23 Jan 2022

OPINION: A united Ireland? Yes, but who's going to pay for it?

OPINION: A united Ireland?  Yes, but who's going to pay for it?

OPINION: A united Ireland? Yes, but who's going to pay for it?

YOU know something, we indomitable Irishry - as Yeats described us, God bless him – are simply hilarious. In truth, we are like St Augustine. He who prayed 'Lord make me holy, but not just yet', to paraphrase. Yes, we want a united Ireland, of course we do. But we don’t want to pay more taxes to make it possible, drop the tricolour or the national anthem should such be necessary.

What we want, it would appear from The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll last week, is to take over Northern Ireland, impose the tricolour on its citizens and make them sing the Soldiers Song. Which sounds like colonisation, even invasion.

Not our thing, surely. Been there. Suffered that. But no tee-shirt.

So 62% of us surveyed said they would vote 'Yes' in a referendum on a united Ireland with only 16% saying they would vote `No’. The remainder had no opinion or would not vote.

The strongest support was from Sinn Féin voters, with 78% in favour. Fine Gael voters were the least enthusiastic with 58% in favour. Still there was strong support in favour of unity right across our political spectrum. Yep, everyone loves Mam and apple pie too.

But when it comes to paying for such unity, well folks, it was a horse of a different colour. A remarkable 79% of us would not accept any higher taxes if that was the cost of a united Ireland and the same percentage rejected any cuts in public spending if that too is necessary.

In other words we want a united Ireland, if it’s free. Costs nothing. If it means we don’t have to put our hands in our pockets. Hilarious!

And that is not all. Any likelihood of a new flag or new national anthem to reflect the identity of unionists was rejected by more than 70%. Loyalists, lie down!

Similarly, when it came to a question in the poll as to whether Ireland should rejoin the Commonwealth to reflect a new Ireland which included unionists, - more than 70% said 'No'.

Just 44% supported the idea of unionists having a role in the government of a united Ireland while only 47% supported closer ties to the UK to assuage unionist fears.

As a people with such a strong sense of our own Irish identity it beggars belief that we have such little insight into the soul of those unionists who have a similar, treasured British identity.

Can people imagine that, if as part of the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement, which conceded a role for the Irish government in the affairs of Northern Ireland, a similar concession was granted the British to have a role in the Republic’s government to assuage unionist fears?

There would be murder, probably literally.

Paisley led hundreds of thousands in Belfast in opposition to that Agreement (as well!) in Belfast shouting 'never, never, never.' But it came to pass. Unionists saw it as a dilution of their British identity and sovereignty in Northern Ireland, which it was.

A united Ireland will mean similar dilution by government in the Republic. It seems clear that, should a united Ireland ever happen, it will most likely involve this Republic conceding a British role in Irish affairs to allow unionists feel secure. Clearly, we are nowhere near that.

Indeed, a united Ireland will most likely mean two parliaments on the island regardless, one in Belfast and one in Dublin. But, don’t worry. Despite all the huffing and puffing it’s not going to happen any day soon. Personally I believe, if it happens at all, it is many decades away and probably not in the lifetimes of the majority of people reading this column, including its author.

The truth is that over the past 100 years the two parts of this island have grown separate identities, gone in different directions, with – arguably – the emergence of three separate Irishnesses: Southern Irish, Northern Irish, and British Irish.

The most interesting of the three, perhaps, is the growing Northern Irish cohort who identify more with the geographic entity known as 'the six counties', more than with Britain or the Republic. It is these people who will determine the future of Northern Ireland and whether there will be a majority in Northern Ireland who favour a referendum on unity – not unionists and not nationalists there.

They are the growing and highly influential middle ground in Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile, the results of a poll published in Northern Ireland itself last Sunday showed that a 54% majority would vote to remain in Britain if there was a referendum on Irish unity. Quelle surprise! Interestingly, it also found that only 52% in Northern Ireland thought the Republic’s government would like to see Irish unity.

Fine, they also said they thought a referendum in Northern Ireland 10 years from now would see a vote in favour of a united Ireland. They also fear such a referendum on unity could provoke a return to violence.

That Lord Ashcroft Polls survey also found that support in Northern Ireland for a united Ireland declined sharply with increasing age, with just 25% of those aged over 65 in favour.

Significantly 67% of those polled in Northern Ireland - including 34% of Unionists – said they thought Brexit had made Irish unification more likely in the foreseeable future.

But to come back to The Irish Times/Ipsos poll, when it came to just how passionately those surveyed felt about a united Ireland the findings are very disappointing for enthusiasts.

Just a fifth (20%) agreed Irish unity was “very important, it is a priority for me”. Almost a quarter (24%) said it was “not at all important”. By far the most popular response – 52% - felt it was “not very important but I would like to see it someday.”

I expect as many would also like to see Santy Claus next week.

And, despite Sinn Fein’s particular enthusiasm for Irish unity, 47% of its voters polled said a united Ireland was “not very important but I would like to see it someday”, while 36% of its supporters believed a united Ireland was “very important”. Nothing to see here, folks.

Meanwhile, as we face into Christmas and raising Omicron infections, let us not worry about higher taxes or cuts in public spending to pay for Irish unity. It’s not going to happen any time soon and, clearly, we now have more pressing matters to address – such as saving as many lives as possible in this latest Covid variant wave. Towards that end, let us all be careful out there in public places by wearing masks and respecting the two-metre social distancing recommendation.

And, for light relief these coming days, let us stay tuned to the goings on at Westminster and take pleasure in the fall of Boris, who is not our friend in Ireland and 'Le Clown', as President Macron of France described him.

Let us also hope that whomsoever the Tories replace him with is not worse. I know, it seems impossible, but that party has a particular genius in such matters. They did, after all, elect Boris while knowing in depth his track record of lies and distortion.

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