The Good Friday agreement allows for a border poll and the reunification of Ireland should there be a possibility of a majority in NI being in favour of the poll.
Like the Brexit referendum a simple majority (50%+1) is sufficient to trigger a United Ireland (unlike the Brexit referendum which was simply advisory a NI referendum will be legally binding). Of course the South must also agree. Until recently it looked unlikely that a majority of people in NI would vote for a United Ireland. With both parts of Ireland being in the EU and an open border it was not a pressing issue and many from the Catholic/Nationalist/Republican (CNR) community were happy with the status quo. After all, Northern Ireland is heavily subsidised by the UK central government to the tune of about £5.5k per head (c £9bn), the quality of life is reasonable for most people and anyone in NI who wishes to become an Irish citizen (and by extension an EU citizen) has an automatic right to become one. A United Ireland would be an unknown and the NHS for example is rightly very highly valued. Among the Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist (PUL) community there is of course low support for a United Ireland, particularly amongst older traditional voters. (Though I had an interesting conversation with a NI protestant Anglo-Irish historian in Antrim last week who though NI was a failed entity).
However there is no guarantee that a pro-union majority will last and indeed there are signs that things are changing. The most recent Lucid Talk border poll is interesting in that whereas there is still roughly a 55%/45% split pro Union, amongst younger voters in the 18-44 age group there is a majority in favour of a United Ireland with some metrics showing 56.4% being in favour. Of course a single opinion poll is of little value, but is indicative that things might be changing. Nearly all other previous opinion polls have been much more pro-Union. Brexit could make a dramatic difference with the Republic being in the EU and NI outside; the border has the potential to become very closed with strict custom controls etc. We seem to be in a changing landscape with a very uncertain future.
Pull Factors towards a United Ireland
There are a number of pull factors which make a United Ireland increasingly likely over the next decade.
- The main Unionist party, the DUP, is very socially conservative and has controversial views on for example Climate Change, Abortion, Evolution and HIV. It is looking increasingly out of touch in the 21st century and is an anathema to many younger voters. It makes no effort to court voters from the CNR community, indeed it adopts a “circle the wagons” approach of appealing to its core support. The main Nationalist party SF has a very progressive agenda; far more appealing to a younger voter.
- The demographics are such that there are more Catholics than Protestants in Northern Ireland in every age group below 46 (below 40 in the 2011 census). Older age groups have an increasingly Protestant majority with Protestants outnumbering Catholics by around 2:1 in the 70+ age range. The tipping point when Catholics outnumber Protestants is likely to happen within about 10 years.
- The Republic of Ireland is socially looking more attractive for younger voters, shaking off its traditional heavily Catholic favour. One indicative change is the openly gay, half Indian premier in Leo Varadkar. The Catholic Church used to have a very strong influence in the Republic, but since the sex and abuse scandals of the 1980s and 1990s it is a very much diminished force. It seems to be embracing the 21st Century with increasing confidence, unlike the UK which seems to be regressing to the 1950’s.
- The Republic of Ireland is doing very well economically having weathered the Global Financial Crisis, with the predicted growth rate for 2017 being again the highest in the euro zone (for the fourth year in a row) of around 5%. Meanwhile the UK economy is stuck in the doldrums. The South is already considerably richer than the North and this difference is only likely to increase.
- Young voters in NI as in the UK as a whole were much more pro-EU than their older counterparts. Indeed NI as a whole voted to stay in the EU by a 12% margin. Uniquely NI has an easy option of staying in the EU via reunification.
- The open border between NI and the Republic is very highly valued by the CNR community which is more concentrated along the border. The Unionist heartlands of Antrim, North Down and the Coleraine region tend to be furthest away from the border, Fig. 1, (with the exception of the Moyle and Ratlin Island areas in the extreme NE which are strongly Catholic).
- Even though the Republic has a modern economy, agriculture plays a much greater part than in the UK as a whole. NI has an even more heavily based agricultural economy and may well be a better fit for a UI rather than remaining in the UK.
- There are many people in the Republic who care deeply about the North. As someone who has lived in the England for many years I see an almost universal lack of interest in Northern Ireland and a wish that it would simply go away. It is rather sad that the love the Loyalists have for Britain is so unrequited. There is a worry that as far as the English are concerned NI is quite expendable should it be an obstacle to an EU deal which would be favorable for England.
- The most comprehensive report on the effect of a United Ireland on the North undertaken by Canadian consultancy KLC and University of British Columbia academics, who have carried out similar reports on German and Korean unification — suggests “significant long-term improvement” in the economies of both the North and the Republic resulting from unification (but most significantly for NI).
There is a Near Zero probability of Ireland rejoining the UK
One way of avoiding a hard border and to achieve reunification is for Ireland to rejoin the UK. This is highly unlikely because of historic and economic reasons and the state of the opinion polls.
Ireland has a very successful 18th Century, not perfect by any means but by the end of the 18th Century it was considerably more prosperous and more populous than Scotland. At the end of the 18th century disastrously the Irish Parliament was abolished and Ireland entered full Union with Britain in 1801 with pretty much all power centralised in Westminster.
