Why I think Northern Ireland will still be part of the Union in another 100 years time…

Alex Easton is one of two DUP MLAs currently representing North Down. Here he lays out what he thinks the current strength of the case for retaining the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and why Northern Ireland needs more optimistic engagement with the future.

Being passionate about the Union and never having done a piece for Slugger O’Toole before, I am hoping that those who oppose the Union will not be too hard on me for my first attempt.

Historically, Northern Ireland has been considered to have two different groups of peoples; however, there has been an obvious shift away from this perspective. No longer do we speak of Unionists and Nationalists, but of Unionists, Nationalists, and ‘others’. In the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey in 2019, people were asked if they thought of themselves as Unionist, Nationalist or other and the results showed that 33% of the population described themselves as a unionist, 23% as a Nationalist and 39% of people said neither.

In remarks I made previously, that were partially quoted in the Newsletter and then reported on Slugger O’Toole, I claimed that unionist success in a border poll was inevitable. Whilst inevitable is often a controversial word to use in politics (think, Hillary Clinton winning the US presidential election, or the UK remaining in the EU), my general point was that it is the tendency of the ‘other’ group in Northern Ireland to support the Union.

There is evidence to prove it. The Life and Times survey asked people how they would vote in a border poll. 25% said that they would vote for a United Ireland and 51% said that they would vote to remain in the UK. No matter what your political persuasion may be, it’s evident from these figures that remaining in the UK has a certain appeal to the middle ground that the United Ireland argument has thus far failed to penetrate. This is without a concerted campaign by unionists to promote the union as of yet, and, a lot of this thinking, I believe, is down to economics.

Perhaps the most obvious area in which remaining in the Union holds the advantage is that of healthcare. Over half of voters are discouraged from voting for a United Ireland based on the differences in our healthcare systems. Whilst a certain number of people qualify for free healthcare in the Republic of Ireland, the majority do not. Without free healthcare, citizens of the Republic can be charged around €50 to see a GP, €100 to visit A&E and over €140 a month for prescription drugs. Spending ten days in hospital could see you spend over €800. Therefore, over 40% of Irish citizens have private health insurance, which costs, on average, just under €2,000 per person.

This is the highest percentage take-up of private insurance anywhere in Europe, and average emergency room waiting times are also the highest in Europe. The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated the widespread support in Northern Ireland for the NHS. This support extends beyond mere economics, into feelings of pride, for both the institution and the workers within it. Sinn Fein plans to create an NHS in a United Ireland do not go down well with Irish citizens. Only a third are willing to vote for unification if it means higher taxes, and a border poll must be won in the Republic of Ireland too.

There are differences in our other emergency services too. Northern Ireland has 382 police officers per 100,000 of the population. The Republic of Ireland, with just 278 officers per 100,000 citizens, has one of the smallest police forces in Europe. Fire services are chargeable in the Republic of Ireland, with individuals billed anywhere between €0-750 for calling 999, depending on where they live. Home insurance does not always cover these costs and the system has been labelled confusing, unfair and unsafe by insurers.

A claim often levelled at Unionism is that supporting Brexit was akin to shooting our future selves in the foot when it comes to attracting support in a border poll, but little evidence is ever given to support this assertion. Perhaps, because the evidence isn’t always there. Over half of voters say that leaving the EU has made absolutely no difference to their preference in a border poll.

No matter what your political persuasion is, or whether you voted leave or remain, we can all agree that the process of leaving the EU has not been smooth. Northern Ireland has been part of the United Kingdom for considerably longer than the United Kingdom has been a part of the EU, and disentangling that connection would be vastly more complex.

Current debates surrounding Scotland leaving the UK have further shown that answers to difficult questions are not easily forthcoming, and given the public a glimpse into the potential disruption that the ‘transition period’ could cause to their lives. With the UK as the largest net contributor to the EU, Brexit leaves a sizeable hole in the finances of the organization. Some have suggested that the EU would assist Ireland in funding Northern Ireland should a border poll be won.

However, with contributions from EU member-states set to increase to fill the budgetary blackhole, a significant financial package or contribution-break for Ireland would not likely go down well with, in some cases, already disgruntled member-states. Ireland’s economy alone would not be able to take Northern Ireland on without a significant financial impact – higher taxes, higher borrowing – on the very people that must vote for unification to happen.

The financial support that we receive from the British government is more than we would receive as part of a United Ireland. Not only do we receive the block grant, totalling nearly £15 billion in 2020-21, but we are also in receipt of various financial packages. This includes, for example, a commitment of over £520 million to fund the New Decade, New Approach agreement. We are also still receiving money from the Confidence and Supply Agreement between my party and the Conservative Party, notably in improving rural broadband access.

Overall, Northern Ireland has the most funding per head of the population of any other region of the United Kingdom. In terms of employment, the public sector would take a significant hit in the event of unification and it currently employs over 25% of our total workforce. Redundancies would likely be widespread and costly.

Since 2016, the UK government has provided us with £24 billion to fund benefits payments. It’s also important not to forget the basics. The UK is the fifth largest economy in the world. Ireland currently sits at number twenty-eight. We also have the debt owed to the UK by the Republic of Ireland. The Irish Government still owes the United Kingdom Government over £2 billion in a bilateral loan given following the financial crisis over a decade ago.It is hard to argue that a United Ireland can be achieved without significant tax rises, EU grants or increased borrowing.

In terms of further financial benefits, there is no better example than that of Covid-19. Firstly, due to our position in the Union, we have benefitted from the UK-wide schemes to assist in retaining jobs and supporting the self-employed, to name but two. We can pick flaws in the Covid-19 schemes, which are not perfect, and we can find individuals who do not qualify for the packages of government support. However, I think that people have lost sight of the big picture and how fortunate we are globally.

The IMF singled out the United Kingdom to praise the government for their extensive response, highlighting its generosity and its speed when compared with the rest of the world. Not only have we benefitted from these schemes, but the Treasury has provided the Executive with several billion pounds specifically to assist in measures to tackle the virus and provide support to those in need. The Covid-19 response in the Republic of Ireland is not as substantial as that which we have received through our membership of the Union.

These are only a few of the financial benefits of remaining in the Union. It would be difficult to list, or fully explore all of the ways in which we benefit financially from being a part of the United Kingdom in such a short piece. Still, these are some of the key financial arguments that I have no doubt will be fought out during a border poll campaign.

As a committed unionist, I find them convincing. I think many ‘others’ and many moderate nationalists will do too. The polling certainly suggests that, as it stands, this is the case. However, we can never and must never be complacent in our assumptions, beliefs, and position within the United Kingdom.

Unionists definitely need to do more to sell the Union. In my view, whilst I don’t want a border poll because I believe it will be destabilizing I do not fear one either, however I am realistic enough to know this is out of my hands, and, to secure my desired result, I believe that selling the benefits of the Union must start now.

The centenary of Northern Ireland presents us with a unique opportunity to promote the benefits of our position within the United Kingdom and kick-start what should be a positive and ongoing campaign. I am, however, optimistic about the place from which we start and believe that we will be part of the Union for another 100 years.

Photo by hhach is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

Photo by hhach is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA