Seventies Dublin was comparatively peaceful, but my Halcyon days at University College Dublin (UCD) from ’73-’81 were more or less book-ended by events. Before the start of the period (’72) there was the burning of the British Embassy in response to the Bloody Sunday Massacre and in my first undergrad year I cycled past one of the bombs (about 15 mins before it exploded) planted in the Dublin and Monaghan bombing campaign – the worst atrocity in all the troubles: 33 civilians killed and a full-term unborn child, and almost 300 injuries. Towards the end of the period there were the H-Block hunger strikes, most notably Bobby Sands (BBC analysis here, Republican analysis here). The inept handling of the situation by Margaret Thatcher was a godsend to the Republicans, and there was a very much a change in mood in Dublin with large marches of support. It is my analysis that the pIRA (Provos) campaign would have fizzled out at least a decade earlier without UK government ineptitude.
In the interim period (’75-’80) however there was minimal support for the Provos in Dublin. Lip service might be paid towards a United Ireland but it was and still remains low in a list of priorities. I would see a few Republicans daily on my cycle home from UCD outside the GPO selling An Phoblacht (the Republican newspaper) – but they were almost completely ignored. When I came to England the analogy to members of the SWP selling the Morning Star seemed very strong. Or indeed the Jehovah Witnesses selling the Watchtower. Out of the approximate 375 students in 1st year Science at UCD there was one Republican, who I used to see occasionally selling An Phoblacht outside the GPO. Indeed I bought a copy from him once – once was enough! The student, whose name I forget, seemed to disappear after the end of the first year.
There were a few Northern Irish (Nordies – though that slang term was not used in the 70’s) in my class, all of whom were Nationalists and I got to know well. Indeed the one time I made the front page news in Ireland was when I and a Northern friend were drugged and robbed on a train ‘interrailing’ in Italy. It was useful that he was from NI as he was able to sort a passport out at the local consulate in Venice, whereas I had to go to the Irish embassy in Rome. The endless paperwork had to be filled out in sixtuplicate!
Unionists did not normally study in Dublin and the few who did tended to study at Trinity College Dublin (TCD), which was historically considered a Protestant university. It’s hard to credit now, but in the late ’60s it was a mortal sin for a Catholic to attend TCD and the only way for applicants to save their souls was by way of a special dispensation from Archbishop McQuaid. Few Catholics went to Trinity in the 60’s (the past is truly a foreign country!). This edict had vanished by ’73 and indeed many of my schoolmates went to TCD, including my best friend Ken, to study Medicine. (Ken advised me to sow my wild oats then; he could cure me of any STD in the ’70s but felt that worse was on the way). Many of the Nordies in UCD returned home after completing their studies.
Many of the brighter NI Unionists attended University in England or Scotland. The first Unionist I really got to know well is the now Prof Richard McClatchey, who was a post-grad at Sheffield University where I took my first post-doc position, in Nov ’81 . Richard is now in Bristol and head of Computing at the UWE. I’m naturally delighted that he has done well, but from a NI perspective he is one of the many thousands of Unionists who never returned after completing their studies. This has contributed to the demographic shift in NI, where Catholics are a majority in the under 50 cohort and the two Universities Queen University Belfast (QUB) and the University of Ulster (UU) are increasingly Catholic dominated. A recent row over Irish Language signs is symptomatic of the issue from the Unionist perspective. In more general terms Catholics who used to be heavily discriminated in terms of jobs in NI have now caught up with the Protestant Community in terms of employment. The other worry is that the Catholic schools in NI, just as in England, tend to be considerably better than the state schools. Working class Protestants are being increasingly left behind.
From my Dublin perspective there is some sadness that the majority of people of Northern Ireland have not wanted to join with the Republic, but a belief that it is totally up to the people of the North in the first instance to make that decision. The Good Friday Agreement has as one of its provisions that if it ever seems likely that the majority of the electorate in the North would want a United Ireland, a border poll will be called. A simple majority is all that is needed for a United Ireland to happen. According to the Times (unpaywalled report here) in a recent clash between Jacob Rees-Mogg and Theresa May, where JRM was confident about easily winning a border poll (as he only ever talks to the DUP -unaware that they believe he will burn in the fires of hell the moment he dies!), May is reported to have replied:
I would not be as confident as you. That’s not a risk I’m prepared to take. We cannot be confident on the politics of that situation, on how it plays out.
Is May right to be worried? I think the answer is yes and in her heart of hearts, I suspect, she still thinks Brexit will be very detrimental to the UK. Also recent elections GE2015 and GE2017 did not play out as predicted. Never mind the Brexit Referendum itself. There has been very very little discussion in the Republic, possibly because representatives of the NI Unionists, the DUP, have a hysterical reaction to any hint of a United Ireland (though they seldom miss any opportunity to belittle and insult the Republic – Simon Coveney seems to be a particular target at present). Sinn Féin have been the only party pushing for a UI.
There is comparatively little polling in Northern Ireland on the Border issue but a Lucid Talk poll in December looked at a Hard Brexit scenario. There was an overall majority for a United Ireland in that scenario, with 47.9% choosing a UI, 45.4% staying in the UK and the rest undecided or going to spoil their vote. This is of course too tight to call and is only one poll with a hypothetical scenario, which might have produced skewed results. Common with every other poll, however, it is the younger people of NI who are most positive and the age breakdown shows the under 45s are pro UI, almost counterbalanced by the over 45’s. (Of course in the UK pro-Brexit voting patterns are similarly age related).
