On the 18th December 2017, student and UUP activist Neil Richardson published his article Why I’m a Unionist, focusing on the economic ties between the north of Ireland and Britain. He argues that our economic interests are better served by remaining within the United Kingdom rather than uniting with the Republic of Ireland. While many of his points are valid, he provides only half of the story. I’m not as confident as Mr Richardson that economic arguments will take precedence in the event of border poll but they are relevant and deserve to be discussed. I believe that the economic case for a United Ireland is stronger than the case for remaining in the UK - that is one of the reasons why I’m a republican. To understand this case, I think that it is necessary to view Ireland from a historical perspective; the island’s development from partition to present and the prospects of a united future.
When Ireland was partitioned in 1921, 80% of the industrial output of the entire island came from Belfast and the surrounding three counties. The North was wealthy and productive, making it attractive to the British Empire. In contrast, the nascent Irish Free State was relatively poor after years of civil war and centuries of colonial rule. Today, there has been a complete reversal of fortunes. According to the economist David McWilliams, the Republic’s industrial output is ten times greater than that of the North. Exports from the North are worth £5.25bn (€6bn) while from the Republic, exports are a handsome £77.85bn (€89bn). EY’s Economic Eye reported a 4.9% growth in the Republic’s economy this year - three times greater than the North’s 1.4%. The North’s GDP is predicted to grow only 1.1% in 2018 compared to 3.8% in the Republic as Brexit depresses economic forecasts. In fact, the Republic of Ireland is now the fastest growing economy in the euro zone four years in a row. There is, of course, more to the economy than GDP. The Republic currently outperforms the North in terms of productivity, wages and job creation. In the words of McWilliams: “Economically, the Union has enfeebled the North while independence has enriched the South.”
The North is lagging behind the rest of Ireland. Would a United Ireland reverse the North’s economic underperformance? The available evidence suggests that the answer is yes, and then some. A paper titled Modelling Irish Unification was published by an international team of researchers in 2015. Using economic models developed by Dr Renger Herman van Nieuwkoop, a professor of economics at ETH Zürich, the study predicted that unification will generate €36.5bn in GDP within eight years. The North would receive the lion’s share of growth in economic output and incomes although the rest of Ireland would also experience modest gains. The researchers provided some reasons for these findings. Ending partition would eliminate trade barriers that exist across this island, an issue that has become even more pressing since the Brexit referendum. Unification would also remove the wasteful duplication of services on both sides of the border. In addition, tax harmonisation and the adoption of a single currency (i.e. the Euro) would be conducive to economic growth. It is hoped that the merging of industrial structures across Ireland will also help close the productivity gap. One swallow does not a summer make, and one study doesn’t prove anything for certain, but it’s a start. In the absence of other major studies on unification, the available evidence is promising. I look forward to further research that will provide a clearer picture of what unification will spell for the people of Ireland.
Word limits necessitate brevity and the economic case for a United Ireland goes far beyond anything that I can discuss in a single article. For the sake of balance, I would like to address some of the points that Mr Richardson provided in his article.
Mr Richardson claims that a United Ireland would mean sacrificing the NHS. This is a common objection to Irish unity but it is not intractable. It is assumed that unification would simply mean grafting the North onto the Republic as it exists at present however this doesn’t need to be the case. In October, Sinn Féin published a discussion paper titled A National Health Service for a United Ireland. The paper explains how the NHS can be expanded across Ireland by building on existing North-South cooperation and subsuming the functions currently carried out by the HSE. Austerity imposed by the British government is a greater threat to our NHS than a United Ireland.
I would like to know where Mr Richardson acquired his figures on the export destinations of goods from the North. I suspect that they underestimate the amount of trade that we do with the rest of Ireland. HM Revenue and Customs’ (HMRC) Regional Trade Statistics, as reported by the Assembly’s Research and Information Service (RaISe), paint a rather different picture. The largest market for the North’s exports is the European Single Market, which was the destination of exports valued at £4.260bn, or 55% of total exports value, in 2016. In the same year, goods exports to the Republic of Ireland were valued at £2.4bn, equivalent to 31% of the North’s total goods exports value and approximately 56% of the value of goods exported to the EU. To quote the RaISe, “the Republic of Ireland (RoI) remains our key export partner.” With these figures in mind, it is clear to see the threat that Brexit poses to the already flagging economy in the North.
Mr Richardson also argues that being a part of the UK makes the North “more attractive for foreign direct investment” however this claim is not supported by the evidence.
The Republic’s business-friendly tax regime, cosmopolitan capital and educated workforce means that it effectively siphons foreign direct investment from the North. Multinational tech companies such as Google and Microsoft have created hundreds of jobs in Dublin over the past couple of years. Since the Good Friday Agreement, US corporations alone have invested close to $400bn (£312bn) in the Republic. According to McWilliams, that’s equivalent to 56 years of the British government’s annual subvention to keep the North afloat. Unification means that the North would adopt the Republic’s tax rates and regulations thereby making the region more attractive for foreign direct investment.
I generally detest reducing complex issues such as Irish unity to a bean-counting exercise. There are so many more, and arguably better, reasons why the North should leave the Union and unite with the rest of the Ireland to create a new, agreed Republic. Mr Richardson believes that now is not the time for a border poll but I respectfully disagree. Brexit has changed everything and it is incumbent upon us to search for novel - even radical - solutions to the problems facing the North. The British government is using the Union like a chain to drag the North out of the EU against the express will of the people who live here. A border poll will enable us to exercise democratic control over our own future. Why wait to have that future decided for us?
Cormac Begley is a Sinn Féin member, Republican Youth activist and a final year student in Trinity College Dublin