Foundering on the Rocks of Reality







Republicans and nationalists call for a United Ireland, yet the thinking on what that might look like has to date seems crude, naïve, or non-existent. Irish mist-ical aspiration is preferred to the harsh realities of rational thinking. Philip Larkin asks some uncomfortable questions.

A crude reality

With increased discussion in social and political circles on the topic of the inevitability or otherwise of a united Ireland, the central object of this article is to examine what the true ramifications of creating a new state of Ireland will be, specifically from the viewpoints of northern nationalism and the population of the Republic of Ireland.

We will also examine the paradoxes at the heart of nationalist ambitions for a united Ireland.

There exists a body of thought among northern nationalism (and to a lesser extent Irish nationalism generally) which emphasises the inevitability of Irish unity, and to sustain this argument they cite demographic studies which indicate how the catholic population will soon overtake the Protestant population; with the undertone, and sometimes hint of menace, that “you might as well face up to it since it is going to happen, so come quietly.”

Even the moderate nationalist commentators Denis Bradley and Alban Maginness have succumbed in recent months to this trend. Crudely put, the central thesis in this school of thought is that the catholic population in Northern Ireland will, in the short to medium term ‘out-breed’ the protestant population, triggering a plebiscite on a united Ireland: for which, on the crest of an emotional wave, catholics will vote by a massive majority; aided by a substantial minority of disgruntled “progressive” protestants, whose ire is exercised by Brexit.

In this school of thinking, of course, the population of the Republic will welcome the population of the long-lost six counties to its bosom, thus bringing about the “New Ireland” so often talked up by Sinn Fein.

This school of thought is represented in crude fashion because, whatever gloss is put on it, it is a crude theory. In essence, it is little more than a crude sectarian headcount.

There are glaring gaps in this teleological thesis, and it is likely that it will become bogged down in the morass of reality if put to the test; no matter whether there is eventually a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ or ‘clean or ‘no deal’ Brexit.

It is ironic that nationalists and republicans should be urging unionists to “face reality”, since there are few peoples in the Western world more prone to magical or wishful thinking than certain strains of the former. 

Brexit and speculation

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Brexit vote and the resulting Brexit process over the past two years has given rise to a flurry of speculation on the possibility of a United Ireland. Some of the excitement has been generated by a number of irresponsible statements made by Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney. These two  have encouraged expectations among elements of the northern nationalist community which simply cannot be realised; for example, Varadkar’s statement that northern nationalists would never again be “abandoned”, managed to give the impression that the Irish Government would always support the political demands of the northern nationalist community and side with them against their unionist counterparts.

It is significant, however, that figures such as Coveney and Simon Harris have been backpedalling furiously from the more extravagant sentiments, for example, by urging extreme caution to nationalists on the subject of a border poll.

Such comments are mainly political posturing, giving the impression of “sticking it to the Brits”, in the belief that this will play well before the Irish electorate, although perhaps naivety, inexperience, relative youth, and a genuine fear of the ramifications of Brexit on the part of the Taoiseach also play a role. Neither are the Taoiseach or Tanaiste alone in adding fuel to this speculation. Amongst others, Kevin Meagher, former special adviser to Shaun Woodward (Secretary of State for NI during 2007 – 2010) has written a book, A United Ireland: Why Unification is Inevitable and How It will Come About, a title that requires no further explanation; and indeed the book doesn’t much provide one

A United Ireland and Northern Ireland

While it is true that a variety of demographic surveys indicate that the number of those who identify as catholic has increased to a point where both catholic and protestant populations are becoming equal (and this includes avowed atheists who just happen to be born into the catholic or protestant “tribes”), sometimes such surveys can conceal as much as they demonstrate. For example, a simple survey of religious affiliation would not show prima facie that a significant minority of the catholic population in Northern Ireland is now actually of Central and Eastern European origin, most of whom have no real desire to take sides on the question of a united Ireland.