Britain had an extraordinary 19th century, indeed by the end of the century it was arguably the strongest power in the world, both militarily and economically; though both Germany and in particular the US were catching up fast and the US eclipsed Britain in the 20th century. The 19th century in complete contrast was catastrophic for Ireland with the singular exception of the NE corner, Antrim and Down; the greater Belfast region.
In terms of population it was estimated that in 1801 the population of Ireland was about 5 million (though there was no proper census till 1821 and some estimates put the population as low as 4 M), The population of England was a bit under 8 M, that of Wales about 0.6 M and that of Scotland 1.6 M. By the end of the century the population of the 26 counties (which later became the Republic) was 3.2 M, with a further 1.2 M in the six counties which became Northern Ireland. Its impossible to know if the Irish population was larger in 1900 than 1800. It is also interesting that the Irish population was more than twice that of Scotland in 1800 and more than half that of England. By 1901 things were very different, the Scottish population had risen to 4.5 M, more than doubling and exceeding that of Ireland (and remained more populous till the mid 1980s when Ireland again overtook Scotland) , but England had a nearly four fold population increase to 30 M. Wales also had a nearly four fold increase of population to about 2 M. In 1801 Dublin was easily the second largest city on these islands after London, by 1900 it was not even in the top 10 and possibly not even in the top 20, with the only bright spot in Ireland being Belfast which was now the largest city in Ireland. Of course these end dates hide the detail and the real catastrophe occurred in the 1840s with the great famine; about 1 M died and another 2 M emigrated mainly to the United States. The response of the UK government was at best incompetent during that period. For a less charitable view see for example here.
Things spiralled out of control in the 1916-1921 period and rather than going for a devolved government as outlined in the 3rd Home Rule Bill of 1914, possibly not that dissimilar to Scotland’s position today, we ended up with the Free State of the 26 counties, becoming a totally independent Republic in 1949 and NI remaining in the UK.
It is interesting to look however at the counterfactual where Ireland stayed within the UK but with a devolved government. Ideally Scotland would give a good comparator, however there are two complications, in that North Sea Oil is a major contributor to the Scottish economy and also that there is considerable debate about the reliability of Scottish economic data as presented by Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (GERS) as discussed extensively on Prof. Richard Murphy’s TRUK blog. Rather than looking at Scotland I have looked at the UK as a whole and the GDP data as available at the World Bank. There are two issues which will distort the comparison. The UK regional GDP is very variable with London and the South East being much wealthier than the rUK (the UK minus London and the SE). Indeed the richest NUTS2 area in the EU is Inner London West with a staggering 580% of the average EU GDP per Inhabitant (PPS), the poorest area in the UK is West Wales and the Valleys at a miserly 68%. The GDP per capita of London is more than twice that of the rUK. The inclusion of London and the SE will play very much in the UKs favour whereas in Ireland’s case it is well known that because of the large number of multinationals and the fact that a considerable fraction (estimates can be up to 20%) of the GDP goes directly overseas it does not contribute to the domestic economy. This will go some way to cancel out the disparity caused by London and the SE.
In Fig. 2 the ratio of the Irish to UK GDP data is plotted starting at 1960 and ending in December 2015 (the first and last dates for which data is available on the World Bank Statistics). Given that Irish GDP grew by 5.2% in 2016 as compared to 1.8% for the UK and the 2017 differential growth figures seem broadly similar the current disparity in economic performance is even greater than that displayed at the end point on the graph. The most obvious conclusion is that Ireland has done dramatically better than the UK with the GDP growing from under 3% of that of the UK to over 11%. Some of this is because the Irish population has been growing faster than that of the UK from a little under 3 M (5.4% of the UK) in 1960 to 4.75 M (7.3% of the UK) currently, but more importantly the GDP per capita has risen dramatically. Up to the mid to late 1990s the GDP per capita was lower in Ireland than the UK and it was argued by some that Ireland was simply playing catch-up, however there is no sign that the Irish growth is slowing down. There were about five bad years after the global financial crisis in 2008 but as is typical coming out of a major recession, the Irish economy has rebounded strongly.
Despite the bank bailout after the global financial crisis causing considerable resentment to the EU, the Irish blame the banks first, the Government who mistook the situation as being a liquidity rather than a solvency crisis (giving the Banks a copper bottomed bailout guarantee) and the EU third. Indeed satisfaction with EU membership is one of the highest in Europe. With EU membership Ireland has been transformed from one of the poorest countries in the EU 9 when it joined in 1973 to one of the richest.
Another indication of how well Ireland is doing is to look at the current position of Dublin, which as previously stated was the second city on these islands in 1801 (when the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland was formed) , but not in the top ten in 1922 when Ireland left the UK. As shown in Fig 3. Dublin is now easily back in second place, comfortably exceeding Manchester and Birmingham which vie with each other for the title of second city in the UK.
Brexit is viewed with a mixture of disbelief, horror, pity, ridicule and schadenfreude by the Irish. There is a belief that two major driving forces behind Brexit include a very negative form of English Nationalism and a dangerously delusional belief in British exceptionalism. There is also a near universal view that Brexit will be negative for the UK, beyond reasonable doubt very negative and an overlying worry that it may affect the Irish economy adversely. There is also a horror at the seemingly inept performance of the UK negotiating team and the sadness that it more resembles a Shakespearean or Greek Tragedy rather than a comedy.
