I muse about republicanism a lot on this site. How a possible Yes campaign might be constructed and the economic arguments for unity are something that really intrigues me.
The two leading parties in Irish nationalism are Sinn Fein and the SDLP. Both proclaim (I note this does not always happen in practice) centre-left economic values of a strong state with provision of many social services and high public spending.
In essence the sort of economic environment that exists presently in Northern Ireland should be something under the leftist model that republicans aspire too. We have high levels of spending, two-thirds of our economic output is from the government and around one third of our work force in the public sector. Not to mention, the various private sector companies who depend on public sector contracts to keep afloat. We are one of the last bastions of a state run economy in Europe.
This is where I have to declare that within the pantheon of republicanism I come at things from a centre-right perspective when it comes to economics. The values of pro-business, sound money and balanced budgets are things that I believe we need to ensure the economy thrives. We then must use this wealth to ensure that the vulnerable in society are provided a safety net beyond which none can fall, but robust enough to ensure that all can rise.
I admit my perspective is not a majority view, at a time of austerity in the South and impending cuts in the North, I am not counting on this to become popular anytime soon either.
But I feel that this centre-left approach that tends to be taken by most is just completely counterproductive when it comes to making a credible case for unity and an ultimately for the need to change our economic union.
Northern Ireland currently runs a deficit of around £7-10 billion, depending on who you listen to. We have had countless reports telling us that we need to rebalance our economy in favour of private sector led growth.
And my question is republicans are where in framing this debate?
The answer is nowhere. Too busy toying with the politics of subsidies and higher spending we are simply reinforcing Northern Ireland’s dependence on the British Treasury and the inability of the Irish state to fund our public services.
When you look at the Irish economy it does well in exports, FDI, business start-ups and income levels. Yet, very little is often said about the successes of the economy in South and how under independence the Irish Republic has moved from the back garden of Britain to being one of the best performing economies in Europe, notwithstanding some of the problems over the last few years.
Nor do we hear anything about the dramatic improvement in Irish bond yields over the past year. Markets are regaining confidence in Ireland once again, but let’s keep that on the down low for the moment, heaven forbid we shatter the Zimbabwesque narrative.
All of this is important; I am not saying that Irish unity is a one way bet. But the centre-left narrative within which it is framed denies republicans the chance to claim victory in some important economic debates. Corporation Tax is a perfect example of this.
The constant emphasis on the need for bigger government, simply begs the question from an apathetic public of “why would we change, when we have it already?”
There is room within electoral republican politics for centre-right views and they should be expressed more confidently and the successes of the Irish economy should be talked up more loudly.
Like all of these pieces, I write this to start a debate rather than to provide a definite path forward, but adopting a centre-right platform in some key areas could help republicanism erase the stain of economic illiteracy that has plagued it for so long and perhaps capture some apathetic voters with a new agenda.
A republican vision of an Ireland where the liberty of the individual to conduct themselves in whatever way they see fit, the fraternity that comes from an emphasis on family and community, no matter what shape that comes in and the equality of opportunity that we will strive to ensure that those want to achieve, can do so.
Liberty, fraternity and equality, republicanism from the centre-right is an idea whose time may not be here at the moment, but let’s hope that it can forge an important part of the debate going forward into the future.