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Irish Politics - Northern Ireland

What is the meaning of and means towards Irish unity

One of the advantages of the silly season days of August is that it gives us space in which to stand back from the trench warfare of conventional political and social discourse and to reflect on other long term and strategic issues.

In that spirit, I make this week's column Trump-free and Brexit-free.

I was asked recently to speak briefly to a mainly foreign audience on the subject of Ireland's independence. My audience was due to visit Belfast the following day and to hear presentations about the current state of play in Northern Ireland.

Gathering my thoughts on the subject of Irish independence 100 years on from the establishment of Dáil Éireann and the start of the armed struggle called the War of Independence, I reminded myself that, in the census of 1891,  Belfast had a greater population than Dublin. Dublin had in the previous one hundred years declined from being the second city of the British Empire to a ghost of its former self.

Northern Ireland, as it currently exists, was then far more industrialised and more prosperous than what is now the Republic. One hundred years of Union had been favourable to the North while leaving the South to be a backward, poor and emigration-gripped region of the then United Kingdom.

Political independence, I reminded my audience, did not halt the decline of the South's population, That decline persisted until the 1960s. The very project of Irish independence was itself brought into question by the failure of the 26 counties to provide even a basic means and standard of living for its young population born into very large families.

Economic recovery, population growth and a resurgence in self-confidence only took root south of the border in the 1960s and yet, by the end of that decade, the Troubles in the North were re-igniting. Notwithstanding economic crises in every decade since, the South has been on an ascending escalator ever since. And in many ways, the North has appeared to be passing us on the descending escalator during the same period.

It is true that the Republic's health services are in some respects less effective - euro for pound - than the NHS in the North. On the hand, the education sytem in the south seems to out-perform that in the north in many repsects, including far lower drop-out rates, higher attainment levels and gretater third level participation.

Garret FitzGerald, by no means a narrow nationalist, always argued that independence has been good for the Republic. Such economic and political autonomy as we have, and have had, has given us the means to reverse decades of decline as an economic backwater.

Perhaps it was recent news of the threat to Harland and Wolff and to Bombardier that brought home to us the extent of the transformation of the North from an industrialised and integrated part of the United Kingdom in the 19th and 20th centuries into a marginalised and under-performing region of the UK in the 21st century.

While southern England and greater London have prospered in the near half century of the UK's membership of the EEC and later the EU, the north of England,Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland have laged far behind.

Without breaking my pledge to keep away from the B-word this week, the half century from 1970 to 2020 has witnessed the emergence of stresses which threaten the very existence of the UK as we know it. Fissures which may or may not portend the end of the Union are widening and deepening before our very eyes.

Arch-revisionists once argued that the political separation of the Republic from Britain was an unnecessary and unjustified act of political violence that lies at the bottom of many of our woes - political, economic and social.

Redmond's Home Rule, they argue, was sufficient for Irish needs.

One perusal of the Home Rule Act discredits that view. Devolved government as agreed by Redmond was no great triumph. The very limited autonomy envisaged for the Parliament to be re-created in College Green could never have reversed the decline in Ireland's economic prospects. A Home Rule parliament in Dublin was fated to fail.

In a moment of exuberance, Redmond addressed a pre-Great War St Patrick's Night dinner in London. He stressed to his audience the limited domestic nature of the envisaged Home Rule parliament's powers and laid great emphasis on Ireland's future role in the Empire which would, on foot of Home Rule, become "our Empire" in which Ireland's manhood would join the ranks of Empire armed  forces across the globe.

My point is this - even with limited devolution to Scotland, Wales and Nothern Ireland, the Union has failed them badly in comparative terms. And it is hard to believe that this failure will be reversed by anything that will happen at Wesminster in the short, medium or long term.

Of course, unionism is not purely an economic frame of mind. A sense of being on the down escalator economically or politically does not mean that the voters of Northern Ireland or Scotland will automatically jump off and opt to leave the Union. In the North and in Scotland too it is undoubtedly true that unionism is identitarian as well as economic in character.

But just as radical economic integration in the EU would now leave member states at the periphery at a huge disadvantage in the absence of those member states having political independence to off-set centripetal forces, the same principle has been clearly demonstrated in the UK. Economic well-being has haemorrhaged towards southern England. The devolved governments and assemblies in the rest of the UK lack the fiscal and economic independence to protect or grow  their regions.

The counter-factual of Ireland having remained in the UK really bears little consideration.

Ireland - the entire island - truly is approaching a crossroads.

To demand a border poll in these circumstances is putting the cart before the horse. Nobody now knows what the poll would be about. We have seen just how chaotic a referndum can be if the consequences have not been considered.

The wise-crack that "a referendum is a process by which you get an answer you didn't expect to a question you didn't ask" is no mere joke.

Those - like myself - who favour Irish unity will have to work out the meaning of that term. And then - and only then -we have to work out how it could come about. Only then could the people - north and south - make any kind of informed choice on the issues arising.

I think that those who shout loudest on the subject of Irish unity are those who have done least to enable it happen and done most to prevent it from happening.

I will be putting forward my own views on the meaning of and means towards  Irish unity at the forthcoming Kennedy Summer School in Wexford early next month.

But we all have a lot of thinking to do.





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