Irish reunification - a debate that challenges us

Notes from the Western Periphery

AN OPTION THAT HAS TO BE CONSIDERED? Denying or ignoring the idea of Irish unification is no longer an option for Irish political party leaders like Eamon Ryan, Leo Varadkar or Michéal Martin.

John Bradley

It is possible that the island of Ireland may never be a unified country. History gives us many examples of regions that are doomed forever to be at the mercy of sullen and uncooperative factions who value their grievances more than their welfare. In 2120, two hundred years after partition, we may still be agonising about the border. But I doubt it.
Although economic welfare almost never dominates questions of community identity, it can generate forces for change. It is unfortunate that economic policymaking on this island is confined to the east coast, in Belfast and Dublin. The Belfast-Dublin economic corridor in doing rather well, with the two largest island cities at either end and a densely populated area between, served by high-grade rail, road, sea, air and telecommunication links.
The west coast should ideally be a region of similar, if more modest, dynamism, linking Derry, Sligo, Ballina/Castlebar/Westport, Galway, Limerick and Cork. But alas, it is not. Thanks to a combination of historical and political indifference, this region lags behind the east and south coast. Worse, in the north-west some areas stagnate and suffer depopulation.
A crucial element of the inability to develop the north-west region is that the border effectively creates a policy vacuum at its northern end that is far more damaging than for the east coast. The only way that this imbalance can be corrected is through unification of a kind that places north and south within a common, supportive regional policy framework.
Discussion of barriers to unification centres on two main arguments: an asserted burden of expense for the Irish taxpayer and the intractable question of flags and national anthems. The first issue is the more serious.

ERSI analysis
In July 2019, the ESRI published an analysis by John Fitzgerald and Edgar Morgenroth which asserted that unification would be ‘exceptionally expensive’ for Ireland and ‘would produce a dramatic fall in the [Irish] standard of living’. I disagree with these conclusions. Such thinking, had it been available in 1920, would have asserted that independence from the UK, then still the global hegemonic power, was economic madness and doomed to fail. However, the ESRI assumption that unification means Ireland taking over the existing structures of Northern Ireland, ignores the growth dynamic that an agreed unification would set in motion. That is also the lesson of the evolution of the EU.
The Irish unification debate has never really got off the ground properly since one side – mostly  unionist – rejects the very legitimacy of the issue and the other side - the Irish government - fears engagement.  Similar behaviour is currently playing out in the autocratic manner in which the UK government debates with the European Commission about the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The tortured history of inter community conflict within Northern Ireland makes it very difficult for the Irish government and the Irish people to engage in the search for solutions without being accused of inflaming the conflict further. Massive Irish, US and EU resources have been devoted in the quest for solutions within Northern Ireland without yet overcoming this challenge.  
My response to the frequent claim that the Irish people haven’t really begun to think seriously about what reunification might require from them in terms of changes in behaviour is that we have delegated that task to our elected government, being well aware of the complexities involved. Having devoted more than twenty five years researching north-south issues, I am very willing to leave the politics to our government, provided it engages and treats this urgent issue pro-actively.

A majority of one
There may be people in Ireland who believe that when there is a majority of one in favour of some ill-defined notion of unity, then unity will arrive on a plate. I am confident that such foolish and dangerous views are not shared within government or in the population at large.
It is desirable that both communities in Northern Ireland feel that they belong to a common home place in an equal and mutually respectful way. The preparatory framework for movement towards this admirable goal was provided by Irish and UK membership of the European Union. But this was rudely snatched away by a UK-wide referendum result that was rejected by majorities in both Northern Ireland and Scotland. Is it any wonder that the more thoughtful people in Ireland experience difficulties in finding acceptable ways of debating our future relations with a fractured and fractious Northern Ireland and a very dysfunctional and untrustworthy UK government?
There is one aspect of this debate that is likely to accelerate political engagement. With the exception of Sinn Féin, Irish political parties adopt a cautious - even timid - approach to debate on unification. Modern Irish electorates have been too pragmatic ever to make unification the dominant issue in a general election. But after 100 years of dysfunctional partition and in a disruptive and damaging post-Brexit era, unification has finally evolved into a pragmatic issue.  In such a situation, it is comforting that the debate on unification has not polarised our society in the way that it has in Northern Ireland.
But denying or ignoring it is no longer an option for any Irish political party.

John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.