Less Irish unity, more Irish cooperation, please

[This is taken from A Note from the Next Door Neighbours, the monthly e-bulletin of Andy Pollak, Director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh and Dublin]

I think it would be fair to say that something like 90% of people in the Republic of Ireland never think about Northern Ireland these days, other than, very occasionally, as a place to go to do some cut-price shopping. The North doesn’t even enter their consciousness.

A striking example of this was on the evening of Friday 21st August, when the viaduct across the Malahide estuary which carries the main Dublin-Belfast railway line collapsed, with the prospect of serious disruption of that vital communications link for up to six months. In the reporting of this incident on RTE over the following weekend, it was as if the North did not exist. In the dozen or so news bulletins I heard, this was a ‘commuter’ line serving north Dublin and Louth. The 800,000 passengers who take the Enterprise express every year were simply invisible. It was not until the Sunday night that this changed, brought about – it seemed to me – by the spokesman for the Automobile Assocation, of all organisations, underlining the ‘iconic’ importance of the Dublin-Belfast line to the island of Ireland.

The deep economic crisis in the South is, of course, all-consuming when it comes to both politicians’ priorities and public concern, and this understandably leads to a turning inward of public opinion, a concentration on one’s own serious problems and a lessening of interest in the neighbour’s. That plainspoken Fianna Fail politician Martin Mansergh – the main architect of the Southern dimension of the peace process – articulated this well when he told the annual conference of the Institute for British-Irish Studies in June: “The Republic is engaged in a major struggle to maintain, within the EU and the euro zone, its economic viability and sovereignty. It is hardly the moment to press claims to the North which we have renounced, and, it has to be said, the advantages and flexibility of joining up with a small sovereign state in the present global turmoil are for the moment a lot less compelling today than they were two or three years ago.”¹

If the South’s economic crisis has pushed the prospect of a united Ireland well into the future in the view of one of Ireland’s most far-sighted political leaders, for ordinary people it is now a nonsense for more practical reasons. A survey this summer by the Southern magazine Consumer Choice found that the cost of commonly used services was now on average 30% higher in Dublin than in Belfast.

Dublin people now pay 45% more for a mechanic; 33% more for a plumber; 29% more for a dentist; and 25% more for a driving instructor or a chiropractor. The gap between dental charges can be even more dramatic: Consumer Choice found price differences for a routine dental examination and polish between the two cities of up to 54%.² Those of us who live and work between the two jurisdictions know that to go to the doctor in the South costs €50 just to walk into the surgery, whereas consultations are free in Northern Ireland. Unemployment in the heavily subsidised North is currently running at 6.7%, compared to 11.7% in the Republic.

It is reasonable to ask in these circumstances how anybody in their right mind could advocate moving to a united Ireland as a way forward for the island. Even the most fervent republican must accept that until the Republic has sorted out its massive problems of bank indebtedness, public finance overspend and loss of international competitiveness, Irish unity is simply off the agenda. One of the South’s most eminent economists, Frances Ruane, director of the Economic and Social Research Institute, estimated this month that the Republic would not return to the economic situation pertaining in 2007 before the latter half of the next decade³ – which, with some ironic symbolism, would mean not before 2016 at the earliest.

As Martin Mansergh said, the barriers to cooperation, communication and understanding, both within Northern Ireland and between North and South, have never been lower. Let’s concentrate on continuing to lower those barriers. Whether it is through the work of the Community Relations Council, One Small Step, and other ‘shared future’ organisations in Northern Ireland, or the North/South bodies – particularly those, led by InterTradeIreland, working towards an ‘island economy’ – Cooperation Ireland and the Centre for Cross Border Studies across the border, let us continue building on the success story of ‘cooperation, cooperation, cooperation’ which has done so much to underpin movement towards peace and reconciliation on this island. There is enough work in that difficult, painstaking process to keep us all busy for the next 10 years and more. We should be wise enough to concentrate on what we can achieve together as good neighbours rather than raise the level of threat once more by continuing to demand the impossible.

Andy Pollak


¹ United Ireland less compelling now, says Mansergh, The Irish Times, 10 June 2009
² Cost of common services 30% higher in Dublin than in Belfast, The Irish Times, 5 August 2009
³ Address at Merriman Summer School, Ennis, 22 August 2009

  • Joe

    Its a stretch to take curent southern political apathy to mean long term partitionism.

  • kensei

    It is also madness to use prices in Dublin as a basis for comparison. Shall we compare the wages and prices in London to the North? It should be also noted that prices in Dublin are higher as a consequence of their high wages and take home pay. What the PPP comparison? And as Mack continually points out, the prices are dropping too.

