Owen Polley: Dublin would be horrified if faced with an all-Ireland state

If you’re a unionist who expresses opinions in public or engages in debate, you’ve probably heard the jibe, ‘Britain doesn’t want you’.

Saturday, 18th September 2021, 9:26 pm
Updated Saturday, 18th September 2021, 10:23 pm
An all-Ireland would be costly. An economist estimates that Irish voters would see an 11% fall in GDP per capita. The Republic’s establishment would be horrified if it was faced with the immediate absorption of Northern Ireland

This nugget is regarded as a truism by many nationalists, who also, presumably, believe that the political establishment in the Republic of Ireland is eager to absorb Northern Ireland into a 32-county republic.

Actually, even the polls used to support this view tend to show the opposite.

Earlier this year, the New Statesman added the headline ‘Majority of British voters feel little connection with the people of Northern Ireland’ to a survey showing that two thirds of respondents in Great Britain actually felt some or more than some connection to their fellow citizens across the Irish Sea.

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The same poll showed that 70% in GB were opposed to a “united Ireland”.

Clearly, these figures did not suit the magazine’s purposes and it tried to impose a different narrative, rather than simply reporting the results.

But what about the counter-assumption that the Republic of Ireland is happy to take over Northern Ireland?

On the surface, it’s not that outlandish a suggestion. All the main southern political parties are committed, in theory, to an all-Ireland republic.

Nationalists and republicans are predisposed to regard a 32 county state, separate from the rest of the British Isles, as inevitable.

At times, though, the Republic’s commitment to nationalism seems rather like the young St Augustine’s desire to be pure: “Oh lord, make us united, but not yet.”

Polls suggest that, in theory, a narrow majority of southern Irish voters are in favour of the Republic absorbing Northern Ireland. However, they would not support this outcome if it involved paying more tax or experiencing less prosperity.

Likewise, north of the border, even nationalist voters are not prepared to sacrifice the economy in order to fund an all-Ireland state.

Currently, we know Northern Ireland is one of the poorer parts of the UK, with a particularly high proportion of employees working in public sector jobs. Before the pandemic, we received about £10 billion more from the government in London than we raised in tax each year.

This ‘subvention’ will have increased significantly during the Covid-19 pandemic, with the Westminster government paying the wages of furloughed workers and funding the national vaccination programme.

We want to do better and become a net contributor to the nation’s finances, but one of the Union’s benefits is that it redistributes the benefits of a strong UK economy throughout its regions.

The only serious nationalist plan to replace this money, without causing sudden, extreme hardship, is the fantasy that the UK will keep paying for its former territory decades after it has been absorbed by the Irish republic.

Dr Edgar Morgenroth, from Ireland’s Economic and Social Research Institute estimates that an all-Ireland state would reward Irish voters with an 11% drop in GDP per capita.

These economic facts are a formidable obstacle for nationalists, before we factor in the social unrest that would certainly follow Northern Ireland’s absorption by the Republic.

A 32 county state, independent from the rest of the British Isles, would be an entirely new entity, struggling from its inception to absorb a substantial British minority that felt ripped from the United Kingdom against its will.

You won’t hear this view aired much these days, but, actually, Northern Ireland is already a political compromise that reflects the divided loyalties of its people.

Nationalists focus on the alleged partition of the island, but unionists were asked to accept the separation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, which was itself a painful concession.

The province may have had a relatively turbulent history, but it is now a happy home for most of us. The latest Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey (2020) showed that 83% of people here “probably” or “definitely” feel a sense of belonging to Northern Ireland.

That is an extraordinary endorsement for place whose very existence has been attacked for a century, through political campaigns and a vicious separatist insurgency.

Politicians in the Republic of Ireland, even those who are outwardly optimistic about the prospects of an all-Ireland state, like Leo Varadkar, cannot be impervious to these complications. His Fianna Fail counterpart, Micheal Martin, is publicly much less bullish about the desirability of a ‘border poll’.

Dublin’s attitude to Northern Ireland is, of course, underpinned by nationalist assumptions. Chief among these is the idea that, irrespective of the British loyalties of a majority of its people, the province should not properly be part of the United Kingdom.

It is this attitude that has allowed successive southern governments to act as if they are entitled to an ever greater say in Northern Ireland’s internal affairs and to insist that all-Ireland trade and structures are essential to peace, while our links with the rest of the UK are dispensable.

The Republic wants influence and authority over Northern Ireland, without assuming responsibility for our divided society or paying for our heavily subsidised economy. Its actions, since 2016 in particular, have been destabilising and encourage the nationalist delusion that an all-Ireland state is achievable soon.

The truth is that the Dublin government, and the political establishment in the Republic, would be horrified if it was faced with the immediate absorption of Northern Ireland and all the costs and instability that would entail.

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