by Frank Schnittger
Mon Nov 23rd, 2020 at 03:38:24 AM EST
Newton Emerson is perhaps the leading unionist commentator in Ireland, and has a regular column in the Irish Times, regrettably generally behind a paywall. He provides a valuable insight into unionist thinking in Northern Ireland, which can often be startlingly different from nationalist, liberal or progressive perspectives.
Nevertheless he is no fundamentalist bible thumping bigot, and his political allegiance would lie closer to the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) rather than the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) founded by Ian Paisley.
While appreciating his articulation of often legitimate unionist concerns, I have sometimes taken issue with his conclusions, and in fairness to the Irish Times, they have often published my critiques in response. The letter below is one such critique where I challenge his arguments that a recent Sinn Féin paper misrepresents and underestimates the true costs of re-unifying Ireland:
The economic realities of a united Ireland
A chara, - Newton Emerson claims that "Sinn Féin is still trying to wish away [the] economic realities of a united Ireland" (Opinion & Analysis, November 19th), and that "Sinn Féin's trick to halve the subvention [of £12 billion per annum by the UK exchequer] is to write off Northern Ireland's entire share of UK-wide public spending".
He argues that a united Ireland would have to share the costs of "debt interest, defence, borders and immigration, foreign aid, embassies, membership of international organisations and tax collection on the same per capita basis" as Northern Ireland does as part of the UK.
But these costs do not increase on a per capita basis. We will not need extra embassies just because Ireland has become united, and we do not maintain an expensive army, navy and air force complete with nuclear-deterrent capabilities.
The question of whether Ireland would have to take on a proportion of the UK's sovereign debt is one that would have to be negotiated as part of the handover of sovereignty agreement, and unlike Scotland, there is no way we should agree to that. It is enough that we would agree to take on Northern Ireland's current liabilities, not some historic debts incurred while we had no sovereign responsibility.
Sinn Féin's contention that we shouldn't be paying for British army pensions for ex-soldiers who happen to live in the North hardly seems unreasonable. Let the UK pay for the pensions of their own public servants, and we will take on responsibility for the pensions of those who transfer to serve in a united Ireland for that proportion of their service that occurred under Irish sovereignty, and during which they paid their national insurance contributions to the Irish state.
In general, Newton Emerson's arguments mirror those of the Brexiteers - that they can have their cake and eat it. The UK cannot hand over responsibility for ongoing Northern Ireland costs to us and expect us to contribute to their historically incurred costs as well. What was done under UK sovereignty has to be paid for by the UK, and we will fund whatever needs to be done under a united Ireland, hopefully with EU and US assistance.
If the UK doesn't like it, they can continue to pump £12 billion per annum into Northern Ireland for as long as they wish. We shouldn't be funding it or subsidising the UK for past misrule. Taking on any such liability would pose a greater risk to our economic stability and viability than the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit combined, and would undermine our credibility with unionists.
Many of us may see a united Ireland as either a desirable or inevitable eventuality, but not at any price. Unlike the English with Brexit, we will not allow nationalist dogma to trump economic realism. - Yours, etc,
Regular readers here will know that I have been extremely critical of Brexit and its attempt to undermine the Good Friday Agreement in Ireland, and the peace and stability of the EU more generally. But that does not mean I am blind to the foibles of Irish nationalism, and in particular the Sinn Féin fetish of demanding a referendum on Irish unity at every opportunity, without in any way spelling out how such unity would be achieved, either at the level of inter-community relations or economic viability.
But on this occasion Newton Emerson is trying to imply Irish re-unification would never be possible because the Irish State could never afford the estimated subvention of N. Ireland by the British exchequer to the tune of £12 Billion per annum. Sinn Féin have published a paper arguing that the cost of Irish unification would be much less than that, and it is this thesis that Newton Emerson is seeking to debunk.
I think there is some merit in Sinn Féin's argument some of which I have outlined in my letter. That does not mean that we shouldn't enter into any re-unification process without our eyes open as to the social and political challenges involved, or to the possible economic costs.
Since the decline of the linen, shipbuilding and aircraft manufacturing industries, Northern Ireland has become something of an economic backwater, heavily dependent on UK Exchequer funded public sector jobs. Unionists are right to point out that Ireland couldn't afford similar largesse.
But this rather ignores the fact that the partition of Ireland introduces huge inefficiencies to the island as a whole, and that many of the costs incurred by the UK exchequer are already incurred by the Irish state or wouldn't have to be replicated by the Irish state in a united Ireland.
But my bigger concern is that Irish re-unification will not be driven so much by the will of the Irish people, but by a desire of the UK government to off-load Northern Ireland and associated costs onto the Irish state in the wake of a disastrous Brexit.
For Ireland to naively take on the costs and liabilities of the N. Ireland state could be, proportionately, a bigger disaster than Brexit may be for the British. And this is before we even consider the economic costs incurred as a result of unresolved inter-community tensions and possible violence in the North.
So what is required, before any referendum on Irish unity, is a mature discussion and comprehensive plan as to how the human rights of northern Ireland unionists can be protected as a minority within a united Ireland, how their identity and culture can be incorporated into the new all island state, how their aspirations can be respected, and how the whole process will not require a massive loss of living standards all round.
Irish re-unification will require a referendum in favour both north and south. It is vital that any such referendum should be based not on some vague nationalist aspiration for unity, or unionist aspirations to remain part of the UK, but on a precise plan which sets out what a united Ireland would look like, how it would be funded, and what democratic safeguards would be provided in its constitution.
If Brexit has taught us anything, it is that a referendum on a vague aspiration to national sovereignty, in the absence of a precise plan as to what it will look like and how it will come about, can lead to disaster. It needs to be about much more than a sectarian headcount.
That is in any case not how referenda work in Ireland. They are always based on a precise wording to be included in the written Irish constitution, and are accompanied by a booklet explaining the significance of the proposed change written in plain English (and Irish) by an independent judicial referendum commission.
No doubt there are is a lot of wishful thinking in Sinn Féin's paper as to the costs of re-unification. But Newton Emerson will have to do a better job of critiquing its contents if he wants his arguments to have much purchase outside the confines of his unionist confreres. I may return to critiquing the Sinn Féin paper in more detail at a later point, but first it was important to challenge Newton's rather shallow critique.