    Second, the North is already a basket case. Going through the process the Republic is going through might even help it in the long term. But in any case, I’ll accept the premise that the bottom end of the business cycle is not the time to do it. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still argue for the long term benefits, and realise that if you want a United Ireland in 5-10 years time when the country is in a growth phase and it’s the best time, then you have a hell of a lot of groundwork to do now.

  • dantheman

    As regards the railway line, the service with the most passengers journeys in Ireland by a mile is the Dundalk to Dublin regional commuter line. So obviously on a day to day basis this will affect people more than the Intercity services. As people are delayed by up to an hour getting to work, there more concerned about this than say a weekend in Belfast. Plus its quicker to drive to Belfast and most people have a car.

    For example the Dublin-Cork line is a lot busier than the Dublin-Belfast line, as until recently it was a lot quicker than the bus/car. Although with the rollout of the new motorway system it is predicted numbers will start to fall off significantly. Likewise with Dublin-Galway.

    As regards the blow to unification created by a bridge collapsing, well I am not sure you can extrapolate that directly!
    But I agree that a political UI is not going to happen by 2016 despite my desire for that to be the case (albeit not under any circumstance). The politcally UI that Sinn Fein are fighting for will never happen as the Republic has developed while their manifesto has remained fairly static, although they are beginning to redress this it would appear.

    Cooperation on many areas, e.g health and particularly infrastructure should be continued and expanded. Good quality cross-border routes like the planned A5 DC to Derry reduce the impact of the border by negating travel times. Newry is now a commuter town for Dublin.

    There are two major issues that make a bigger deal of the border than should be the case. The biggest single impact of the border is the currency. The second is the bloated public sector in NI, which creates a very insular workforce. IN the next ten years, the impact of both could be greatly diminished.

  • Mack

    Andy –

    Those of us who live and work between the two jurisdictions know that to go to the doctor in the South costs €50 just to walk into the surgery, whereas consultations are free in Northern Ireland.

    A couple of points..

    #1 The €50 is tax deductible. If you have health insurance (and most people do) it will often cover a portion – those that don’t often have a medical card and don’t thus don’t pay

    #2 It’s not free in the UK, you pay for it by a different mechanism. Between Employees and Employers contributions to NI you pay almost 25% of your salary to maintain the British system. Which does little to incentivise alternatives (VHI nurseline for example) for minor queries…

  • Mack

    Andy –

    Could you provide some statistics that back this up, please?

    and loss of international competitiveness

    This survey from Deloitte in 2007 showed that Ireland had the 2nd highest net wages in the EU, was in around 10th or so in terms of gross wages, but 16th in terms of labour costs (which includes employer taxes). This hardly smacks of a loss of competitiveness. Please note the recent study by USB didn’t include labour costs, but Dublin was ranked 10th on Gross Wages, 4th on Net, you can bet your boots we would have fallen well down the table when ranked on labour costs.

    Loss of competitiveness is a myth..

  • Mack

    Sorry, this survey from Deloitte

    http://www.finfacts.ie/biz10/Rumuneration2008.pdf

  • Joe,

    Its a stretch to take curent southern political apathy to mean long term partitionism.

    Of course not, but long-term aspirations are cost-free.

    Mack,

    How many people claim back the money on their GP charges? The process for getting it back is less than ideal (under Quinn at least). If you only go once or twice a year, are you really going to jump through the hoops for the sake of a tenner?

    The southern system of pay up front and wait up to a year before claiming it back is not pretty. (Not that the NHS doesn’t have its problems, of course)

  • Mack

    Correction to the above – we’re 8th on total labour costs in the EU-15 (misread the article linking to the survey). Not quite as emphatic evidence for retaining competitiveness, but still not too bad. Mid-table in the rich countries and slightly below the UK…

  • Mack

    Andrew –

    If it’s only a tenner it’s hardly a big deal.

    You could think of it as segmentation. VHI call regularly to our workplace by the way. I normally save them up until I’ve got a fair wack to hand in at once. And yep, we will claim back everything we can one way or another eventually.

