Newton Emerson has long been one of the few articulate Northern Ireland unionist commentators on Irish politics, North and south. His latest screed, in the Irish Times, seeks to pour cold water on the increased discussion of the prospects for a United Ireland in Irish political discourse in the wake of the EU declaration of the “Kenny Text,” which states that Northern Ireland can rejoin the EU post Brexit if it becomes part of a United Ireland in accordance with the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. His main point appears to be that the “Kenny Text” might actually make the prospect of a United Ireland more distant by clarifying what it would actually entail: a takeover of the North by the south.
My view, which I have articulated in a long comment on his article, is that it does no such thing. I reproduce that comment below together with some further commentary:
My comment on Newton Emerson: Brexit is killing a `new Ireland’
There is a central fallacy in this article in that it appears to assume that a United Ireland would mean the north and south coming together into one political structure more or less as is. Firstly, I do not see a United Ireland coming about for at least 10 years after which time Brexit will have completely decimated the Northern economy. The current £10 Billion [Westminster] subvention will have grown to much more if current living standards there are to be maintained.
Secondly, anyone, North or south, would be mad to vote for a United Ireland without the British & Irish Governments (and EU) having agreed beforehand a very detailed blue print for how the putative United Ireland would be governed, funded, defended, and how minority rights would be guaranteed. It cannot be like the Brexit referendum, where no one quite knew what they were voting for or against. Thus the issue of “generous concessions” after the event, as mooted by Newton, can be dealt with before any vote and written into the United Ireland Constitution.
Thirdly, people in the south need to be very clear that a United Ireland would transform the south as well, and not in the way many people might imagine. Far from there being a divide between Roman Catholics and Protestants, the real divide is likely to be between a conservative religious mind-set and a liberal secularist one. I could see religious conservatives, Protestant and Catholic, North and south, making common cause against abortion, gay rights, immigrant minorities, and the welfare state. Do we want to reinforce a conservative majority on this island?
Finally, there is no reason why the North could not maintain considerable autonomy post re-unification, either as a transitional measure or indefinitely. The Republic might simply take over responsibility for finance, defence and foreign affairs from the UK, with the Northern Ireland [devolved] institutions remaining more or less as is. Those functions taken over are increasingly part of EU competencies in any case, so any takeover would be as much by Brussels as by Dublin.
The big question remains who would pay for all of this, and would it be worth the hassle and social upheaval that might result? The choice for Unionists might become one between economic ruin and Irish unity, as an increasingly distant and impoverished UK withdraws into a little Englander mentality. The choice for southern voters of all persuasions might be between a very prosperous status quo, and a very uncertain future.
I remain of the view that a United Ireland could become a very dynamic and prosperous place, with the loss of the Westminster subvention eventually being replaced by increased tax revenues from a growing economy. But that requires everyone, North and south, to embrace the project and working very hard together to make it a success. Even Germany has taken a long time to recover from the costs of re-unification, and much inequality and regional tensions remain. So it would be an enormous act of faith for people, North and south, to take on the project.
Do we really care that much for and about each other?
To answer my own final question, I doubt many Unionists would be convinced of the merits of a united Ireland, even if the alternative were to remain within an increasingly impoverished UK (minus Scotland) and dominated by a little Englander mentality, with scarcely a thought for the North. Theresa May has shown no interest to date in ensuring that the distinct concerns of Northern Ireland (and Scotland) are included in her Brexit negotiating brief.
Equally, many in the south would be concerned that the Republics’ relative economic success would be undermined by civil unrest by Northern Unionists, or the costs of replacing the c. €10 Billion Westminster subvention to the Northern Ireland state. (At the time of Irish independence, in 1922, the average GDP per capita of the south was half that of the North – with all of Ireland’s industry concentrated around Belfast in the ship building and linen industries. Now that situation is virtually reversed, with the south’s GDP per capita gradually rising to twice that of the North).
So the outcome of any referendum under the Good Friday agreement, North or south, is anything but a forgone conclusion, whatever the more romantic republicans might say.
In order to maximise the prospects for success, any referendum for a United Ireland would have to spell out in very great detail any transitional mechanisms, including funding, which would be put in place, and exactly how the North would be governed in the future. This could prove to be as convoluted an exercise as the Brexit negotiations themselves, as the rump UK sought to off-load a non-performing asset (despite ostentatious proclamations of belief in the Union), and the Republic of Ireland sought assurances that it wouldn’t be dumped entirely with the ensuing costs and social upheaval (despite Nationalist pretensions that all will be well if only Ireland were re-united).
The EU27’s agreement to the “Kenny text” is important because there was no formal international agreement regarding Northern Ireland re-entering the EU if it became part of a United Ireland. East Germany is a precedent, nothing more. The declaration provides clarity, which is important because UK unionists have claimed that an independent Scotland would have difficulty re-joinng the EU, despite the fact that Spanish foreign ministers have always said that Spain would have no difficulty with Scotland re-joining the EU provided it had achieved independence by legal means.
The British press have always insisted that Spain would object to an independent Scotland re-joining the EU because of fears of encouraging Catalonian separatism when in fact that was always a blatant falsehood. Providing clarity as to what options are available to the people of Northern Ireland is therefore important, even if they choose to ignore that option for the foreseeable future. And despite what Newton Emerson implies in his article, the “Kenny Text” does not preclude a united Ireland from taking a form very different from a simple takeover of the North by the south.