The topic of Irish unity has been propelled into the mainstream of political debate to an extent that would have been inconceivable even five years ago. And it’s not just the usual Republican voices engaged either. Most of Nationalism’s moderate mainstream, plus some elements within Unionism, are also pondering the question of what form Northern Ireland’s future could or should take in a world where Brexit has happened and demography is shifting. It still remains very early days in that process, however, with a lot of questions to answer before any border poll could credibly take place.
One question that frequently arises is ‘Why would the south want NI?’. Given that the Good Friday Agreement mandates a positive affirmation for unification on both sides of the border, it’s a question that has received surprisingly scant attention thus far. It is also rooted in a perception that Northern Ireland is such a politically, culturally and economically troublesome entity that those living in the Republic would surely have little genuine interest in assuming responsibility for it. Those from a nationalist outlook tend to rely on an assumption that patriotic appeal, common bonds and a sense of ‘unfinished business’ is all that is really required to propel their southern kinsfolk to support unification – to the extent that their backing is usually taken for granted. Contrary to that is the argument that the South is so busy enjoying its current prosperity and stability, and has gotten so used to maintaining a psychological distance from the north, that it wouldn’t want to pick up the bill for a perennially troublesome entity that includes a large recalcitrant unionist minority. Is it fair, however, to assume that a new constitutional settlement on the island would be a one-way street – in which the north brought the problems and the south bore the burden? Would unification really provide no meaningful benefits to those in the Republic? Or could a new constitutional arrangement on the island be a much-needed opportunity to improve BOTH parts of the island?
At first glance, the challenges that unification would entail for those in the south are more apparent than the potential benefits. Cost is usually portrayed as the biggest issue – with the British Exchequer’s £10bn annual subvention towards NI (the difference between what the north raises in taxes and what it costs to provide services there) presumed to be a deal-breaker for many in the south. In reality the NET cost of NI to Britain once UK-specific costs like debt, contributions to defence etc are stripped out is closer to only £5 billion a year – though still a sizeable sum to a small nation like the Republic. A joint BBC/RTE poll in 2016 supported the idea that cost would focus minds. It found that only 32% of respondents in the Republic wanted a united Ireland in the short to medium term, compared with 66% who wished to see it happen in their lifetime. Crucially that latter figure dropped to 31% if it involved paying more tax as a result. The truth is that people in the Republic often nod along to the concept of reunification – so long as it’s an aspiration that is delayed to an unspecified point in the future. Once it becomes a more imminent issue and they see sight of the potential bill for it, some start to go cold on the idea. If reunification is primarily dominated by a question of cost, it will therefore be a tricky sell to many in the south. Those advocating for a new settlement on the island will therefore need to identify and articulate other benefits that would make southerners more willing to accept the perceived or actual financial implications of reunification.
A number of the benefits that citizens of the Republic could expect to gain from reunification are currently very understated. Some would have a positive impact upon economics and politics, whilst others would be more values-focused (i.e. about the type of state people wished to belong to). Most would depend on what type of a New Ireland emerged from the ideally detailed debate over what shape a post-unified island should take. And whilst many would involve sharing the upsides both north and south of the current border, this article focuses primarily on the south – given the question of ‘why would they want to’. So here are ten such benefits, to get the conversation rolling :
1) A Constitutional Reset Button.
An essential starting point is to acknowledge that reunification would not merely involve grafting Northern Ireland onto the existing ROI entity. Instead – it would involve such a fundamental realignment of politics, economics, society, culture and inter-relationships across the island that an entirely new constitutional and civic entity would be needed to reflect that. Unification would therefore entail a completely fresh start for BOTH parts of the island together in a completely new Irish state. This would be a golden opportunity to press the reset button on how the territory of the Republic of Ireland has operated since independence – using the wisdom of a century of self-governance to appreciate the aspects of its current polity and society that require change. All nations have parts of their functionality that are objectively in need of overhaul, or wouldn’t be designed as they are now if the process began afresh. Without an existential catalyst, however (often a major war or revolution), such change tends not to happen – or at least not within any appreciable timescale. That’s because the structures, laws and norms of democratic countries tend to evolve slowly and not change abruptly. Powerful forces of inertia in even the strongest democracies mitigate against significant change and in favour of the status quo. And electoral cycles mean that politicians and voters shy away from wholesale constitutional or policy re-alignments in favour of tinkering within the status quo. Root and branch change in how a country functions is therefore difficult to secure in a meaningful timescale under normal circumstances – no matter the need. What unification offers is the necessary reason and opportunity to do that. To start all over again – wiping the slate clean and pressing the constitutional reset button on both the Republic and the North. Creating a new and improved version of the island that makes the best use of the hindsight gained over the past 100 years. An ‘Ireland 2.0’, if you will. It would be an extremely rare opportunity for any nation to be presented with, and it should be welcomed by those in the south.
