Tuesday 21 January 2020

Be very careful what you wish for

British PM Theresa May with Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Gerry Mooney
British PM Theresa May with Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Gerry Mooney


It is admirable to try to turn a crisis into an opportunity. But that is not the same as seeking to use someone else's misfortune to your own advantage.

Brexit is Britain's misfortune right now, no matter what way Theresa May's government spins it, and it has given rise once again to the idea that a United Ireland might be imminent. It is no surprise that Gerry Adams is pushing a border poll - he would like to crown his political career with this achievement before he retires. But Enda Kenny, the leader of Fine Gael (the United Ireland Party), and Micheal Martin, the leader of Fianna Fail (the Republican Party), seem to be doing no more than trying to ensure they are not outflanked by Sinn Fein.

Over the years there have been polls carried out in the Republic to establish the attachment of the people to the idea of a United Ireland and invariably a majority are in favour. But they quickly change their minds when asked if they are willing to see their taxes raised to pay for this dream.

The question of a United Ireland is essentially a political one, but it is also an economic issue. The current argument for a United Ireland relates to allowing Northern Ireland remain in the EU and this has some merit for the people of the North. Around 60pc of the North's exports are to the EU, and the region's agricultural industry is heavily dependent on the Common Agricultural Policy.

On the other hand, Northern industry is more export-dependant on the British market than on the rest of the current EU countries combined.

But the biggest problem arises from the fact that Northern Ireland is an area heavily dependant on the British state, with annual transfers of €10.8bn from the British Exchequer. If the time ever comes to negotiate a United Ireland, there is an assumption that Britain could be persuaded to make a generous settlement, maybe phasing out this largesse gently over a period of years to ease the pain for the new United Ireland economy. But in entering into any negotiations, the Dublin government would be in a position similar to where London currently finds itself, hoping for a good deal as it leaves the EU. And just as there is no guarantee that Britain will be treated with generosity by its current EU partners, we have no way of knowing how the British government of the day might behave towards us.

And in all of this we cannot disregard the feelings of the still-majority unionist population of the North, many of whom, in contrast to the sentimental attachment of the Republic's population to a United Ireland, would still prefer to be British, no matter the cost.

And when they consider the opinion of ESRI professor, Edgar Morgenroth, last week, that "Irish unity might have a bigger negative effect on Northern Ireland, at least over the short to medium term, than Brexit", we seem unlikely to witness a sea change in that quarter any time soon. And, of course, that "negative effect" would apply across the board to Northern nationalists as well as to unionists.

All of this suggests that those who are tempted to get an unthinking rush to blood to the head for a United Ireland in the foreseeable future, should perhaps be careful what they wish for.

Sunday Independent

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