In brief, out of the UK (1801-1921), Ireland has done much better; there is close to zero interest in leaving the EU and rejoining the UK or even a looser affiliation. According to the 2017 Red-C poll “Almost 90 per cent of people agree that Ireland should remain as part of the EU, while 87 per cent believe that Ireland has benefited from being a member of the EU”. This EU support is even greater than immediately after the Brexit referendum when four out of five people (83%) believed that Ireland should remain a part of the EU despite the UK’s vote to leave. Only 16 per cent believed that Ireland should follow the UK out of the EU.
Contrasting Export Trade between NI and the Republic
Trade figures seems to be compiled differently by the various statistics agencies and where there is broad agreement there are some differences in the finer figures. The Republic has a much larger economy than the North, and this is reflected in terms of trade volumes. The NI assembly report as shown in Fig.4 has the total exports at £7.8bn in 2016 whereas the total value of exports from the Republic was €116.9bn in the same year. It might be argued that the figures are not directly comparable as trade in goods from NI to Britain are important, particularly in a United Ireland scenario. These are estimated to be c £13 bn.
Inter Trade Ireland has the 2015 cross border trade in manufacturing valued as €1.83bn North to South and €1.57bn South to North. Total trade between the South and the UK however is about 10 times greater at €15.6bn and was about 13% of total exports. (In contrast the UK accounted for about 50% of Irish exports in 1973). Fig. 5 shows the overall destinations for Irish trade for 2016 from the MIT Observatory of Economic Complexity. In recent years comparative exports to the UK have been growing at a slower rate than exports to the EU and the US. For most of the past 5 years Belgium/Luxembourg has been the the most important EU trading partner with the UK a close second. Exports to Belgium tend to be high value goods such as pharmaceuticals, whereas the agribusiness sector relies far more on the UK, indeed it is estimated that the agribusiness sector exports about 40% of the total to the UK. The US is the most important single country, which is a worry for the Irish economy given Trump’s America First policy.
- The South is more important to the North than visa versa in terms of trade. Whereas 31% of NI exports go to the South, only 1.3% of Irish exports go to the North.
- East-West trade flows to Britain from the island of Ireland are much more important than North-South flows being nearly an order of magnitude greater.
- The UK is still a significant trading partner for Ireland particularly in the agribusiness sector. It has however been in relative decline.
The Cyprus Experience
Cyprus is a divided Island, with the smaller North East corner having a Turkish ethos but with the bulk of the Island being Greek in character. It is also part of the EU. There are of course differences with Northern Ireland, according to Wikipedia: Northern Cyprus (Turkish: Kuzey Kıbrıs, Greek: Βόρεια Κύπρος), officially the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC; Turkish: Kuzey Kıbrıs Türk Cumhuriyeti), is a self-declared state that comprises the northeastern portion of the island of Cyprus. Recognised only by Turkey, Northern Cyprus is considered by the international community to be part of the Republic of Cyprus.
Reunification has different issues in Cyprus as to Ireland. The complexities of the issue are difficult to understand completely as an outsider but in 2004 there was a joint reunification referendum under the Annan Plan, which went pro unification in the North with 65% in favour but soundly rejected by the South with 76% against. Could a similar scenario happen in Ireland?
As discussed earlier in this article there are a number of pull factors towards a United Ireland. Ultimately the success or not of Brexit for NI is likely to be the key factor. Optimists will look at the large British market as an opportunity for the NI agribusiness sector if it gets more difficult for EU countries to sell to the UK. Pessimists will look at the 219% tariff slapped on sales of Bombardier aircraft in the United States as a sign of things to come and the fact that WTO rules will dramatically cut the cost of tariffs on many agricultural products and it may be very difficult for NI farmers to make a living. Also direct EU payments to farmers represent 87% of annual farm income in NI. The pros and cons of Brexit should all be clearer within a few years and by 2022 hopefully the dust will have settled and a border referendum can be had with a fuller understanding of the facts.
I was in Ireland last week and it was clear that there is limited enthusiasm for a United Ireland in the South. The dislike of the DUP came as no surprise (there is a belief that that are still living in the 17th century), but SF are not much liked either amongst the older generation (that’s sadly me, my friends and acquaintances these days). Their former PIRA links fill Southerners of my generation with deep mistrust. Financially the North is currently a liability rather than an asset but the major worry is the Loyalist community. I heard comments such as “Ireland will become as ungovernable as Belgium” and an even starker “We don’t want them”. Of course Brexit may go well for NI and the question of Unification may not arise in the South as the North may reject it. Also whereas there needs to be a referendum in the North, it is not the case in the south where the GFA wording is more ambiguous; a strong premier may simply push things through the Dail. There is a strong romantic attachment to a United Ireland, but the reality is much more complicated. There is a possibility however that just at the time the majority of Northerners want reunification they may be rejected by the South; more like Cypriot than German reunification.