At a time when almost every part of our economy and society is trying to come to terms with the Covid-19 pandemic, the limitations of a partitioned island are being laid bare. Partition has stifled us, the people of this island, from flourishing in the way we could have and should have. A small island divided in two has inhibited investment and has hampered infrastructure planning.
Partition was enforced against a backdrop of global upheaval in the decade after 1912, not least the First World war, where 200,000 Irishmen, from all backgrounds, served in the British Army and some 40,000 of them lost their lives, 3,500 alone at the Battle of the Somme in July 1916.
April 1916 saw the Easter Rising. Britain executed the leaders of the rebellion and interned almost 2,000 suspected of involvement. The Sinn Féin election of December 1918 saw a landslide win for the party formed just thirteen years beforehand and increased the demand for a 32 county Irish Republic.
Walter Long had led Irish unionists between 1906 and 1910 and, by the time of partition, headed the cabinet committee on Irish Affairs in London. It was under his direction, and to a lesser degree that of James Craig, that there would be a Parliament in the south of Ireland, another in the north and a Council of Ireland, envisaged to enable the Irish as a whole to establish our own destiny and that at some stage, it should evolve into a single Irish Parliament.
The British government sought a nine-county solution but James Craig wanted six counties, in which he believed, a unionist majority could be guaranteed in perpetuity. One hundred years on, the numbers have changed significantly.
What was clear was that while Britain was imposing partition, it was not to be permanent. Irish unity would ultimately happen at some stage in the future but it would be a matter for the Irish. The Good Friday Agreement some 80 years later cemented this by providing for a referendum in which the Irish would decide the constitutional future of their own island.
To many, partition has been a great injustice, to others it provides them with the security of their British and unionist identity. What cannot be denied is that partition is a failed experiment and the constitutional question on our island is yet to be resolved.
We are again experiencing times of significant upheaval, much like at the time of partition. Many factors will help decide our constitutional future. Developments such as (i) the erosion of the unionist majority; (ii) the fallout from Brexit, (iii) the clear signals being sent by the highest Sinn Féin vote in 100 years, (iv) the increasing secularism of southern society, (v) repeated betrayal of unionists by the British government; and, (vi) the repercussions of a worldwide pandemic. This constitutional change was very much high on the agenda in any event, however it has become imperative now given the developments set out above.
When a referendum on Irish unity is called, of course large sections of society will have a very fixed, emotional voting intention either for or against a united Ireland. Importantly however, there is a sizable section of society that will be persuaded by the arguments relating to jobs, the economy, society, health and EU status. This section, the section which is mostly concerned with ‘prosperity’ in its widest sense, will be decisive in terms of whether or not Ireland stays partitioned after 100 years.
This section includes entrepreneurs and business people, the vast number of whom opposed Brexit, often quite vocally. They have perhaps benefitted most from increased cooperation and frictionless borders. They are also very concerned, to put it mildly, about not only leaving the EU, but a UK government which seems to be relishing the idea of ‘crashing’ out.
Many in the construction industry look along the Quay in Dublin with envy as economic development and activity is clearly much more vibrant than in Belfast. The ripple effect of a bustling construction industry is felt right across the economy. Architects, solicitors, planners, developers, builders, tradesmen, suppliers, and others all feel the direct benefit of a thriving construction industry but the indirect effect upon the rest of the economy is well-recognised. Restaurants, bars, taxis, retailers and a plethora of other businesses share in the wealth that is generated.
When the economy is moving and progressing, jobs are created in significant numbers right across all sectors.
When jobs are created and workers and businesses are paying tax, there are more resources to fund our public services, our schools, hospitals and public transport.
All tax however, derived in NI goes to the central pot in London and we are then given a block grant which Stormont decides how we spend.
We have almost no fiscal autonomy in Stormont. The Councils and the Department for Finance control rates, which is essentially the only financial tool the Assembly has. It a very blunt instrument and whilst it can be used effectively, on its own, the power to raise or lower rates is very limited and will have almost zero impact on assisting economic growth in the long term. The Assembly is extremely constrained in what it can achieve regarding economic growth.
There is a permanent fault with the economy of Northern Ireland and its roots can be found in partition. An inbuilt fatal flaw which, as 100 years of experimentation has demonstrated, is inescapable and unfixable. In a United Ireland the Irish government would control all of the fiscal levers and could craft a bespoke system of fiscal management geared towards the specific needs of our relatively small population. No doubt harnessing the immense amount of goodwill that would pour in from the EU (keen to ensure that Ireland is a ‘success’ as a perfect foil to the chaos that the UK finds itself in) and the USA (eager to have an English-speaking foothold in Europe and cement its position as the prime mover in bringing lasting peace to Ireland).
Northern Ireland as a state is very limited in what it can achieve regarding economic growth. As part of the United Kingdom it is a small cog in a big wheel. Northern Ireland features at the bottom of most economic league tables not just when compared to regions in Britain but also when compared to the rest of Ireland. From an economic perspective, things are fundamentally wrong, we need to confront them and from a pragmatic perspective the advantages of the union for the business community in NI are becoming less and less. This is especially so in more recent times where the UK government have turned disinterest in this jurisdiction into an art form.
As the scale of the Covid-19 pandemic hit home, business owners scoured their insurance policies in the hope that their business interruption insurance would cover a global pandemic. Many policy holders here did not know to where to turn for help when it emerged insurance companies were not paying. There is a Financial Ombudsman but the office is based in London. There is a view that responses from London are characterised by disinterest, failing to understand the dynamics at play here. In a United Ireland the first port of call for business would be a local office, responsive and in tune with the particular needs of our business community and constantly liaising with business and political leaders here. From a practical, pragmatic perspective this makes sense and it makes business easier.
