Reunification? That would be an economical matter (Weekly Blog)

Last week I had the pleasure of heading to the former TV3 studio, now branded Virgin Media One, for a late debate on the Tonight Show with Matt Cooper and Ivan Yates.

It was the show’s first episode back after the Christmas break and they made no bones about what they thought the first topic of 2019 should be.

A united Ireland.

And they’re right. It’s something we’re going to be hearing a lot more about over the coming year.

It was only yesterday that the Tory Prime Minister, Theresa May, threw a veiled threat at her sometimes coalition partners in the DUP, warning that their reckless quest for a hard Brexit would lead to a united Ireland.

In fact, not since the Good Friday Agreement has the phrase been so to the fore in public and political conversation.

But why is that?

Is it a latent republicanism reawakening within our national psyche? Is it English nationalism seeking to shake off the remnants of a troublesome colony along with the EU? Is it European schadenfreude as they smirk at the breakup of Britain’s union following Britain’s attempt to break theirs?

No. It’s none of those things. A united Ireland means a lot of things to a lot of people but the number one reason it’s once again front and centre in our politics as we face into Brexit is deceptively simple.

It makes sense.

A united Ireland is simply the best, most efficient, most economical way to run this island and unlock its full potential.

But don’t take my word for it. There have been no less than four major independent studies carried out in last few years alone, all of which have one common thread. Reunification makes economic sense.

In 2016 Michael Burke, an economic consultant and former senior international economist at Citibank in London, presented his paper, The Economic Case for Irish Unity, to the European Parliament.

He was unequivocal in his conclusion stating that not only would we be better off in a united Ireland but that reunification was the only way for the entire country to reach its full economic potential.

In 2015 a team of international researchers and economists, headed up by Dr. Kurt Hubner, a professor at the University of British Columbia and an expert in European integration, released their report, Modeling Irish Unification.

In an extensive report using state-of-the-art modeling techniques they laid out several scenarios for reunification, all of which saw both north and south benefiting hugely, with the most complete form of reunification bringing an added €36billion into the economy over the first eight years.

The results were so conclusive that when the Brexit vote happened just over a year later he quipped that any follow up study would have to be called The Costs of Non-Unification.

Sure enough, just two months ago his second major report was released. The Costs of Non-Unification – Brexit and the Unification of Ireland, found that even with the damage done by Brexit a reunified Ireland still stood to create a €23.5billion boost to the economy.

The fourth report was commissioned by the Oireachtas itself, with Gunther Thumann, the IMF’s senior economist during German reunification taking the lead.

It found that the oft cited figure of the north costing £10billion a year was utter nonsense.

The north would have all but a balanced budget in the event of reunification and that’s before you begin to bring in the savings and growth that reunification would lead to, as outlined in the other three reports.

Tellingly, the Department of Foreign Affairs tried to snuff the report out, arguing that it shouldn’t be released until after Brexit.

It seems there is still some political mileage to be gotten out of the myth that the north costs £10billion a year, despite the fact that this claim has been debunked several times over.

In fact Michael Burke made particular mention of it in his report, telling the European Parliament that;

“Outlandish numbers are frequently cited for the so-called subvention from Westminster, which is not included in the resources generated in NI. But the data shows that there are resources available in NI that make any subvention unnecessary.

“Let’s be clear, the only reason that Northern Ireland requires an annual subvention is because it exists as part of the United Kingdom.”

The economic case for Irish reunification has, at this stage, been so thoroughly established, that acceptance of it has come from the most unexpected places, even from within the British establishment.

Kevin Meagher was a special advisor to Shaun Woodward, who was the British Shadow Secretary of State for the north, from 2007 to 2011.

In November of 2016 Mr Meagher published a book drawing on his experiences in Ireland. It was entitled A United Ireland: Why Unification Is Inevitable and How It Will Come About.

But despite all these voices from within Government, academia and economics making the case for a united Ireland there is still one voice missing, and perhaps it’s the most telling of all.

Where are the rebuttals?

Where are the research papers that show partition works? Where are the Government reports that show Ireland has benefited from division? Why aren’t unionists waving independent studies that prove the best way to run a tiny island of less than seven million people is to carve it up, with duplicate services competing against each other for investment?

Why, in short, is the response to these reports to ignore them rather than dispute them?

Frankly, from what I can see, the economic case for reunification has been made. Multiple independent voices have endorsed it and none have arisen to debunk it.

Much like the case for Brexit, the economic argument against reunification relies on misinformation and empty slogans.

And our Government would do well to learn from Brexit.

Political and demographic changes in the north, along with the social and economic impacts of Brexit and the emergence of a generation that has no experience of the conflict but finds its liberal views far more aligned with the socially progressive south than the conservative puritanism of the DUP means a referendum on reunification is not only inevitable but imminent.

That’s not to say reunification is imminent but the question itself will, I believe, be put to the people within the next five years.

Whether you are for it or against it is irrelevant, the fact is that Irish reunification is now a more distinct possibility than it has ever been.

And if we have learned one thing from the omnishambles that the British Government has made out of Brexit, it’s that to court even the outside possibility of major constitutional change without a clear plan is to flirt with disaster.

So it is absolutely incumbent on this Government to begin the publication of a Green Paper on reunification as a matter of urgency.

I’m not asking them to endorse it or campaign for it. This is not a threat to reactionary unionism. The fact is that reunification is now a real possibility and they have a duty of care to the people of this island to be prepared for that potential outcome.

To do any less would be recklessness verging on dereliction.

Of course, there are many more aspects of reunification to discuss besides the economic ones.

Scotland publicly debated the pros and cons of independence for more than 18 months before going to the polls.

It would be foolish and unhelpful to try to cover them all in one article but the economy, the thing that dictates how we put food on the table, heat in our homes and shoes on our children, seems a good place to start.

The conversation has already begun. Get involved.

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