Sorry dreamers, Brexit doesn't make a United Ireland inevitable

Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist based in Russia.
Sorry dreamers, Brexit doesn't make a United Ireland inevitable
The past week has seen a glut of opinion pieces claiming a United Ireland is suddenly on the cards. Plenty of otherwise intelligent people are jumping the gun.

Sorry to be a party-pooper here. Because since pro-British Unionists finally lost their outright majority in the north of Ireland assembly, an awful lot of rubbish has been written and said about the imminent ‘inevitability’ of a United Ireland. On radio, television, blogs, social media posts and even in ‘serious’ newspapers. But the reality is a 32-county state is most likely not impending.

Sure, there is absolutely no doubt how, from Bantry Bay to Derry Quay and from Galway to Dublin town, the vast majority of Irish people theoretically want a unified island. And always have done so, regardless of London’s commitment to its loyalists and their devotion, in turn, to everything British. It’s also irrefutable that Ulster’s Protestant community has mellowed in its attitude to Dublin. And how its liberal members have become increasingly disenchanted with unionism. Which, in its present condition, is as backward as a fellow riding a High Nelly in a world of electric cars. Anyway, it was always a cadaverous, dogmatic conviction hatched in the trenches of perdition. Much like the Catholic chauvinism it felt repugnance toward.

However, it’s not just as simple as holding a border poll and assuming Brexit was the final straw for the union. Because even if at least 50.01 percent of people in the north approve their quasi-state's passage south, the craic will only be beginning. And that’s if you can even reach the magic number. This is going to require filthy lucre - and lots of it - allied to a complete reorganization of both economies.

Teutonic Warnings

You see, regardless of the usual guff, it isn’t comparable to West Germany integrating its eastern hinterland in the 1990's. Back then, the East had lost its Soviet sugar daddy and had nothing better on offer. Instead, this is more akin to incorporating North Korea into South Korea. Because the reality is how other than being smacked with a few nukes, the last thing the Seoul establishment really wants is to assimilate the provincials from up yonder. And the folk who hold the keys to the honeypot in Dublin feel exactly the same, minus the threat of atomic annihilation.

Back in the nineties, Bonn incorporated its lost lands by hollowing out their industrial base, encouraging the youth to move west, and introducing a “solidarity tax.” That was a 5.5 percent surcharge on income, which still exists twenty-six years later. Right now, even if Ireland wanted to mimic this scheme, it can’t. Due to the hated Universal Social Charge,” introduced after the 2008 financial crash, which stands at 5 percent for people on a paltry €18,000 annually and reaches 11 percent for those lucky enough to earn over €100,000. Let’s be entirely clear, even the thought of increasing this levy would practically collapse the Irish middle-class, which is barely hanging on as things stand.

Speaking of finances, let's mention wages. The south is a high ranking first world economy, but incomes up north are more similar to those in southern and Eastern Europe. Back in 2014, we were talking a northern average of $26,571 versus a southern equivalent of $38,056. And the chasm is doubtlessly higher today, given how the latter’s economy grew by 7.8 percent last year. Sure, Belfast is cheaper than Dublin, but Tijuana is bargain-basement by contrast with San Diego, and we all know which is more desirable.

Then, there are social welfare rates. In Derry or Lisburn, the optimistically-titled Jobseeker’s Allowance will net a single person a maximum of €117 a week. Whereas, in Cork or Kilkenny, it’s a minimum of €193. For pensioners, the south offers a €222 weekly non-contributory deal against a northern ceiling of €137. Who will make up this shortfall?

The Real World

Ah, the Brits you say, but why would they? Because another misguided trope is how, after reunification, the UK will gladly fund the north for a decade or so. But this is not going to happen. How, in the name of all that’s reasonable, could English politicians sell this to their voters? And no such deal was on the table for Scotland when it held a referendum a few years back. Furthermore, even if London were crazy enough to acquiesce to this sort of sweetener, you’d then have to assume, Ireland would be on the hook for Belfast's share of the UK national debt. Money from which it has never received any benefit.

As it stands, Dublin’s current liabilities are already mind-boggling enough. The nation owes $227 billion or 81 percent of a GDP which is notoriously bloated by foreign companies taking advantage of Ireland’s low corporate tax rates. Something post-Brexit Britain might seek to exploit by mimicking the strategy. Not to mention how the rickety bedrock of Dublin’s apparent wealth could wobble with a few changes in Washington. Adjustments President Trump has spoken of many times.

In 2014, the difference between what London transferred to the north, compared to exchequer receipts from Belfast was a staggering £9 billion. Close to what the Republic spent on its much-maligned health service that year. Nevertheless, Sinn Fein, in particular, has pointed to an American study, which shows how “the political and economic unification of Ireland could potentially deliver a €35.6 billion boost in GDP for the island in the first eight years.” Now, this sounds wonderful, but where will we get the remaining €48 billion from other than by throwing more kindling on a national debt which is already vulnerable to global economic heat?

Also, the two labor markets are not complementary. Up north, an astounding 31 percent of the workforce is employed in the state sector, by comparison with 18 percent over the border. Thus, reunification would demand a dismantlement of the six counties’ public service and plenty of haggling overwhich jurisdiction is going to honor future pensions. As for who will implement these cuts? Well, the existing northern parties have shown little appetite for anything beyond distributing the British largesse.

Side Issues

There are some other factors at play also. Many in London will be reluctant to let the statelet go now as it might encourage Scotland to push for another independence ballot. There’s also the issue of how the EU is far from stable, and Brexit may turn out to be a good thing in the long-term, despite current dread.

Moreover, the willingness of southern taxpayers to bankroll the plan is not a given. While simple opinion polls overwhelmingly show a massive majority for reunification, a more nuanced recent tally delivered a different result. When the polling agency mentioned the nine billion pound elephant in the room, things swiftly changed. The final score was 50.4 percent in favor and 49.6 percent against, excluding undecideds.

And that’s folk caught on the hop. Not voters after weeks of campaigning who’ve had some access to the projected accounts and notification of potential tax hikes.

We can’t forget Ulster Unionist culture either. Raised on stories of King Billy and the Battle of the Boyne, many still feel fealty to the events of 1690. This encourages them to paint their kerbs red, white and blue and march the Queen's highway every summer in parades which don’t display much tolerance or inclusiveness. Do we really believe how, even if a United Ireland obtains 50.1 percent of the suffrage, all of the losing 49.9 percent are going to accept the will of the people gently? Don’t count on it.

Irish reunification would be the single greatest thing which could ever happen to our island in the long-term. But, sadly, there are too many reasons to believe that it’s neither inevitable nor imminent. On both sides of the divide.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.