2) SCALE AND POPULATION
The most obvious benefit from the creation of a single new state on the island would be in population and scale. At present the Republic is a small territory of 4.9million people, ranked 20th amongst the EU’s 27 nations – behind the likes of Denmark, Norway, Finland and Slovakia (and smaller even than Scotland). Combining NI’s 1.9m people with the population of the south would create a new state of 6.8m people – 40% larger than the Republic on its own. That would make the new entity mid-ranking in population terms within the EU (up to 17th place, and closing in on the fast-shrinking Bulgaria).
This matters for a number of reasons. Firstly, a bigger population gives a country more influence. Particularly within the EU – where MEPs are allocated proportionately. A new Irish State could expect to add approximately 3 additional MEPs to the Republic’s current count of 13 – increasing Irish voting power and influence within Brussels (albeit to a limited extent). Secondly, population is also central to economies of scale. At present pubic services and staff are duplicated north and south of the island via two civil services, two public transport providers, two postal services etc. Some of those functions will have relatively high base or fixed costs, with the per-capita cost of provision greatly reduced by serving a larger population. The Irish private sector would also benefit from having a bigger market too. And the presence of a single unified legal and political entity should make the island more attractive for new entrants/investors to provide goods, products and services here – helping to increase choice and reduce prices. So a new all-island State would therefore have greater population, scale and influence than the Republic currently enjoys on its own, and an enhanced economic appeal for investors. To the benefit of all current citizens in the south.
3) ECONOMICS & REGIONAL BALANCE
A 2015 report entitled ‘Modelling Irish Unification’, by Dr Kurt Hubner and Dr Renger Van Nieuwkoop analysed the economic benefits that could arise from having a single state on the island of Ireland. It calculated that unification could boost all-island GDP in the first 8 years by €35.6bn. The north is predicted to benefit the most (unsurprisingly, as it’s starting from a lower base), with its per capita GDP estimated to grow by between 4.5% and 7%. This supports the belief that any taxpayer subsidies required from the south to pay for unification would decline over time, by enabling the north’s economy to improve. The report also highlighted that citizens of the south would benefit directly too – with an estimated per capita GDP rise of 0.7%-1.2%.
A new unified all-island economy would also help address the uneven distribution of the Republic’s current economic activity, with its border region in particular held back by the fracturing impact of partition upon its economy and population. The Republic is divided into 3 large regions for statistical purposes, and they highlight the vastly differing economic fortunes across the State. A 2019 Eurostat report revealed that Ireland’s southern region (the six counties of Munster, plus Carlow, Kilkenny and Wexford) had the EU’s second highest GDP – at 240% above the EU average. The Eastern and Midland Region (covering the rest of Leinster) was in joint fourth place at 202% above average GDP. However the third region – the Northern and Western (which consists of Connacht plus the 3 Ulster counties in ROI) – had a GDP that was only 78% of the EU average. In particular, the Border Region (defined as Donegal, Cavan, Monaghan, Sligo and Leitrim) performs worst within the state, with the Republic’s lowest GDP and slowest population growth. Whilst GDP is an imperfect measure of real-world wealth, and often faces particular criticism over what it measures in an Irish context, the stark contrast that these figures highlight between the regions within the Republic is still valid for comparative purposes. Creating a new north-south state would therefore be expected to improve economic output and productivity right across the island.
