalists are in consent. To have a sectarian headcount now is the last thing we need.''

But, what about a poll south of the Border? Why is there no talk of this? Is it assumed that this would be a fait accompli?

Would such an assumption be correct? Is there really a hard majority in favour of unification in this jurisdiction?

We all know the soft sentiment yearning for a return of the fourth green field. We hear it lustily sung in alcohol-fuelled renditions of rebel songs at matches and weddings.

Plenty of opinion polls are trotted out claiming support for a united Ireland, but it is all in the form of something aspirational rather than actual and real.

In October 2018, for example, Paddy Power bookmakers published a press release headed ''Majority want a united Ireland after Brexit'', following a poll it commissioned with Red C.

But the devil is in the detail. The specific question in the Paddy Power poll was, ''On foot of Brexit negotiations, I would like to see the prospect of Irish unification revisited in the North'', a rather lukewarm proposition that could be far removed from favouring actual unity. Revisiting prospects sounds like something a sparring couple could engage in as a forlorn attempt to save their marriage.

Likewise, a few weeks ago, the Claire Byrne Live programme on RTE asked, ''if the choice was between a united Ireland or a hard border on the island of Ireland, which would you choose?''

Talk about a loaded question. Not surprisingly, 86pc opted for a united Ireland - but it may as well have asked if we'd rather eat Marmite or starve.

Choosing the former is in no ways an indication that we've become a nation of yeast-extract lovers.

If instead we examine survey data prior to the hype and emotion of Brexit, it's possible to gain a greater insight into attitudes towards unification.

In an exit poll carried out for RTE after the last Dail election, voters were asked what long-term future they would prefer for Northern Ireland.

Thirty-six per cent said unification with the rest of the island, while 47pc favoured Northern Ireland remaining in the UK.

Similar sentiment was expressed in an extensive cross-border survey carried out for BBC and RTE in late 2015, with 35pc favouring unity and 44pc remaining in the UK.

Although two-thirds of voters said they would like to see a united Ireland in their lifetime, it is easy to give a positive response to a vague statement about a hypothetical future scenario that may not materialise.

When respondents were asked for something more specific, their true attitudes towards Irish unity were revealed.

If a united Ireland involved paying less tax, then 71pc were in favour of unification. But, and quite strikingly, if such a move necessitated paying more tax, the proportion in favour fell as low as 31pc, with 44pc opposing unity.

While it could be countered that being part of a larger economy would be an advantage and would not involve such greater taxation, we should be cognisant of the considerable economic challenges unification would pose.

The most obvious is how we would pay for the €11bn annual subvention Northern Ireland gets from the UK. In a study last year, Professors John FitzGerald and Edgar Morgenroth said that taking on this bill would permanently reduce our standard of living by 15pc.

They claimed that the necessary fiscal adjustment to pay for this would be the equivalent of the recent financial crisis.

In addition, the citizens of Northern Ireland would be 20pc better off than those on the rest of the island because of these subsidies.

This is also not to mention the security issue. What if a united Ireland sparked off a new wave of troubles, with dissident loyalists opposed to the new regime starting their own bombing campaign? And what if they targeted cities such as Galway, or Cork, or Limerick? Aside from the incalculable economic and physical damage of such terrorist activities, what would be the psychological costs? Britain wouldn't want Northern Ireland back, and we would be permanently stuck with this problem.

One of the criticisms of Brexit is that the public was not adequately informed of the realities of a Leave vote. So, if what I've discussed is the potential outcome of unification, is it something we necessarily favour? How desirable is the fourth green field?

While it sounds great to sing of an undefined and romantic united Ireland after a few drinks, the reality is that so many in this part of the island have a disconnect with Northern Ireland.

When asked in the RTE/BBC poll how much they had in common with people across the border, almost half said a little or nothing at all.

Not exactly ideal grounds on which to build a united Ireland.

Forget the prospects of a Border poll in the North. The real battle may not be to convince the Unionists or the British of the merits of unification - it may be to convince ourselves.

  • Dr Liam Weeks is director of the MSc Government & Politics in University College Cork

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