A “United Ireland” won’t happen. Ever.

I am pleased to see, over on Slugger, at least the hint of a real debate about a “United Ireland”. Most of the basic sentiments – that we need some economic reality and that Northern Ireland has to work for all its citizens – are spot on and conveniently are necessary to any constitutional preference. This is why my own politics were always based on those sentiments.

I have put forward various thoughts on how a United Ireland could operate – most obviously, like Australia (a federation with the current Monarch as Head of State). However, I have done so primarily to demonstrate that “Nationalists” are either so biased that they find this unacceptable, or so disinterested that they find this irrelevant. It is no surprise to me that the only threat to the UK comes from Scotland, not Northern Ireland.

The truth is this: a Unitied Ireland is not going to happen.

Why not? Let us go back to the Covenant. One of the main aspects of that document in September 1912 was the economic argument that splitting Belfast – its shipbuilders, rope makers, linen weavers and so on – from the rest of the UK would see tariffs imposed and thus create costs to exporting to the UK which would render them unable to compete with the West of Scotland and the North West of England in those key industrial areas. The point here is that in an era where there were tariffs imposed on trade between any two countries, it made sense to belong to a large country. There were two prime reasons for this: first, it gave you the biggest possible free trading zone; and second, it gave you the clout of a powerful government to negotiate trade deals with other large countries on your behalf. That is why the map of Europe at the outbreak of World War One consisted of a unitary British Isles, a larger single Germany, a huge Austro-Hungarian realm, a newly united Italy and large Russian and Ottoman Empires – alongside France. Spain and not much else (even Sweden and Norway had broken apart only in the previous decade).

A century later and we live in a vastly different Europe, where tariffs and many other trade restrictions between countries have been abolished. This makes it no longer necessary or even beneficial to belong to a large country. With the benefit of free trade, countries such as France and Germany are the exception in Europe – which contains a raft of countries at around 7-11 million (Belgium, Portugal, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic. Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Sweden etc), another set at around 4-5 million (Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Finland. Slovakia, Croatia etc) and another lot at around 2 million (Slovenia, Latvia and Estonia). This is vastly different from what went before, but it is enabled by free and peaceful trade, and thus the pressure is for more break-up – perhaps in Catalonia, Venice or Scotland to give some obvious examples. After all, if Brussels is already handling everything from foreign trade to social regulations; and you are already handling domestic policies and laws, what role precisely do Madrid, Rome or London play?

Therefore it is no coincidence that, aside from Germany, there really is no precedent for uniting a country in modern Europe – the movement is all the other way.

Germany itself is not a useful precedent either. It consisted, legally and practically, of the dissolution of the German Democratic Republic (what the English-speaking world but not the German-speaking world referred to as “East Germany”) and the expansion of the Federal Republic of Germany (“West Germany”) to incorporate its territory. The equivalent would be the dissolution of Northern Ireland and the expansion of the current Republic of Ireland to include 32 counties not 26. Overnight, the Northern (NHS-style) Health system would be abolished, its laws would be replaced (e.g. the Rules of the Road would change) or repealed (e.g. laws on equality or animal cruelty, which are often markedly lacking in the Republic), and rafts of people would be out of work (most civil servants would be unnecessary; all lawyers now unqualified; and so on). This would be much more dramatic in fact than it was in Germany, where some “Eastern” systems were maintained by the new States (in their own policies and laws; unlike Ireland, Germany is a federation) and “Easterners” gladly underwent training in new “Western” systems accepting from the outset that they were inherently better. This is why no one seriously advocates such a method of unification for Ireland.

So there is no precedent. In fact, most Nationalists who think about it come to suggest that Northern Ireland would continue to exist, with its own separate laws, education system, accounting methods and so on. But that takes us back to the above question – if Belfast continues to manage the domestic policies and laws, and Brussels does the foreign stuff, what exactly would Dublin be doing? The answer to that, hypothetically, is it would be working out what to do with its new security headache and how it was to manage a mammoth subvention to Northern Ireland – a subvention to a place with half the population but the same number of public servants, for some reason. Hypothetically… it wouldn’t be daft enough to do it in reality, of course.

