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…?!