As it currently stands Northern Ireland is the very poor cousin when compared to other regions in Britain and Ireland. It doesn’t have to remain that way. It cannot be because of the standard of people we produce. Our crafts and tradesmen are of highest calibre, often having to emigrate before heading up companies and entire industries. Our school leavers consistently produce the highest grades when compared with all GCSE and A-Level assessments in the UK. We benefit from a well-educated and erudite work-force, tailor made for inward investment.
We are not the problem; however we are born into a system designed to fail.
The North could be an economic powerhouse, and it should be. The business community could be at the table of government on an equal basis having its voice heard and lifting the economic hopes and expectations of the people. The concerns and issues impacting business in the north will be properly heard and addressed by a new Ireland government, more than they ever will be in what is fast becoming a Brexit-obsessed “English” government with an Anglo-centric parliament passing bills which break international law. Bills which have no regard for the business community, jobs and livelihoods in any part of Ireland let alone the north. The very real concern about a post-Brexit lack of consumer choice and increase in general prices for the people of the north consistently falls on deaf ears.
A new Ireland with a population of some 7-8 million, not far behind that of Sweden and slightly ahead of Denmark would be the perfect size. The potential for economic growth, significantly increased levels of productivity and harnessed economies of scale is clear. Whilst the south has benefitted from massive Foreign Direct Investment and subsequent jobs in the form of Google, Facebook, Medtronic, Microsoft and others, the north has essentially been ignored. Sporadic announcements by Invest NI of small numbers of jobs are dwarfed by the economic successes that we hear and read about regularly in the south. Closures and job losses at major NI businesses and headlines such as: “NI drivers need green card to cross the border”, “1800 NI aerospace jobs at risk”, “NI Port bosses concerned over system to check GB goods” and “JP Morgan moves £200Bn from the UK to Frankfurt” occupy far more column inches these days.
The globalised nature of the economy in the south means that FDI is worth approximately 100 billion Euros, 400,000 jobs and an average individual wage of around 55,000 Euros each year. It is no wonder that they feature towards the top of the high performers’ lists when it comes to happy people and standards of living. With Invest NI and the IDA merged in a united Ireland, there would be palpable benefits for the north. An amalgamated Invest NI/IDA would ensure that Ireland’s unrivalled performance and reputation as a hub for Foreign Direct Investment permeated into the hitherto neglected six counties.
Whilst this article is focussed primarily on the broad economic benefits of a united Ireland, such prosperity would have a knock-on effect for the funding of other important policy objectives. For example, an all-island health service is long overdue, given the challenges that often face ill people when they have to travel to England for treatment. A new vision for healthcare would address an NHS in the north that is sadly falling apart under the pressure of austerity and years of under investment. The economies of scale that would inevitably flow from an all-island service would be evident.
Only once in the last one hundred years have we been asked in a referendum do we want to be governed by Britain or Ireland, it was in 1973, almost fifty years ago. The demand for another referendum is growing and becoming increasingly necessary given the inexplicable act of self-harm that Brexit represents.
Particularly heartening are the voices of young Irish people, especially in the south, who are increasingly perplexed by the apathy and paralysis demonstrated by the governing political parties there. There have been calls for the immediate establishment of an all island Citizens’ Assembly in advance of a referendum. This is a sensible and worthwhile approach and the process to implement a Civic Assembly should begin as a matter of urgency.
The framing of the debate will be interesting. For those of a mildly UK unionist outlook, but who voted remain in the EU, will they view the ending of partition as a means of automatically returning to the EU or do they value being part of the UK more than the EU? Even if all the evidence suggests that the UK government has consistently shown no regard for their interests and the UK generally has set sail into dangerous and uncertain waters?
Returning to my original remarks, as in the decade following 1912, we are now in the midst of major developments which sound on the constitutional future of this island.
A referendum is necessary in this post 2016 decade of change. It is the correct thing to do and a date should be set for us all to assert our democratic right, enshrined in the GFA, to decide our own future. There are any amount of bright minds in every field of policy who have published worthy and well-researched articles in terms of the challenges that lie ahead and how they should be met. The consistent theme in all of these writings, debates, webinars and lectures is this: the careful planning and preparation that is absolutely essential to ensuring a smooth and prosperous transition is needed now.
We are a gregarious, talented, warm, progressive and outward looking people. All of the ingredients are there to create something great on this island if we make the effort now and get it right from the outset. This is an opportunity for us to see the beginning of the end of sectarianism in this part of our island. It is the right time for governments and broad civil society to begin setting up and resourcing in a serious way the policy think-tanks, assembling the great minds that are needed to analyse our infrastructure and produce reports and recommendations that can be implemented for the benefit of all of our people. We need envoys now with a mandate to do the groundwork with the EU, US and other investors, convincing them to meaningfully back the peaceful and respectful reunification of Ireland, should the people so wish.
The reality is we will soon need to clear the air one way or another. In the immediate term the process to establish an all island Citizens’ Assembly should begin. Some hard work, careful planning and preparation must take place. Let’s get the hard work done, let’s prepare, let’s plan and let’s agree a date for the referendum to take place but we should be mindful of words spoken by Nelson Mandela that “if you wait for textbook conditions, they will never occur”.