Reuniting with our friends in the North?

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).


Fig 1. Voting Intentions with a Hard Brexit by age group.


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.

Fig. 2 Catholic to Protestant Ratio from the 2011 census.


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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. Social Security, pensions etc are much more generous in the Republic.
  5. 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.
  6. 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

  1. Ireland is one of the most (if not the most) pro EU countries in the EU28 and is not leaving the EU.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Ireland has a written constitution, unlike the UK. The downside is seemly endless referendums, but the Irish at least know how to run them.
  5. 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

  1. 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).
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. A hard Brexit and border is likely to hasten the demise of Northern Ireland as a separate identity.
  3. Unless there is a reversal of fortune between NI and the Republic in economic terms, NI will likely cease to exist.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.


  1. Samuel Johnson -

    An excellent analysis. One typo: Sutherland.

    The NHS is what attracts many to stay in the UK. As soon as Ireland can match that offer that would likely be decisive in terms of sentiment. However, as someone who family is from NI but with a British spouse, and now back in Ireland, I see this seesaw battle as a waste of time. Neither community is going to leave and both must coexist, hopefully peacefully. My bet is on “generation neither”. The best framework for that is European. The DUP’s support for Brexit was in the face of popular opposition and constituted nothing less than attempt to shaft the nationalist community & ensure that NI would remain in the UK even it took scorching the earth to achieve it (one, Nelson McCausland, was explicit about his total indifference to what happened as long as NI was “out of Europe “).

    That hasn’t been a success & the cost of failure would simply be to drive away the voters it ought to be appealing to. They’re like the scorpion in the story of the frog and the river crossing. See Ian Paisley Jr sneering on Twitter today that Ireland was supported by the UK and couldn’t afford to take on NI (setting a one-off favour of borrowing for Ireland at a lower rate of interest than was available to Ireland at the time, a situation now reversed, against the never-ending and increasing demand from NI with no prospect of a return, ever).

    The DUP is not winning friends anywhere. They insulted Barnier by being “too busy” to meet him. They insulted Varadkar by claiming he was getting above himself visiting NI without notifying the NI Office (it confirmed that it had been notified). They insult the rest of the UK’s voters with their shabby secret deals to collude in electoral fraud and conceal the source of their funds, by demanding sacrifices from others they don’t make (school lunches for one), and their appetite for economic self-harm which will oblige the already pressed UK taxpayer to borrow even more on their behalf. If the history of NI shows anything it is that injustice cannot be sustained indefinitely.

    If unionists were smart they’d be trying to make the union attractive, but the scorpion instinct just cannot be overcome. They accuse the Irish of being pawns of the EU, when the truth is they have never been anything but pawns, first of the Crown and latterly of the Conservative party. And this is sustainable only as long as the English, in particular, wish to go on paying & pretending that NI is as British as Finchley. It never was, and never will be. Can that delusion come to an end peacefully & honourably? Not as long as the Conservatives are in power and short of votes.

    If Brexit happens it will lead to the end of the union, and NI with it. Alas, the DUP is too dug in to change course now. The best thing is for Ireland to minimise the damage from Brexit by any means possible and carry on with modernity & prosperity. One factor that has helped reconcile some unionists to the advantages of an Irish identity is the fact that it opens up opportunities for young people to study in Scotland at local rates (something not available to rUK students) courtesy of the EU. As noted, many then do not return, but how many would now be willing to give up this passport after Brexit?

    SF keeps the DUP in business, of that there is no doubt. But anyone who thinks they’d ever have made concessions without being forced to doesn’t know that it’s still 1690 in NI, sadly. Even now they cannot and will not accept equality. Not for the Irish language, or culture, not for gay people, and not for women when it come to their right to the same bodily autonomy as those in the rest of the UK. We will look back on it in bemusement & regret after it ends in the dustbin it should have been consigned to in 1918, rather as we watch “A Very British Scandal” now.

  2. Sean Danaher -


    thanks. Typo corrected. I have never been a FG member but both Sutherland and Gareth Fitzgerald used to be around the UCD Belfield Campus quite a bit in the late ’70s and were incredibly impressive; I used to pop around to the FG club to enjoy sparring with them. I was very much an Irish Labour party supporter.

