David McWilliams is wrong to say demographics will deliver a United Ireland







The history of the twentieth century dictatorships, whether of the extreme left or extreme right, proves that when anyone claims something is historically ‘inevitable’ we should be extremely cautious.

Irish economist David McWilliams usually comes across as a liberal, progressive chap. However, in his recent article for the Belfast Telegraph  “Demographics are shifting towards a united Ireland… we must have a plan” and his blog, where he provides the same from as an Irish Independent article, he does use some rather coercive language, notably:

“…demographics will deliver the North to the South and we will need to have a plan”.

So, according to Mr McWilliams we are on a population conveyor belt and the next stop is Irish unity.

His central fallacy is his assumption that any future Catholic majority would inevitably translate into a pro-united Ireland voting majority. This relies on an inherently sectarian perspective. Recent surveys of attitudes suggest this would not be the case (not even after Brexit).

Mr McWilliams auxiliary hypothesis is that the post-partition Northern Ireland economy has been such a basket case that it would be highly rational for all Northerners, whether unionist or nationalist, to opt for unity. In making that case he presents some very doubtful statistics. For example:

  • The best measure of total Northern Ireland exports is £9.1bn, not the £5.25bn he quotes (figure for 2015, see Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency February 2017, “Broad Economy Sales and Export Statistics”).
  • In the 2011 Population Census 4.5% of Northern Ireland’s population were born outside of either the UK or Republic of Ireland, not the 1% foreign-born figure he quotes.

I co-authored my first book and journal articles describing some of the challenges facing the Northern Ireland economy almost thirty years ago, so I don’t need to be persuaded that we Northern Ireland has some major economic problems – though none that would persuade me that the ‘solution’ is a United Ireland.

Extreme exaggerations, however, diminish rational consideration of the issues at hand, and provides a negative contribution to sensible political and economic policy making.


Dr Esmond Birnie