4) POLITICAL & DEMOGRAPHIC DECENTRALISATION
Over-centralisation and a lack of regional balance is one of the Republic’s greatest failings. In 1921 the newly-established Free State had a population of 2.9million, of which just over 300,000 lived in Dublin City (10% of the total). Fast forward to 2021 and whilst the state’s population has grown two-thirds to 4.9m people, the number living in Dublin has quadrupled to 1.2million – or 25% of the entire State. When you factor in Greater Dublin’s ever-sprawling suburbs, that figure rises to one-third. A failure to develop other significant urban centres has resulted in a situation where Greater Dublin is more than seven times larger than the next biggest metropolis (Cork – which even after a major boundary redraw in 2019 still contains only 210,000 people). And the three other cities that constitute the Republic’s Top 5 population centres are significantly smaller again – Limerick (94,000), Galway (80,000) and Waterford (55,000). Meanwhile, the only three counties that experienced a fall in population between the Republic’s 2011 and 2016 censuses are in the border and western region (Donegal, Sligo and Mayo) – with Donegal faring worst via a 1.5% decline against an overall 3.8% increase in the overall State. All of which has resulted in the Republic becoming excessively centralised around Dublin in every aspect of Irish life. Sucking the lion’s share of population and resources away from the rest of the territory, and placing huge pressure upon Dublin’s property market, transport infrastructure and quality of life. Having a southern State that is overly-centralised upon Dublin is in the best interests of neither the people who live in the capital, nor those based elsewhere. The south’s recent ‘Project Ireland 2040’ national development plan acknowledged the problem and marks a belated attempt to begin addressing it – with the bold aspiration that 75% of all future population growth should occur beyond Greater Dublin. Regardless – the Republic’s over-centralisation and dependency upon Dublin appears destined to continue for the foreseeable future.
The creation of a new north-south State from scratch offers the most realistic prospect of Dublin’s stranglehold being genuinely challenged this century. Belfast would provide the new combined state with the kind of economic, cultural and demographic counter-balance that the Republic has always lacked. With a city population of 340,000 and a metropolitan area of 675,000, Belfast would easily become the new state’s second-largest city. Derry, with a population of 110,000, would also become its fourth biggest city and a much-needed counter-balance in the north-west. Overall half of the top 10 population centres in a newly formed state would be located in the north. which would again help to challenge Dublin’s current overwhelming dominance. The much-more industrialised north-east of the island would also add diversity and breadth to the economic offering of the Republic in a range of new manufacturing sectors (e.g. aviation, automotives). One caveat to note, however, is that NI is itself even more skewed towards Belfast than the Republic is to Dublin. There would therefore be a risk that a newly combined state could merely result in an extended east-coast supremacy. The beauty of designing a new state from scratch is that issues like this could be pre-empted and addressed for the start. It could even be the only way to prevent such an east coast dominance growing further under the current two-state arrangement.
Finally, a new state would almost certainly seek to address the political dominance of Dublin via devolution or federalism. Northern Ireland’s unique history, demography and existing Regional Assembly makes it inevitable that it would retain at least some form of autonomy within any new all-island state (e.g. perhaps expanded to cover all of Ulster). And that would trigger similar demands for devolution elsewhere on the island. In that way unification offers a real prospect for power to be devolved to the regions and cities beyond Dublin and Belfast, which would be a hugely positive change for all concerned.
This has the potential to be the most tangible and popular area of benefit for the current citizens of the Republic. NI enjoys largely-free healthcare at the point of access, due to membership of the UK’s NHS – but decades of politicians avoiding difficult decisions have left the system there creaking at the seams. The Republic has a more marketised public-private hybrid system in which 60% of the population have to pay up-front to access primary health care. A simple GP visit therefore costs €50-60, and if you require expensive ongoing medication the State will only help cover the bill once it exceeds €134 a month. Access to treatment at hospitals is technically free in the south – but the waiting lists for diagnosis, never mind treatment, are notoriously long. The Republic is therefore ranked as the worst country in Europe for waiting lists – both in terms of the percentage of the population waiting, and the duration (2018 Euro-Health Consumer Index). So whilst the south’s healthcare system is arguably superior in some respects to the north’s, almost half its population has resorted to private healthcare to enable them to skip the long queues (one of the highest rates in the world). The south’s healthcare problems are primarily the result of design flaws rather than funding – with the Republic the seventh highest state spender on health in the OECD in 2017 ($5,500 per capita). Health is therefore the second biggest grumble politicians hear on the doorsteps in the Republic (after housing). In 2017 a cross-party Dail committee voted unanimously for a system of free and improved health treatment called ‘SlainteCare’. But governments since have failed to implement many of its recommendations and have allocated just a tiny portion of the funding required. Healthcare in the Republic is therefore long overdue major reform, and politicians there accept the need to change from an insurance-based model towards an NHS-esque version. Yet they continue to drag their heels in doing so in a prime example of inertia dictating against change. The health systems both north and south are therefore creaking under horrendous waiting lists and major structural challenges.
It is often said that if reunification resulted in those in the north losing free health care, then that would be reason enough for many nationalists to vote no in a border poll. So it is unlikely that unification could even happen without the proposed new state’s system of healthcare being clearly outlined in advance. This was echoed in a recent Lucid Talks poll which stated that 82% of respondents expected an Irish version of the NHS under unification. That major constitutional change would therefore provide a much-needed reset button to help ensure that any new state started again from scratch in designing health provision across the island. And rather than require those in the north to forego the NHS, it would be more likely instead to see many of its benefits offered to those in the south for the first time. Such a change would be an inevitable outcome of any new all-island constitutional arrangement, and perhaps reason alone for many in the south to welcome reunification.
