According to Dr Kurt Huebner’s recent study on the economic consequences of Irish reunification, Ireland could stand to gain a €35.6 billion increase in GDP within the first eight years of ending partition.
Such thinking has been prevalent outside academic circles for some time, as at the 2014 Sinn Fein Ard Fheis, where MEP Martina Anderson compared partition to two competing businesses operating on the same street.
Much is made of the subventions that Northern Ireland currently receives from Britain in order to function. The idea that unification would require the Republic to cater for the deficit is a rather pessimistic and short-term outlook.
Ireland once had a population of over eight million and with an effective government could, in theory, use this extra workforce and resources as an opportunity rather than a burden. However, this would require stable government and confidence in the system, both evidently lacking at present.
Although it may be an economic possibility, Huebner’s theoretical analysis took place under ‘ideal political conditions’, something unlikely to be the case if such an event was to occur. Whether economically viable or not, the more pertinent and answerable question is do Irish people desire a united Ireland?
North of the border, politics is still very much entrenched along ethnic and faux-religious lines. The idea that Northern Unionists would jump into a united Ireland for a potential higher standard of living is ridiculous. Unionists have their own very distinct traditions and little tolerance for southern interference, never mind southern control.
The idea that southerners are by default in favour of a united Ireland may also need revision. The belief that the Republic would be propping up the North financially is still very much prevalent. Any economic parity or even benefits are seen as long term risks rather than certainties. This recent study does little to change such thinking as eight years of higher taxation would act as a prelude to any future benefits.
Many people may claim that patriotism would take prominence over any fiscal realities but is this really the case? Aspirational republicanism was embedded in our constitution for years under Articles two and three. Referenda on the matter were mere token votes endorsing either the aspiration, or upon their removal in 1999, the pursuit of peace. No vote ever included the possible financial repercussions.
By now, much of this aspirational republicanism has been replaced by ambivalent republicanism. Unity is sought once heavy costs, be it in human life or financially, are avoided. This is tantamount to a desire for unity once there is no death or taxes; the only certainties in life.
It may sound cynical, but as time wears on unity will be seen as not only less likely but as less important. It may even be unfair to push an already struggling workforce to bear economic burdens for romantic ideals. A century ago, Yeats declared that ‘Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone/ it’s with O’ Leary in the grave.’ I fear aspirational Ireland may also be buried with de Valera and that pragmatic Ireland may be growing wearisome of such ambitions and rhetoric. Economic benefits such as those in the study are perhaps our only method by which to attain unity.
Post-Brexit, we may see some minor adjustments up North where Irish passports could become more commonplace. Furthermore, the chance of hosting the 2023 Rugby World Cup would give cross-border bodies some much needed work and could really affect perceptions of unification.
The possibility of a successful campaign, both on the pitch and, more importantly, in the bank balance would certainly improve any talk of unification both north and south. Oscar Wilde once cynically mused that “[we] know the price of everything but the value of nothing”. To those who desire unity, let’s hope Wilde and Huebner are equally correct.