Even allowing for the discrepancies which population studies may conceal, the crucial question which needs to be addressed is to what extent the native catholic population of Northern Ireland is, beyond mere emotional spasms, truly attached to the reality of a united Ireland?

The first issue to be considered is what might happen in the event of a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland calling a border poll. It is likely that it would give rise to a nationalist campaign which is strong on emotion and promise (the “soaring dove” argument, as described by Arthur Aughey) and short on hard detail, while unionists would emphasise the inherent risks.

Despite any wishful thinking on the part of some nationalists, and despite the proportion of “liberal” protestants who have applied for Irish passports to retain a link with the European Union after Brexit (much was made of this latter presumption by Matt Carthy, the loquacious Sinn Fein MEP, at their symposium entitled Towards a United Ireland held in London on 4th March 2018) the number of protestants who will actually vote in favour of a united Ireland is likely to be infinitesimal, even in the event of a hard Brexit. Conversely, however, the catholic population of Northern Ireland is, in reality, quite diverse in its attitudes towards the prospect of a united Ireland. It is certainly vastly more complex than election results or opinion polls portray.

There undoubtedly exists a section of the catholic population who would vote for a united Ireland without question, and are ideologically committed to this outcome. On the other hand (and an uneasy reality for advocates of a united Ireland), a significant proportion of Northern Ireland catholics are unionist in their outlook, ranging from a small minority who vote regularly for unionist political parties, to those “small u” unionists who, although not voting unionist at elections (or not voting at all) wish to retain the link (or some tangible link) between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and at least some form of joint British-Irish feeling of nationality. It is difficult to know accurately what proportion of the catholic population hold these hard/soft unionist views, since catholic unionists (in particular those who live in staunchly nationalist/republican districts, unsurprisingly) do not tend to draw attention to their opinions.

What we know for certain is that opinion polls over a period of years indicate that even at the height of the Celtic Tiger, the percentage of the catholic population who did not favour Irish unity hovered stubbornly at around 20 per cent, and continues to veer between the 15 to 25 per cent mark. Combined with the votes of the vast majority of NI’s protestant population, this already could tilt the figures in favour of retaining the Union, and, in the immediate term, this provides Secretaries of State with the justification for refusing calls for a border poll. The consent principle, signed up to by all parties to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, will certainly be a massive barrier to unification.

With one sector of the catholic population being wedded to the ideal of a united Ireland, and another sector hostile to it, this leaves a large majority of the demographic somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. So in what direction would this majority go in the event of a border poll? This is an impossible question to answer with any absolute certainty. However, one effect that a border poll would have, as was evident in the Scottish Independence Referendum, would be to shine a light on the likely financial and fiscal ramifications of a united Ireland, and how it might affect the citizenry of any new State. As demonstrated by contrasting the result of the 2014 Referendum with the outcome of the 2015 General Election in Scotland, in which the Scottish National Party won all seats except three, how citizens cast their vote may differ hugely.

What considerations might weigh heavily in the minds of undecided catholic voters in any referendum on the future of the Union?

Economic Factors

Since 1966 Northern Ireland has run a fiscal deficit, and the most recent figures available demonstrate that the Province requires an annual subvention of between £9 – £10 billion from the UK Treasury. This sum, as stated by the commentator Dan O’Brien is roughly equivalent to what the Republic of Ireland spends on healthcare each year.

Even in the event of a hard Brexit, given the socio-economic situation which prevails in NI, this subvention will be required for the foreseeable future.

Let us assume that a majority of people in the Province do vote in favour of a united Ireland in any referendum held in the space of the next 10 – 15 years. How likely is it that any new State, comprising of both parts of the island, could afford to sustain the same level of spending as that currently paid on the present NI population, while simultaneously extending these public services (such as a tax-funded national health service) for the citizens of the whole of the new all-Ireland state?

As O’Brien asserts, the most likely outcome of political reunification of Ireland would be tax rises and spending cuts, an overall swingeing austerity programme which would scarcely assuage the fraught political climate in which this new state will be born.

Thus far the best solution that nationalist commentators have managed to arrive at to deal with this enormous obstacle to Irish unity is blithely to assume that the British state will continue to subsidise the reunification process for an unspecified period of time after the new state has come into being. This is one of the main paradoxes referred to above: the same British state, which has been consistently excoriated and denigrated as a wholly malign influence on the island of Ireland, will nevertheless be expected to contribute some £10 billion annually to a new state to which it no longer has any political ties – incidentally about the same ‘saving’ assumed to being made to the Exchequer as a consequence of Brexit.

Any British government could easily put an end to this assumption by openly declaring that it will not pay one penny to any reunified Ireland. Quite apart from the fact that, as Arthur Aughey has argued, any continued subventions by a British government to a new state of Ireland would be deeply resented in deprived post-industrial areas of England especially, it could create a precedent for demands for similar subvention to be made to an future independent Scotland, boosting the SNP’s agenda.

Furthermore, there are scant moral grounds for the British taxpayer to subsidise a geographical area and population in which, as Peter Brooke stated as long ago as 1991, it had “no selfish or strategic interest”, and on which it has already expended billions over the decades. There would be little that advocates of Irish unity could do to compel the British government in this event. A clear refusal to contribute financially on the part of British government would bring one realisation to the fore of any border poll, namely, the limitations of potential bills of rights and constitutional declarations of entitlements in any unified Ireland.

It is one thing to declare that citizens have socio-economic rights to services such as healthcare, social housing, or education, but bringing these rights to reality must be paid for, and that comes at a high cost: polling shows that just one-in-three in Republic would support united Ireland if taxes rose.

One persistent objective of Irish republicanism since the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921 has been to portray to the world that it is a failed entity, the “putrid little statelet” of Alex Maskey’s description.

Certainly the decades of the Troubles had the effect of deterring international investors from NI, while during the same period the former manufacturing base of the local economy continued to disintegrate. This resulted in high rates of unemployment and deprivation throughout the Province, with unemployment reaching a peak of 17.2 per cent in 1986.

Employment in the taxpayer funded public sector became much more prevalent. Indeed, by 1992 the public sector accounted for some 37 per cent of the NI workforce, almost twice that of Great Britain as a whole. While this figure had fallen to 30.8 per cent by December 2008, this was substantially higher than public sector employment in England, which stood at 19.5 per cent at the same date.

For those unemployed or unable to work there was access to a variety of income-based and non-means tested benefits: for instance, by the end of 2007, it was estimated that in north and west Belfast over one in six adults of the working age were in receipt of incapacity benefit (then the main state benefit for those out of work because of sickness), while some 27 per cent of the Northern Ireland working age population was economically inactive by the same date, compared with 20 per cent in England and Scotland. Sinn Fein constituency offices, community workers, and advice centres have been assiduous (especially in nationalist areas of high deprivation) in assisting people with their claims to social security benefits and other services.

It is undoubtedly true that these decades of lack of international investment, and large public sector in NI, combined with high rates of welfare dependency has acted as a drain on the British treasury, and has often made the Province a less than desirable region to have responsibility for. However, this state of affairs has also given rise to certain unintended consequences for those in favour of a united Ireland.

First, it has made a large section of the catholic electorate, be they nationalist, unionist, or somewhere in-between, dependant on the British state in a number of forms, either for employment, housing, or welfare benefits.

Secondly, while NI is currently something of a burden to the British taxpayer, it would also constitute an exponentially greater burden to the Irish taxpayer. By extension, this means that the present Republic of Ireland is likely to be fearful of the immense cost of having to absorb NI into any new Irish state.

As Dean Godson has observed (Himself Alone: David Trimble and the Ordeal Of Unionism), while in most western states the department of foreign affairs is the least nationalist of all government departments, in the Republic of Ireland it has tended to be the most nationalist. However, as Godson proceeded to note, the nationalist excesses of the DFA in Ireland have historically been reined in by the Irish Department of Finance, which takes a much more coldly rational view of the costs of reunification.

The majority of the catholic population in NI is now contained within the middle-income (by local standards) bracket. Among this income bracket are those catholics who are avowed nationalists and republicans, casting their vote for Sinn Fein and openly declaring their support for a united Ireland. However, when pressed a little further on the subject of a new Irish state, how many of this constituency would, being entirely candid, have a “wish list” which they expect it to provide?

For instance, how many would, at least in the privacy of their own minds, think: “I want to see a united Ireland, provided I do not have to pay money to see a GP, or for my children’s’ textbooks and IT facilities, and provided my child will have the opportunity to gain a grammar school scholarship which will cost me nothing…..? That does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that people who have these thoughts would proceed to vote against a united Ireland in a referendum, but surely such considerations would weigh heavily in their minds?

Winston Churchill, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, observed in 1925 on the then Irish Free State: “As the price of autonomy the Free State has already accepted a lower standard of public expenditure than in this country.” This was a price which that particular generation of Irish nationalists were prepared to pay. It is a moot point as to whether the present generation would be prepared to pay a similar price.

Neither can it be presumed that there are no solutions to the economic and financial difficulties that may beset a new Irish State. For example, Ireland could go down the route of Singapore and fashion itself as a completely free trading island, attracting inward investment from all over the world. However, this proposed solution raises in turn a host of further questions;, the two immediately springing to mind might be:

  • would such a libertarian, free trading state be compatible with the aspirations which Sinn Fein, the leading advocate of a border poll, have for it?
  • assuming that any new Ireland would wish to retain its membership of the European Union, would the Singapore or Hong Kong approach be compatible with continued EU membership, in particular if the EU presses ahead with its proposals for tax harmonisation?

These are crucial questions which have scarcely been raised, still less addressed.

Unification and the Republic of Ireland

It is sometimes forgotten that a vote in favour of a united Ireland in any referendum in Northern Ireland would not automatically bring about a new united state. Article 3, Paragraph 1 of the Irish Constitution (as amended in the aftermath of the British-Irish Agreement) reads:

“It is the firm will of the Irish Nation, in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions, recognising that a united Ireland shall be brought about only by peaceful means with the consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island. Until then, the laws enacted by the Parliament established by this Constitution shall have the like area and extent of application as the laws enacted by the Parliament that existed immediately before the coming into operation of this Constitution.”

Any future united Irish state therefore depends on the consent of the majorities of both parts of Ireland.

What might be the factors which might prevent a majority of the Republic’s population voting for unification?

The issue of the potential financial cost for the Irish taxpayer of a new Irish state has been explored at some length above.

Another factor is that unionists in Ulster have generally been, and continue to be, portrayed as a backward and bigoted people on socio-political issues: the evidence of this can be clearly seen in the writings of nationalist commentators ranging from Tim Pat Coogan to Brian Feeney in the Irish News.

The population and the political establishment of the Republic are fully cognisant of the sectarian divide that pertains in Northern Ireland, and however much the prospect of territorial Irish unity might appeal to some, it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that the present Irish state really does not want the responsibility or trouble of governing the population of the north, be they unionist or nationalist. It is certainly naïve to believe that the unification of Ireland will end ‘divisions’ in the north-east.

The spectre of sectarianism after all, did not begin with partition in 1921/22. Why would any state visit upon itself the task of having to absorb a huge number of disgruntled and sullen new citizens who have no real wish to part of it?

What if we were to assume that in the future twin border polls a majority of the populations of both NI and the Republic vote for unification. As Dan O’Brien has observed with erudition, the unification of Ireland will be quite unlike the reunification of Germany in the 1990s, which signalled the coming together of a largely homogenous population on both sides of the East/West border – leaving aside the fact that Germans accepted at the time a ‘Solidarity Tax’ (5.5% on top of income/corporate tax): which is being collected still!  Instead it would be a much more complicated process of designing and developing a new multinational state from the ground up. O’Brien continues to observe:

“Central to this exercise would be the understanding that if two states with two or more nations are to have legitimacy, their constitutional and political infrastructure must reflect and incorporate all their nationhood’s.”

Put more simply, this new all-Ireland State would, by necessity, have to be partly British in character, outlook, and symbolism. This could constitute an even greater chill factor to unification on the southern side of the border than financial and economic issues.

Sinn Fein continually asserts that in any new unified Ireland the rights of unionists will be protected, and they will be made feel welcome in the new state. But what does the Party actually mean by this; and to what extent would unionists really be welcome?

To begin, in any unified Irish state, unionists would have lost everything, at least in political terms: after all, the union will have been voted out of existence. While in the modern western world the protection of minority rights is much more readily accepted than before, this does not entail that it will be easy task. If the rights of the former unionist population are truly to be protected, then there would have to be legal, even constitutional, guarantees put in place.

To facilitate this process, representatives of the former unionist community would have to be a central party to this process. So what might they demand as part of the price for accepting a unified Irish state? At the highest level of state, given that the union with Great Britain would by this stage be consigned to history, the closest link with what they lose would be to ask that Ireland re-join the Commonwealth, and accept the monarch as their head of state, like Canada, Australia and New Zealand, together with a new flag which reflects the British connection. It could be asserted that this is not an outrageous demand: after all, as O’Brien (see O’Brien, above) neatly puts it, if unionists are expected to sacrifice the union, should republicans conversely be required to sacrifice the republic for unity?

Another possibility is that the new Irish state would have to accept some other form of constitutional settlement which cements the position of former unionists and their culture fully into the fabric of the nation, such as the situation in Lebanon, where the President always comes from the Maronite Christian community. Unionists could be guaranteed a number of seats in the cabinet in Dublin (assuming, of course, that the Irish capital is still to be Dublin), in some form of expanded Stormont-style agreement, or they may be granted a majority in the Irish Senate.

Undoubtedly there would have to a referendum on the new Irish constitution designed to replace Bunreacht na hÉireann, which has now been operation for over 80 years. It is perfectly possible, notes O’Brien, that while the plebiscite on Irish unity may be won, a referendum on a new constitution might be lost, with it being too radical a change for the majority of the population to accept. In this event the new state could potentially find itself in very difficult territory.

What would it do in the event of former unionists in the north-east of the country refusing en-masse to recognise or be bound by Bunreacht na hÉireann  and the ethos of the Irish state?

Many Irish nationalists (particularly northern nationalists) would entertain the hope that in this scenario either unionists would decamp from Ireland altogether, or be coerced militarily into accepting the new order, even though they may not say this openly. This hope/assumption raises one immediate question: in the event of unionists remaining where they are and standing their ground (as they have tended to do in Ulster since the time of the plantation), who is going to force them to accept the new order, particularly if, as in the 1912-14 period, there are unionists prepared to back up their non-cooperation with the threat of armed resistance?

What happens if unionists decide that they simply cannot be absorbed into an all-Ireland state and set about carving an independent territory of their own?

The decades of the Troubles in NI provide ample demonstration of how organisations small in numbers, but protected by certain small sections of the community, and held in “sneaking regard” by a larger section of the wider community, can create massive political and economic disruption to a state. Any new Irish state could, ironically, see similar tactics to those used against the British state used against it. Certainly the risk of a Balkan style conflict developing in Ulster is too important for any future all-Ireland to discount or ignore.

There would be other social, political, and economic realities which any new, unified Irish state would have to face up to.

Cork would no longer be the second largest Irish city, and, in terms of investment and economic importance, the key focus would undoubtedly be on the Dublin/Greater Belfast and east coast axis, which would have consequences for the remainder of Ireland.