Primary education in the Republic is State-funded, via schools that are owned and managed by a private patron body. For 90% of all its state-funded primary schools, that body is the Catholic Church (ironically a hangover from the days of British rule, and not a construct of the Free State). Education is therefore the last bastion of the Catholic Church’s dominant influence over Irish society, and at odds with the state’s growing secularism. At it’s worst, this situation can even result in legally-enshrined religious discrimination. Section 7(3)c of the Equal Status Act 2000 states that schools operated by religious institutions are entitled to make religion their main criteria for admission. This has resulted in some over-subscribed schools choosing to admit catholics above other applicants – forcing non-Catholic families to seek alternatives in often less convenient or accessible locations. Not being baptised in a catholic church can therefore still significantly impact a child’s ability to secure a preferred school place south of the border. This was exemplified by the case of 4yr old Reuben Murphy in 2015, who was refused enrolment into nine separate schools in south Dublin simply because he hadn’t been christened. His parents were forced to delay his formal education by a year whilst they frantically sought a school that would accept him. No wonder many non-religious families indulge in the sham practice of baptising their children purely as a safety net. It is unacceptable that people feel forced to act this way in a supposedly secular society.
A growing number of voices in the Republic are demanding that schooling reflect the country’s increasingly secular mood, and multi-denominational schools are increasing in numbers there. But the rate at which Catholic-run primary schools in the south are being reduced as a proportion of the whole amounts to only a 0.3% annual change. So without wholesale restructuring, it will take until the year 2150 before the church is no longer the dominant provider. A New Ireland would be the perfect opportunity to address this. The north’s sizeable protestant population, along with the growing non-religious community on both sides of the border, would provide clear justification for a long-overdue change. Unification would provide the ideal trigger for a wholesale redesign of Ireland’s education system to deny any particular faith a dominant position within it. And it would be the last great step in the evolution of the south from a church-dominated society to one where all faiths and none secured genuinely equal status.
Politics in the Republic has been largely on repeat for over fifty years. Two large centre-right parties take turns running the State, usually in coalition with a cluster of significantly smaller parties. The 2020 election saw Sinn Fein threaten to upset this order for the first time, and it remains to be seen how that will play out in the coming years. Regardless – Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are likely to remain two of the State’s three largest parties for the foreseeable future, despite the fact that little genuinely divides them ideologically. Perhaps only a complete re-ordering of politics on the island through the creation of a new state – with revised structures, parties and populations – is what is needed to deliver more meaningful choice to voters in the Republic. It would be hard to believe that the political step-change of reunification WOULDN’T lead to a complete realignment of politics across the island. Especially with northern unionists comprising c.15% of voters within any new system.
8) MAJOR EXTERNAL INVESTMENT (EU, UK, USA)
The Republic has been the recipient of over €50 billion net worth of European grants and investment since it joined the EEC in 1973. Buoyed economically in no small part by this, 2014 saw the Republic shift from being a net beneficiary of the EU to being a net-contributor for the first time. European funding is still available to the Republic (particularly for agriculture and major infrastructure projects), but just not to the extent that it was previously. And the Republic is likely to have to pay increasingly more to the EU in future as it continues to prosper. Integrating NI and the Republic into a single coherent new state would require significant economic, social and infrastructural investment. Transport, in particular, would need considerable funding, as would the counties along both sides of the border. It would be certain that the EU would financially assist in that process, making the newly combined state a net beneficiary again for some time. This would benefit both sides of the border, and see the territory of what is currently the Republic secure greater EU funding that it otherwise would on its own.
The south could also expect to benefit from greater Foreign Direct Investment. The EU and US have both been long unhappy with the Republic’s low Corporation Tax and arrangements with multinationals, and keen to see it changed. The need to attract fresh investment into a newly reunified state would provide political cover for the south to continue justifying the retention of those arrangements for the foreseeable future.
