Can a united Ireland not based on mutual resentment be created?
By Harry Fennell
Before the spring of 2016 few people were talking about a united Ireland. It seemed that the Good Friday agreement had settled the issue for the foreseeable future. Then the unexpected happened. As a result of the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union (EU), Northern Ireland was to exit the EU against its will. There was a risk that the now invisible border with the Republic would once again become a tangible barrier to movement. Fears about a return to conflict spread as the economic, security and political consequences of a hard border became clear. Brexit created a new febrile atmosphere in which a united Ireland no longer seemed like the impossible aspiration of a few. However, the monumental nature of such an undertaking begs the question as to whether we are ready for the sacrifices we would have to endure as a state and a nation.
Brexit has dominated the political agenda for the past few years and has given a new impetus to those seeking a united Ireland. While there is an argument that a united Ireland would be beneficial to those reliant on North-South trade, it would probably be more damaging to the wider economy, especially in the context of Brexit.
People are quick to point out the economic positives for Northerners in joining the Republic. They highlight the fact that Northern Ireland is the poorest region in the U.K. and is heavily reliant on subsidies from the government in Westminster. The Republic, with its high-tech industry and GDP per capita of €53,600 – compared to €23,600 per capita in Northern Ireland – is no doubt an attractive proposition.
If we look purely at these macroeconomic indicators, the idea of a united Ireland should seem attractive to those living in the North. Nevertheless, this narrow economic view is problematic. It ignores the much more substantial issue of the gap in the standard and cost of living between the two jurisdictions. While incomes may be significantly higher in the Republic, the higher rents and poorer public services mean that the standard of living in many instances is comparable to that of Northern Ireland, if not worse. Look at the National Health Service (NHS), for example. Are Northerners willing to give up their free healthcare service? Do you think they will give that up to have to pay for their own prescriptions?
There is also the other side of the argument. Dublin is unlikely to be willing to cover the ten billion pound subsidy necessary every year to keep Northern Ireland’s economic and welfare systems afloat. In light of the damage that Brexit is likely to do to the Irish economy, such a proposition is even more unlikely. The question is therefore, are we willing to put our own economic well-being on the line for a united Ireland?
At this point you are probably thinking that I have missed the mark. You may believe that people would still back a united Ireland in spite of the possible economic problems due to the emotive and romantic connotations that surround the issue. I would be inclined to agree with you, if it were not for the naivety that such a view betrays, particularly when it comes from those of us living in the South. The romanticism and emotion that surrounds the issue blinds us to the sacrifices that would have to be made in joining the two jurisdictions. Often, the idea of reunification is presented as avenging a forced partition, and is supported by a belief in a natural process of assimilation that is bound to happen. However, the fact is that it would be anything but. Reunification would lead to the creation of a state in which a sizable minority would resent its very existence.
The problem is how we create a united Ireland that would not be based on mutual resentment.
The problem is how we create a united Ireland that would not be based on mutual resentment. The stereotype of unionists is of a ‘thran’ and stubborn people. True or not, they certainly feel no affinity for the Republic or its foundational historical narrative. Yet any future democratic, all-island republic requires their participation. The only possible way this could happen is if we embrace the fact that Ireland’s history is not solely a republican one that started on Easter Sunday 1916. Irish men and women on both sides of the border and of both religious persuasions, have fought and died for the empire. In many cases our history is not one of a romantic struggle against the empire but one of sectarian struggle against ourselves. Only by accepting this can we hope to create a united nation someday in the near future.
As well as having to ditch a good portion of our historical narrative, we would more than likely have to ditch the flag and the anthem. It would also no longer be conceivable to make the Irish language compulsory for all children in school. This would undo the work of various Irish language organisations, such as Conradh na Gaeilge.
Reunification in any case would be considerably destabilizing. Would we be able to endure the violence that would likely break out? It is doubtful that the army and gardaí would be equipped to deal with riots in 70 towns across Northern Ireland. What would become of the Police Service of Northern Ireland? Should we aim to retain it or abolish it completely? In all likelihood, law and order across the island would be threatened as the authorities struggle to contain the violence in the North.
We cannot allow ourselves to maintain this romantic, nationalist mindset when it comes to reunification.
The point is that assimilation would not be easy. It would involve us questioning who we are as a country. The current foundational narrative is exclusionary of unionists; that would have to change. In the interests of simplicity, it would be best to ditch 1916 and the war of independence altogether and start from ground zero at reunification.
We cannot allow ourselves to maintain this romantic, nationalist mindset when it comes to reunification. We have to make an effort to understand the sacrifices that will be demanded of us. If our goal is a shared or agreed nation and not simply a physically united one, this is something we will have to get our heads around. Unless, of course, someone else can come up with another vision of how to unite us. However, such a vision is something we are severely lacking in our current class of managerial politicians. Before making up your mind on where you stand in regard to a united Ireland, understand what will have to change and that the country will never be the same again.
Originally published 05.12.20 in Vol. 4 No. 1.