Even without that headache, the simple fact is the “United Ireland” thus created would consist of a legally separate unit, with its own laws, institutions, heritage and identities. That has been tried, of course – in 1707, when the Kingdom of Scotland was united with the Kingdom of England. How’s that one working out in the modern context explained above?!

So no, a United Ireland is not “closer than it’s ever been”. There was one chance of it ever happening outside the UK, and it was wasted at Easter 1916. Towards 2016, all the trends across Europe tell us there was more chance of a sovereign Northern Ireland than a sovereign United Ireland some time this century. What was that about making Northern Ireland economically viable and a fair home to all, Irish, British and neither…?!

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14 thoughts on “A “United Ireland” won’t happen. Ever.

  1. Scots Anorak says:

    That’s certainly a bold statement. It also deals with the issue of a united Ireland from a technocratic viewpoint, which may not be of much relevance to people when the main driver of unity is likely to remain the dysfunction of Northern Ireland: bricks through windows, paint bombs, flag protests, contentious parades, etc.

    There are at least three political changes with the potential to destabilise Northern Ireland in the near future: Scots independence; a UK exit from the EU, which would harm the Northern Ireland economy disproportionately and might well re-impose a “hard” land border; and the devolution of corporation tax, which in the short term will certainly lead to increased unemployment and social problems, and may never achieve the goal of attracting FDI owing to Northern Ireland’s reputation (the fact that the UK Government is afraid of devolving it to Scotland but not to Northern Ireland says it all). It could be that none of those three things happens; or it could be that they all do. In particular, customs posts on the border would almost certainly result in increased Republican paramilitary activity, which could take hold more widely if the conditions allowed it. As soon as the army were back on the streets, violence would become self-sustaining.

    At the same time, there will be a Catholic voting majority next decade, which may or may not cause Unionists to opt for direct rule rather than power-sharing, i.e. the collapse of Stormont, if indeed it has not collapsed before that. A Catholic majority in itself will not be enough to bring about Irish unity, and Northern Ireland has certainly proven remarkably resilient thus far. In particular, a more moderate stance by Unionists, accepting the place of the Irish language and distancing themselves from sectarian parades, could pretty much guarantee the Union. But will that happen when political consolidation is so much easier? And if violence returned for the above reasons, might it not be the case that many Catholics would vote for unity believing it to be the easiest way to end it?

    Another factor to be considered is the effect of a referendum itself, which is more or less certain to be called as soon as there is a Nationalist majority at Stormont. Many more Scots are now in favour of independence than at the start of the current campaign, and in polarised Northern Ireland that development is likely to be even more true. How many Catholics are likely to switch their support to unity with an economically resurgent Republic when the Unionist argument is being articulated by the usual suspects? Come to think of it, what effect would that kind of polarisation have on the Alliance Party?

    So, while Irish unity is not inevitable, neither is the Union.

    • As I say, my argument is that a United Ireland can’t happen.

      I would say that, while I expect a “no” vote next month, I cannot work out how the Union remains intact in the longer term. But this all backs up the point that, in modern Europe, enforced Unions are pointless (not least because a big one, the EU, already exists) – i.e. *any* enforced Unions.

      Put another way, we are already close to the stage where (the Republic of) Ireland is effectively a devolved administration of the Eurozone, and Northern Ireland (and Scotland) are devolved administrations of the Sterling Zone. Look at it like that, and you get a much more realistic view of what is feasible and reasonable – and inevitable, for that matter.

  2. Chris Roche says:

    What a load of convoluted FEAR-generated balderdash! If one reads between the lines of Mrs Parsley’s odds-and-ends-pretending-to-be-facts thesis ones sees the embarrassing spectacle of a closet-racist unionist driven to ludicrously clutching at straws! The Six Counties statelet has no economy, no culture, no football team worth the name, and can only continue to exist in its present form in the cringe-inducing guise of a brazen-necked beggar half-province reliant on the mean and condescending mercy of the gullible English! If nothing else, the dung heap that is Northern Ireland will soon die of shame, and its stinking scoria will be spread on the the fertile pasture fields of the resurgent South, so that all the needless self-inflicted suffering visited on the illiterate panicking racist road-raping unionists over the last hundred years will not have been totally in vain!

