Future Ireland from a Southern Perspective

This week, we’re featuring submissions from readers on the theme of ‘Future Ireland: Alternative Conversations about Unity and the Union’. Competition winners will be published on Saturday.

Éamonn Toland is a business leader and writer from Dublin.

Just over a decade ago, before the crash, the then Irish Foreign Minister, Dermot Ahern, called for the IFA and FAI to form an all-Ireland soccer team, so that the island could “punch its full weight internationally, something that real sports people have long yearned for.” Unwittingly, he illustrated the depth of benign ignorance in the south, even in his border home in Dundalk, about what a broad spectrum of Northern Irish fans truly yearn for.

A future Ireland that wants to fulfil the constitutional aspiration “in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland,” will have to accommodate “all the diversity of their identities and traditions.”

To build as broad a coalition as possible, it will have to acknowledge the middle ground, some of whom identify as Northern Irish, British and European, but whom are open to debate on the political structures that underpin their identity.

It will also have to extend the hand of friendship to those people who are proudly and staunchly British and Unionist, and avoid dehumanising claims that they are merely deluded Irishmen.

A future Ireland has to reaffirm that a change of sovereignty is not a change of identity. A while ago on Slugger O’Toole, the suggestion that retaining the Northern Ireland soccer team should be a top priority was met with understandable incredulity. But a future Ireland is not just about a new flag or anthem. It needs to see a flag raised, not a flag lowered, to succeed. To maintain a warm house for everyone, it will have clear guarantees on British citizenship, and continued funding for BBC NI and UTV.

Politically, a future Ireland will be underpinned by the retention of Stormont under voluntary cross-community coalition, in addition to electing TDs to Dáil Éireann. Devolved government will maintain the NHS system, and streamline duplication in school resources without making Irish a mandatory subject.

Stormont might nominate members to the House of Lords, and if the President is the Head of State in Ireland, the Crown could be Head of Stormont, symbolising the UK role as co-guarantor of Northern Irish rights under international law by giving royal assent to devolved bills, with an international court arbitrating any treaty disputes.

Before this future Ireland is agreed, a detailed and transparent analysis of the subvention will be required, along with a plan to reduce all-island civil service numbers by pausing recruitment, and an assessment of Disability Living Allowances. Ongoing UK funding of historic public sector pension obligations will also be needed.

Economically, a future Ireland will invest in all-island infrastructure, including the completion of the A5, investment in education in disadvantaged areas and increasing health spending in Northern Ireland to Republic of Ireland levels. The Euro currency, 12.5% corporate tax rate and enterprise policies will be extended to Northern Ireland, with low business rates and common VAT and income tax régimes. 

It is a little-known fact that the Republic of Ireland has one of the more progressive income tax régimes in Europe. Low-income working families will enjoy higher take-home rates of pay than in parts of Scandinavia, while senior citizens and the unemployed will see a major uplift in incomes. The broad middle class will pay for this by hitting higher marginal tax thresholds much more quickly than in the United Kingdom, but with higher salaries will be a lot better off overall.

Is the Republic ready to embrace this future Ireland?

For the most part people have given little thought to the nuts and bolts of unification. Successful Northern Irish athletes are celebrated and appropriated as blithely as English commentators embraced the racing car driver John Watson, who was British when leading a Grand Prix and Northern Irish when he fell behind. Even in rugby, efforts to have Ireland’s Call preceded by a Royal Salute for internationals at Ravenhill, equivalent to a Presidential Salute for internationals in Dublin, foundered. But as a constitutional democracy in the European Union, it is likely that people in the Republic of Ireland will respond generously and imaginatively if the groundswell for a future Ireland rose.

Is such a future necessary?

With Northern Ireland greening demographically, a consociational government could acknowledge both identities without a change of sovereignty – particularly if they were determined to liberalise laws that penalise minorities, endorse an Irish Language Act, permit Irish language signage where wanted, and allow more flags to fly on public buildings.

If Northern Ireland could also retain special status within the European Union, it could truly be a case of having your cake and eating it.

But if cake for the crocodiles ineluctably means less cake for me, then we may be a hardening border away from taking a change of sovereignty seriously.

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Éamonn Toland grew up in north Dublin, before reading Modern History and Economics at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford. He worked at Unilever and Coca-Cola Schweppes Beverages, Accenture and McKinsey & Co., and was the President of Paddy Power North America from 2012 to 2016. He is now President of Zingbet.com, a US-based sports betting consultancy. He has written articles for the London Times and Telegraph, appeared in television programs and documentaries, and is a regular conference speaker. His book, The Pursuit of Kindness: a history of human nature, is due out shortly.