  • Mack

    Ooops. Just to be absolutely clear this time. 9th out of the EU-15 – it’s cheaper to employ a worker in Ireland than in such nations as

    The UK, France, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, Finland, Sweden

  • Smug O’ Tool

    Things cost more in Dublin because wages are 4th highest in the world. It might seem like mad money to the poor folk of Ulster, collecting their dole or paycheck for their civil service job, but it’s not so bad when you have a proper job.

    http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/breaking-news/ireland/net-wages-in-dublin-fourth-highest-in-world-14457892.html

  • Paddy Matthews

    In the reporting of this incident on RTE over the following weekend, it was as if the North did not exist. In the dozen or so news bulletins I heard, this was a ‘commuter’ line serving north Dublin and Louth. The 800,000 passengers who take the Enterprise express every year were simply invisible.

    1. As someone pointed out above, the number of commuters affected by the incident is vastly greater than the number of Belfast-Dublin travellers.

    2. The Dublin media tends to be very much that, as anyone living west of Kilcock or south of Greystones could tell you. You shouldn’t feel picked-upon – most of the time the South, the West or anywhere north of the N4/N6 don’t exist either. If I had the time or the inclination, I could say that the focus on Dublin (particularly upper middle-class Dublin) goes beyond the Dublin-based media into large parts of the political/business establishment.

    3. I have heard Martin Mansergh called many things, but “plainspoken” is a new one on me.

  • David

    Basing the argument for or against a united Ireland on North/South economic comparisons completely misguided. It entirely disregards the fact that Irish unity itself will completely change the economics of the island.

    Irish unity will not suddenly make NI become economically indistinguishable from the South any more than German unity suddenly made East Germant economically indistinguishable from the West.

    I am not in favour of Irish unity, but despite this I have some sympathy with Kensei’s view that it might be beneficial in the long term for NI to go through the sort of economic process that the South finds itself in now.

    Any stable long term prospect for NI (whatever national context this happens within) must begin with us becoming economically self-sustaining and not being dependent on outside subsidies.

  • Mack

    Net wages Smug, i.e. after tax. Lest anyone be confused wrt competitiveness.

  • One of the reasons Dublin-Belfast rail is not as busy as Dublin-Cork is that Irish Rail can increase service (and thereby reduce door-to-door journey time in station waits) at any time on the latter, but only with the equal financial participation of Translink for the former.

    Ideally, the Enterprise service and equipment should be separated into another company so that it can seek funds independently from CIE or Translink and bring the service up to a Dublin-Cork level (hourly). There are certainly enough parked up Mark 3 carriages to make it work if some suitably fast push-pull driving cars could be sourced.

    @PaddyMatthews I was guessing that there was some sarcasm at work in the Mansergh description…

  • borderline

    Eminently sensible stuff from Mr. Pollak.

  • Republic of Connaught

    Yeah, a unified Ireland is not going to happen because of economics… and broken railway lines and all that stuff..

    Let there be a nationalist majority in the wee 6 and then we shall see…

  • RepublicanStones

    ‘I think it would be fair to say that something like 90% of people in the Republic of Ireland never think about Northern Ireland these days’

    How often do Londoners think about Newcastle?

    I rarely think about Bangor (if ever)

    Why on earth would a corkonian think about Co. Antrim?

  • Greenflag

    David ,

    ‘Any stable long term prospect for NI (whatever national context this happens within) must begin with us becoming economically self-sustaining and not being dependent on outside subsidies.’

    That’s a joke . There’s not a single party in the Assembly that even mentions the possibility of such non dependence not just in the next decade but ever . Of course NI can be economically self sustaining tomorrow at about half it’s present standard of living and income. But there’s no votes in that approach ;)?

    While Andy Pollak’s article makes reasonable sense he needs to be careful about his ‘economic ‘ projections and allying them to the feasibility or otherwise of a UI .

    There won’t ever be a UI until such time as there is an Irish nationalist voting majority in NI -if then .

  • gav

    The article correctly highlights the apathy in Ireland re Northern Ireland. No-one cares. NI is a dreary, wet, drink and chip-fat sodden little backwater, where people blame everyone else for their own ineptitude and failure.

    On a more practical point, prices are definitely 30%+ higher in Ireland than in NI. But wages are ca. 50% higher. So the standard of living is generally better, although the (significant) factor of property prices still has ome way to go.

    Gav

  • Erasmus

    30%+ higher in Ireland than in NI.
    A slight nomenclatural conundrum there. Or maybe a Freudian slip?
    To get back to the OP, Andy is frankly talking tosh. We pine after our Northern brethren. Honest.

  • Gav

    Erasmus

    it is no conundrum, or slip of any kind. Just a fact. Article 4 of the Irish Constitution states that the name of this State is Ireland. Not Republic of Ireland, etc. There are two jurisdictions on this island, Ireland and Northern Ireland. You may have aspirations that this would change, but the current reality is as set out above.