Irish reunification is a topic that is rarely discussed casually – at least in the Republic of Ireland.
Although all polls commissioned in the south to date have always shown a majority in favour of reunification, there is also a reluctance about the prospect by many – especially if they live further away from the border.
Since I grew up in an area of the border region with a strong Republican element, I have always assumed that most people in the south supported reunification as a given – even though it is never really broached as a topic outside of very politicised circles.
However, a full year living in Galway did show me that things are more complicated than that. There usually seems to be two distinct “schools of thought” in the south whenever Irish reunification is broached as a subject.
The first school of thought, usually dismissed by critics as the “partitionist” mindset, is that Northern Ireland is simply too different for reunification to be a conceivable goal.
There are cited “cultural” divisions, relating mainly to the obvious fact that most of the population in the north currently don’t consider themselves Irish – or if they do, it’s not a type of “Irishness” that is at all familiar to what the majority on this island considers “Irishness” to be, outside of a few border localities where there are still significant Protestant minorities.
The other aspect of this mindset is economic – because, economically and social-service wise, the north is pretty different. The north is hugely reliant on the public sector for employment, which is subsidised to a large extent by the rest of the UK.
Northern Ireland’s current budget deficit is anywhere between 18-33% of the regional economy, depending on how the budget deficit is calculated. Even if the actual deficit is at the lower end of the scale, it would be difficult to see how such subsidies could be sustained by the south.
The second school of thought is, of course, that Irish reunification is both desirable and inevitable, and would be of great benefit for all residents on the island.
Usually, it is assumed that if the island was administered under the one government, with the same currency, telecommunication infrastructures, etc., the economies of scale and the reduction of red tape associated with cross-border trade would boost the national economy, and especially that of the border regions, which are among the most underdeveloped areas on the island.
Obviously, there are gaping holes with the rationale offered by many people who actively support Irish reunification – for one thing, the EU is gradually harmonising standards and administration across borders, not just in Ireland, but across Europe.
So with the exception of the currency exchange rate, many of the costs associated with cross-border trade are gradually wilting away, one directive at a time.
Add in the financial and cultural disparities, and you might consider the idea of a united Ireland to be as dead as a Dodo. Or is it?
Well, so far, I’ve written this article with the assumption that a united Ireland would simply happen overnight, with Northern Ireland simply annexed into the existing Republic of Ireland, accompanied by the abolition or merger of all northern institutions in favour of their southern counterparts.
Certainly, if that was what reunification amounted to, it would be an unqualified, disastrous mess. It worked for Germany, but it wouldn’t work here.
However, there is an alternative. The reality is, neither the Republic of Ireland nor Northern Ireland are examples of the type of state that the people on this island would have desired, if they were to start the establishment of an independent Irish state from scratch.
It could be argued that, if reunification were to happen, both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland should be abolished, and replaced with a new state and constitution that can not only accommodate the whole population of the island, but also work effectively for the interests of its citizens.
For a start, the idea of regional governments and institutions should be considered – not a half-way house of a semi-autonomous north within a united Ireland, but instead create several new regions, based around the major cities and identifiable regions.
The Republic of Ireland is one of the most centralised states in Europe, to an extent that even the small size of the country alone cannot justify. In a unified Ireland, continuing with such a form of governance would be absolutely ludicrous, and likely to be strongly resisted by many in the north.
It would also give opportunities for the island’s neglected regions and metropolitan cities alike to adopt policies and practises that work to their strengths and interests – the north-west and the greater Dublin region, for instance, would have pretty different concerns and priorities.
Powers over elements of policing, public transit and infrastructure planning could be just some of the responsibilities developed to a newly-created regional level of government, with tax-raising powers to match.
The 12th of July could be made a Bank Holiday – and who could argue with an extra holiday, in fairness? National institutions and services could take the best elements of the old institutions in the north and the south to create public services and a quality of life befitting a modern, developed 21st century Ireland.
This may sound pretty idealistic – but in fairness, how realistic would it be to administer an all-Ireland state on the model used in the Republic of Ireland, which has proven itself to contain serious flaws?
A united Ireland will not happen overnight, although this is probably for the best – neither the north nor the south is ready to take the step just yet.
However, once the south’s debt and social crisis, and the north’s unbalanced regional economy is tackled, a united Ireland will take a step closer to feasibility, if not a reality.