There is a very high correlation between Catholics being Nationalist and Protestants Unionist. The demographics of Northern Ireland are inverting as illustrated in Fig. 2, which shows the Catholic/Protestant ratio in 5 year cohorts (apart from the 90 cohort that includes everyone over 90) . For the very oldest cohort, the 90+, Protestants outnumber Catholics by about 2:1. This is representative of the demographics; at around the time NI was formed in 1921, when the boundaries were drawn specifically to give Protestants a supposedly permanent c 2:1 majority. For all cohorts, in the 2011 census, under 40 however (47 now), there is a Catholic majority. The recent increase in the very youngest cohort may be because of a high birth rate in the Polish immigrant community which numbers about 30,000 in NI. It has been argued that this community might be less likely to vote for a UI, but I think the opposite might be the case as the Polish community in the Republic has integrated well and there are fears in the Polish NI community that Brexit will lead to ‘permanent resident’ problems etc. The demographic shift is so dramatic that many think NI is unlikely to last much more than a decade, unless Brexit means a dramatic improvement in NI’s fortunes.
Despite the extremely polarised voting in NI where most people either vote for the DUP if Unionist and SF if Nationalist; there is considerable middle ground particularly among younger people. As a rough guide, until the Brexit referendum: 3/10 people would have voted for a UI irrespective of social and economic situations, 4/10 to remain in the Union with Britain irrespective and 3/10 undecided or who will look at the bottom line. After the Brexit referendum it is more uncertain, but the numbers in the staunch Unionist camp are likely lower and the other two camps higher. Many NI Unionists identify as British with a passionate intensity – something that outsiders find very difficult to comprehend. (The Union was disastrous for Ireland, and the Irish in particular see the Union as Greater England + appendages rather than a true Union of equals). For me a UI is the obvious choice, but I am a Nationalist, very pro EU and think Brexit is an obscenity.
A few things to ponder from simple economic arguments:
- The GDP per capita is around 2.5 times greater in the Republic than in the North; greater than the difference between E and W Germany upon unification and more like the difference between the US and Mexico.
- For every job created in the North more than 50 are created in the South (and this is predicted to continue till at least 2020).
- The growth rate in the Republic is the highest in the EU for the 4th year in a row (7.8%) and that of the North one of the lowest (c 1%) – and again this differential is predicted to remain for the foreseeable future.
- Social Security, pensions etc are much more generous in the Republic.
- The general economic outlook in Ireland is possibly the best it has ever been (though Brexit could have a major impact) in total contrast to the UK which is dire.
- Ireland has a much lower disparity in income between regions. The ration of incomes between the richest part, Dublin, and the poorest, Donegal, is about 150%. In the UK the disparity is far greater with the richest part Inner London West and West Wales and the Valleys is about 850%. What is very distressing is that Brexit is likely to make the UK disparity even worse.
A few political and constitutional arguments
- Ireland is one of the most (if not the most) pro EU countries in the EU28 and is not leaving the EU.
- Ireland has a “state of the art” PR system with the STV method as championed by the Electoral Reform Society, unlike the archaic first past the post UK system.
- Ireland has an elected upper house (Senate). Unlike the House of Lords – though to be fair the Lords seems to be doing a better job than the Commons recently.
- Ireland has a written constitution, unlike the UK. The downside is seemly endless referendums, but the Irish at least know how to run them.
- Ireland has a political culture which attracts some of the best and brightest people into politics, in contrast I would argue with the UK, where the current government in particular is the weakest in my lifetime. I have mixed feelings about FG. They a centre right neoliberal party and member of the European Prople’s Party in the European Parliament. This is the same group ro which Angela Merkel’s party belong and indeed used to be the group the Tories belonged to before they went mad and joined the lunatic Eurosceptic fringe. I would take Varadkar and Coveney any day above May and Johnson – an A team vs, charitably, a D team. One very senior FG person who died recently was Peter Sutherland. Peter has been described as the person with the best CV on the planet and set up for example the Erasmus program, the EU Open Skies Programme and the transformation from GATT to the WTO.
Some general social arguments
- Education is better in Ireland than the UK at the primary and secondary level as measured for example by the PISA results. At Tertiary Level Ireland is similar to to the UK, but it does not have a world class University. (Unless UCD and TCD merge which is politically unacceptable).
- Health outcomes are better in Ireland than the UK. It does however have a very complex means tested, private and insurance based system which needs overhaul. (Health spending per capita is very similar to the UK).
- Ireland has been traditionally a very Catholic country. The founding fathers were much more socialist and feminist but De Valera managed to force things in a much more right wing direction.
- Ireland and indeed NI have very draconian laws on Abortion. Indeed the illegality of abortion in nearly all circumstances was written into the Irish constitution in 1983 in the 8th amendment. There will however, be a referendum to repeal the 8th on the 25th May, which will be one to watch.
In Brexit Britain there seems to be little appetite to keep NI, but of course with the DUP propping up the Government, sabre rattling is needed. The average British voter seems to be unaware that the annual subsidy to keep NI afloat is greater than that paid for EU membership at c 11bn as opposed to c 8,1 bn net EU contribution. In the Conservative and Unionist party, achieving Brexit is far more important than hanging on to Northern Ireland. Should there be a change of Government, Corbyn has been a long time supporter of a United Ireland and is likely to be very unsympathetic towards the DUP.
Some further points:
- Northern Ireland seems to be on borrowed time. The 2021 census will probably show that Catholics outnumber Protestants for the first time and the demographics will increasing lean towards a United Ireland.
- A hard Brexit and border is likely to hasten the demise of Northern Ireland as a separate identity.
- Unless there is a reversal of fortune between NI and the Republic in economic terms, NI will likely cease to exist.
- The one thing that may save Northern Ireland ironically is the Irish backstop position, with minimal non tariff checks in the Irish Sea. With clever management NI could become a Hong Kong equivalent.
- The ultimate irony perhaps is that the DUP reject the backstop out of hand confirming that, as ever, they are good at tactics but appalling at strategy.