In relation to the political makeup of the hypothetical new Ireland, as Mike Nesbitt has pointed out recently the arithmetic of the political makeup of the Dáil would mean that any political party consisting of former unionists would constitute a very powerful body, which could potentially see it acting in the role of perpetual kingmaker, prompting Nesbitt to reiterate the proverb, “Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it.”

This powerful political grouping in the Dáil could have the power to alter radically the nature of the Irish state, raising a host of other possibilities. For instance:

  • would the new Ireland join the Commonwealth?
  • would the New Ireland be obliged to give up its traditional neutrality and accept membership of NATO?
  • would the Stormont Parliament continue to function as part of a federalist arrangement for Ireland, and, if so, would its jurisdiction remain the six counties, or all nine historic counties of Ulster?
  • Furthermore, assuming that Ireland would wish to remain in the EU: would the new state would have to reapply for membership of the EU?
  • and along the same line to question as the one previously, given that a united Ireland would inevitably involve the breakup of the present UK, would the new Irish state be welcomed into the EU by member states like Spain, Italy, and even Germany and France, which contain regional significant separatist movements?


None of this suggests, or even implies, that there should never be a referendum on Irish unity, or even no referendum in the near future, i.e. in the aftermath of a ‘hard’ Brexit.

While the Brexit decision has not given a boost to the fortunes of Scottish nationalism, it is not absolutely clear that it will have a similar effect on Irish nationalism, especially if the predicted demographic changes outlined above come to pass.

If unionists wish to union to survive, they will have to make a clear coherent case, explaining what the benefits of maintaining the union will be, economic, social, and political, for the population of NI, especially given that the UK is due to leave the EU in one form or another in the near future.

Standing in constant opposition to a border poll is not an option. Thinking Unionists cannot continue to discount in perpetuity the possibility of a referendum. Both Peter Robinson (in his recent keynote speech in Glenties) and Arlene Foster appear to be aware of falling into the trap of complacency.

That said, if there has been complacency on the part of unionism, this is more than matched by lazy and wishful thinking on the part of nationalism and republicanism. Prepared crib sheets don’t add up to either thought-through policy or a coherent vision.

It is simply not sufficient for nationalism to point out continually the shortcomings of unionism, and to tell that community how backward, horrible, cultureless and evil they are, while at the same time expecting them to accept and participate eagerly in any new Irish state.

If modern Irish history has taught us anything, it is that Ulster unionists, whatever faults that community may possess, are not of a stripe to be cowed or bullied into a position of submission.

Nationalists and republicans should not expect unionists to be impressed by hollow declarations of rights to things or activities which they already have, such as the freedom to practice their religion freely or maintain Orange parades. How impressed would any child be on Christmas morning to find that his parents had not bought him any presents, but instead informed him that he had the right to own such presents?

Closely connected to this point, a Cuban or Venezuelan style vision for a new United Ireland is unlikely to attract many people on either side of the border beyond a core of romantic, ageing Marxists.

It could well be the case (and this author is certainly no economist) that there are methods of unifying Ireland, and creating a new state which would lead to it being extremely prosperous, and the sort of nation which all communities on the island would wish to play an active part. None has been presented to date.

If someone is to make an economic case then surely the people of Ireland, given the historical privations they have suffered, should not be obliged to accept a retrograde step in their living conditions, even in the short term? Yet no current propositions suggest anything other than that big sacrifices will have to be presumed by all sides during any period of discussions – and that that will shape the debate. As outlined above, in the event of a popular vote on both sides of the border for Irish Unity, those presumptions will become a harsh reality.

If Irish republicans/nationalists want Unionists to accept a United Ireland, what are they offering?

It is currently very clear that no party in Irish nationalist/republican politics is prepared in any way to even begin serious discussions on the impact of a united Ireland and the nature and cost of a new Irish State.

Whether that will change remains to be seen.


Philip Larkin is a law lecturer at Brunel University London, and is originally from Northern Ireland.