  3. Kevin Breslin says:

    In terms of Germany being the sole example of European unities, Didn’t Russia annex Crimea just this year?

  4. Kevin Breslin says:

    “Therefore it is no coincidence that, aside from Germany, there really is no precedent for uniting a country in modern Europe – the movement is all the other way.”

    Okay. Russia reneged on an international agreement on Crimea, but the annexation is an example of modern Europe having a unity.

    • Scots Anorak says:

      Any forced opposition between “unifying” and “dividing” can be misleading. If we look back a little farther, we see many cases of borders changing, the most spectacular example perhaps being that of Poland, which prior to 1918 was partitioned between Germany, Austria and Russia, all of which had their own legal systems. Poles’ desire for their country to re-emerge was not dampened by that fact; nor did they devolve power to formerly German, Austrian and Russian parts for the sake of an easier life.

      I think there is a case to be made that, for example, some Catholic lawyers in Northern Ireland who have enjoyed success and risen to prominence in their profession might, when it comes to the crunch, vote against unity (or, much more likely, simply stay at home on the day of the vote). However, that’s essentially a minor psephological argument. There are few forces in modern Europe that can trump democracy in the long term, and if a majority of people vote for unity, even in part because they have no awareness of the problems of different legal codes, Ireland will be united. I’m certainly not won over by the argument that the South would refuse to absorb the North for economic reasons; the desire for unity is part of the DNA of every Southern political party and probably also fundamental to Irish identity. Apart from anything else, there is a large and respectable body of opinion, not only in Ireland but in Great Britain and farther afield, that believes partition to be a major cause of instability. Although a devolved Northern Ireland in a united polity might be attractive to those who wish to accommodate Unionists, in practical terms it wouldn’t convince many of them, and many people would argue that it was itself a cause of strife.

      Borders can and do change, and we should all get over it.

  5. Alan says:

    Why not just write “No Surrender”.

    The underlying psychology of the author is no different to Shankill loyalism and it would have saved folk time reading such rubbish.

    • Evidently you didn’t read it!

      • Alan says:

        Unionists/Loyalists can keep telling themselves whatever fairy stories they want. The UK is clearly heading in one direction – break up. Be it 2014 with Scotland voting for independence or 20 years from now.

        Ulster is the northern province of Ireland – so it will be an all Ireland settlement in the end whether Dublin and Belfast likes it or not.

        The English taxpayers will be ones demanding it.

      • The post doesn’t mention Unionists and Loyalists.

        It mentions the legal impracticality of a United Ireland (and indeed implies that the Southern taxpayers won’t want it); and adds that a United Ireland is not an inevitable nor even likely consequence of the breakup of the UK for those reasons.

        Can you address those points?

      • Alan says:

        “Legal impracticality” is just another in a long line of excuses. There will always be some excuse from Unionists to refute a unified Ireland. In the real world these obstacles are overcome if the will of the majority of the people demands it. If a majority in the north vote yes to unification, these issues will clearly be dealt with.

        A united Ireland isn’t inevitable. But it’s the most practical long term solution to the politics of the island of Ireland. The west of the province is already heavily Nationalist so I’m not sure why anyone would think they’ll dance to a partitionist tune if the UK breaks up. Unionists will only have a majority in Antrim and Down and England is not going to finance re-partition for two counties. What other practical solutions are there?

  6. Eric parsons says:

    Never mind a united Ireland , look East a new flag could fly over north and south laugh as much as you wish , but the dangers are close and which Army would defend Ireland now a days ?

    • Only about four hours before that comment I put a similar sentiment on Twitter.

      Japan had a wake-up call this week. Sweden woke up last year with the Russian subs in its waters. “Neutrality” and “good will” no longer constitute a defence again the evil that is out there.

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