A riposte to David McWilliams

Out of interest…

It was surprising that the Financial Times should publish a long triumphalist critique of Northern Ireland by the economist David McWilliams without comment from other economists (“ The final frontier”, Life & Arts, December 1). Mr McWilliams claims that most people in Northern Ireland want to stay in the EU. It is true that 56 per cent voted for the UK to remain in the EU. He echoes Sinn Féin in claiming that this meant many unionists would prefer a united Ireland to do so. The answer from unionists (whom he does not mention) came loud and clear in the 2017 general election, when the Democratic Unionist party vote rose by a huge 10 percentage points while the Remain-supporting Ulster Unionist party lost a third of its vote and has since changed its tune on Brexit. Subsequent opinion polls using volunteer panels under-represent DUP supporters and are not at all reliable. Nor is Mr McWilliams’ demography reliable.

He claims Catholics will soon be a majority but ignores the difficulty of knowing the religion of the large numbers who nowadays refuse to answer religion questions. Also ignored are the large numbers of Catholics who are Poles, Lithuanians or Portuguese, rather than Irish republicans who remember 1916 as though it were yesterday. The last reliable poll (The Life and Times Survey in late 2016) showed 20 per cent support for Irish unity, with half of Catholics preferring the UK, no doubt because of its National Health Service, free education, well-paid public sector jobs and low housing costs. Also ignored by Mr McWilliams is the calculation by the eminent Dublin economist Professor John Fitzgerald that living standards are 25 per cent higher in the north than in the south due to lower taxes and fees plus much better public services. He lauds the economic growth of the south without mentioning its rip-off tax-haven basis. Like many, he misinterprets the high public spending of the north as reflecting weakness in the private sector economy. The truth is different and lies in the UK’s past response to a higher local birth rate than could be employed in the context of a sedately growing UK economic union. The UK response was to support public services and jobs rather than letting migration slowly solve the problem of excess population.

Dr Graham Gudgin Centre for Business Research, University of Cambridge, UK

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Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London