An Argument for Irish Unity
By Liam Kiernan
As we approach the centenary of the partition of Ireland, the cause of Irish unity has never been stronger. The referendum on Irish unity espoused within the Good Friday Agreement offers the Irish people an unprecedented opportunity to finally achieve the independence of our shared island. The likelihood of a referendum has increased dramatically in recent years. The recent 2019 Westminster election was in many respects a defining event in the history of Northern Ireland as a political entity. Not only was it the first time in which the North’s nationalist MPs outnumbered their unionist counterparts, but the seat formerly held by Edward Carson — arguably the man most responsible for partition — was won by Sinn Féin’s John Finucane. Coupled with the remarkable results for Sinn Féin in the South just a few months later, and the loss of a unionist majority in the Assembly in 2017, it is clear that change is in the air and Irish unity is firmly on the agenda.
With each passing day, the failure of partition is further exposed.
With each passing day, the failure of partition is further exposed. The fiasco of Brexit shows just how little regard the parliament in Westminster has for the people of Ireland, north and south alike. The Good Friday Agreement put into place conditions by which the border could effectively be ignored in everyday life, but Brexit, despite being rejected by a majority in the North, places this at risk. Any sort of reimposition of a hard border could threaten our hard-won peace and would have disastrous consequences on the Irish economy as a whole. The Tories see Ireland solely as a bargaining chip to hold over European Union (EU) negotiators in the hopes of securing a better deal for England. Even in the event that the British government manages to scrape together a deal, it will not be to Ireland’s benefit. Any perceived benefits of Brexit would be superseded by the disadvantages of being outside the EU. Only Irish unity can resolve this situation and return access to European markets, funding, and investment.
Avoiding a potentially disastrous Brexit is an absolute necessity for the North. Its economic growth is slower than any other region on these islands, while its GDP per capita and standard of living lag significantly behind both Britain and the Republic. At the time of partition, the North was by far the most prosperous region in Ireland. Since then, growth has been stunted while the independent South has surged ahead, and the North has stagnated. There is a consistent misunderstanding of Irish unity— that it is unaffordable for the South. That is simply not true. While it is true that the North runs a deficit that is subsidised by London, the figures are often wildly overstated. The true
figure that the republic would likely have to initially contribute would be a maximum of £6 billion per year. Regardless, the economic benefits of reunification far outweigh any short term costs. A study by Kurt Huebner of Vancouver University in 2015 found that a combined and integrated all- island economy would perform €35 billion per year better than the two economies apart. The division of the six counties from the rest of the country resulted in a system that is widely inefficient, and incapable of any real change. There is simply no economic sensibility for a small island nation to maintain competing jurisdictions with different tax policy, legal structure, infrastructure, and development goals.
Many of the inherent dysfunctions of partition have been highlighted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Two different jurisdictions with two different approaches on how to tackle the virus have resulted in inefficiency and ineffectiveness, particularly within the border region. The NHS, long one of the advantages the North has held over the South, has been gutted by years of Tory cuts and was caught largely unprepared for the crisis. The South’s system, however, is far worse, with a high degree of privatisation and much higher health costs per capita. Irish unity offers the opportunity for a radical rebuild of the healthcare system across our island. We need a national healthcare service of our own, but one free from the interference of London.
Irish unity is not “divisive,” it is an opportunity for all the Irish people, north and south, to shape their own future together and build an Ireland for the benefit of all.
Some argue that Irish unity is not a pressing issue, or that it is merely a distraction, but that is far from the truth. Unity is part of the holistic transformation that this country needs. The people of Ireland are growing tired of their two conservative states, and we need a change. Irish unity is not “divisive,” it is an opportunity for all the Irish people, north and south, to shape their own future together and build an Ireland for the benefit of all. Now is the time to build a new republic based on the principles of the 1916 Proclamation, which “guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunity to all its citizens.” We don’t need a thirty-two county Free State, we need a thirty-two county modern republic based on mutual respect that seeks to provide for all its citizens regardless of class or religion.
Irish unity can happen, and will happen soon, but it has to be done right. The Dublin government has a central responsibility in preparing a real plan for unity. It has to encourage dialogue between nationalists, unionists, and everyone in between on what our new Ireland will look like, and to persuade them that Irish unity is the best course for them. They also have a duty to lobby the EU to financially support reunification, and to prepare economically for the integration of the North into
the South’s economy. Ignoring that responsibility and continuing the almost century-old policy of claiming “now’s not the time” is irresponsible and reckless. For Ireland to progress as a nation, it must throw off the chains of division and embrace its future united. Partition is a disease that has long plagued our island. The time has come to finally address it, and the only cure is Irish unity.
Originally published 05.12.20 in Vol. 4 No. 1.