Unification would also doubtless include a significant UK government dowry, and/or a gradual phasing out of subvention to the north to help ensure the project’s success. Apart from the moral arguments compelling London to make up for prolonged underinvestment in the north, Britain would also suffer reputational, diplomatic and possibly even social problems if reunification didn’t create a stable new neighbour. And they could also face the influx of a sizeable number of disgruntled unionists into Britain if the project appeared likely to be troublesome or unappealing. All of which would create an incentive for the UK Government to do its bit to try to ensure a successful future for any ‘New Ireland’. The opportunity to remove the ongoing net annual £5bn cost of NI from the UK state’s coffers would also be viewed by many in London as warranting a ‘golden goodbye’ to help give the new state the best possible start. And the strong Irish-American political lobby would see the US likely to also contribute in some way towards making a unified state a success. All of which would result in additional investment and focus being channelled towards the current territory of the Republic to an extent that would otherwise not occur.
9) CORRUPTION AND NEPOTISM
Small states are inevitably dominated by closely connected elites, and must work extremely hard to not fall prey to corruption. Not just because of individual greed – but in simplistic terms because ‘everyone knows everyone’. The overwhelming majority of key decision-makers in politics, banking, the media etc within the Republic come from and move in relatively similar circles – making it hard for the big fish in Ireland’s small pond not to encounter each other regularly. And the problem isn’t just about what people can be persuaded to do for financial gain – but also what they’ll do for free, because of these shared connections. It’s a common phenomenon across all small countries, and makes corruption and cronyism much more likely to arise (as it is also in larger nations which have a dominant sub-pool of talent, such as England with its ‘public schools’ system). Small states are also more prone to regulatory capture and corruption – which in an Irish context was illustrated by the malign nexus between banking, construction and local planning prior to the 2008 financial crash (leading to the disastrous decision to nationalise their bad debt via the ill-fated bank guarantee). As an even smaller pond, the North also shares these problems – though its religious divide does tend to reduce such shared history/connections.
Merging the island’s two small ponds into a bigger pool where the combined key players do not have such a shared history would go some way towards reducing the propensity for corruption and cronyism (at least initially). It obviously wouldn’t remove it entirely – as the newly constituted state would still have a small population, and the combined ‘elites’ would over time gravitate towards each other. Strong institutional checks and procedures would therefore still be essential to reduce the likelihood of nepotistic behaviour. But it is hard to see how mixing things up in this way wouldn’t help to reduce the type of cronyism that the south currently suffers from to at least SOME extent.
The Republic of Ireland has undergone significant demographic change this millennium, with a noticeable increase in the ethnic diversity of its urban areas and a decrease in its overall Catholic population. Yet despite this, 78% of the population still identified as Catholic in the 2016 census. A unified island would not only create a new state with almost 2million more people than the Republic currently has, it would also bring with it additional diversity. At its most obvious level this would be via an enlarged protestant population – though it is important to note that the north also contains other important communities (such as the island’s largest Chinese population). Whether or not you consider the dilution of the Republic’s relatively-homogenous population overnight as a good or bad thing will depend largely upon your own attitude towards diversity. Some would doubtless also fear that problems would arise from combining a large protestant population into a new all-island state. Any issues that did occur would be unlikely to sustain beyond the short-to-medium term, as once Britain rescinded control of the north it wouldn’t be returning. And many of those in NI least willing to accept the new constitutional arrangement would also choose to move elsewhere. That would be a huge source of regret if it was to happen, and everything within reason should be done to minimise the number who felt compelled to respond in that way (though it would also serve as a pressure valve to reduce the likelihood of ongoing social problems). The withering of the south’s protestant population in the decades following the establishment of the Free State was historically regrettable, and dividing the island into two different states along sectarian lines in 1921 was also a negative chapter in our shared history. A new north-south constitutional entity would therefore offer an opportunity to begin undoing the geographical balkanisation of the island’s population which partition hard-wired a century ago.
States tend to evolve slowly over time rather than opt for rapid and wholesale change. Strong forces exist to maintain the status quo in any given society, and politicians are usually wary of frightening voters (or themselves) with too much rapid change. The Republic of Ireland has made great strides as a state in recent decades – socially, politically and economically. But many aspects of life there are still in need of major restructuring of a type that it is unlikely to happen without a significant trigger event. Unification therefore offers a unique opportunity to press the reset button on both the southern and northern States – addressing all the current concerns with life there in a way that would otherwise take generations. Unity isn’t the only way to resolve most of these issues, of course – but the scale of change required is such that only a major existential event is likely to provide the catalyst to actually do so. Those who advocate for a new constitutional arrangement on the island therefore need to start identifying and articulating such motivating reasons to ensure that more voters in the south will actively support their project. Kinship, charity or a sense of ‘unfinished business’ can no longer be relied upon to persuade citizens in the Republic to support a wholesale change that many can only see costs and problems arising from currently.