    I agree with pretty much all of your analysis.

    The DUP and indeed many Unionists seem to think “they” bailed out Ireland after the Global Financial Crisis. The fact is that the UK provided 3.2bn Euro of a 67bn package (less than 5%). This was both to bail out Ulster Bank, a RBS subsidiary, and now one of the few bit of RBS in the black and making a profit and to show that they at least providing some help in the Eurozone crisis, after telling Greece etc where to go. The fact that this once off loan (which the Irish would pay off immediately if the terms allowed it as they can now get money much more cheaply elsewhere) is about 3 months of the continuing subsidy NI gets from HMG seems not to occur to them.

    I really don’t see what good continually insulting the Republic does – probably goes down well with their base I suppose. We have an occasional contributor Nile who grew up in NI and thinks the DUP are simply not sane by 21st cent standards and indeed still have a 17th century mindset.

    My hope is with the younger under 45 cohort. I do hope for a United Ireland but I am in no rush. I very much hoped the UK would stay in the EU and NI would gradually become a normal country and a UI would happen in 20-30 years. Brexit throws a spanner in the works.

    there is a new report out today,820734,en.pdf which is making headlines

    NI was created for totally sectarian reasons; it has been an abject failure both socially and economically. I agree completely that SF keep the DUP in business

    1. Peter May -

      So, I wonder if, in the NEW WORLD, what we actually need an EU NHS – to give us a start?

      1. Sean Danaher -

        I’m not sure what you mean here can you clarify. are you talking about the NHS being rolled out to the whole of the EU or the UK NHS, which has a high number of EU doctors and nurses getting some form of exemption?

      2. Peter May -

        I was thinking an EU NHS would be a unification programme!

      3. Samuel Johnson -

        This would win enough votes but would be characterised by unionists as a land grab. They will do that for exactly as long as the UK taxpayer is willing to go on subsidising them preferentially. It was the casual grant of hegemony that the UK underwrote that permitted 50 years of sectarian discrimination and a culture of domination and denial of equality.

        I and many Irish would be happy to have a joint NHS and to pay 1 TV licence to fund either or both national broadcasters according to one’s preference. We need to blur the lines a bit to integrate and respect both traditions on this island.

        Tony Connelly’s book has a good chapter on shared health services that are EU funded, hugely important, and simply not mentioned ever in the British media.

  3. Andy Crow -

    Sean, I think you are quite correct in saying: “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.”

    I certainly had no idea and I would have thought I would have heard murmurings.

    Perhaps the Brexit mob were factoring in an assumption that NI would cut loose when they wrote their £350 million on the battle bus 🙂

    Much in that piece (and additions from Samuel) that as a mainland Brit I know very little about, including the Bobby Sands et al hunger strikes links.

    Throughout the troubles the mere sound of Ian Paisley’s tone was enough to incline my sympathies towards the republican cause.

    Even without following ‘the troubles’ at all closely, and despite the mainland bombings, I came to realise that what we so casually dismiss as criminal terrorism is so often a response, disproportionate as violence often seems, to a very prolonged period of oppressive insult.

    It’s to be hoped that this Brexit business ends better for Ireland (North and South) than I fear it will for rUK.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      thanks. Its great also to have Samuel commenting; he has strong links with Scotland, Ireland and Northern Ireland and is extremely knowledgeable.

      Your lack of knowledge re Ireland is almost universal in Britain. Its a real problem as the Brexiteers can get away with talking absolute nonsense regarding Ireland and get away with it.

      Terrorism is of course interesting and the British media seemed to concentrate exclusively on the IRA, whereas the Loyalists paramilitaries UDA, UVF, UFF etc were just as bad and even more disturbing was the extent of collusion between the RUC and the British state with the Loyalist gangs. The car bomb I cycled past in Dublin (Parnell St 1974) 15 mins before it exploded used technology which was probably beyond the UVF’s capability at the time and there are persistent rumours aspects of NIs “security” forces were involved. Despite continuous lobbying by Dublin the official papers still have not been released. You might also want to look at the Stephen’s Inquiries:

      I’m currently writing a piece on the DUP and Paisley will feature for sure!

      Ireland still seems to be attracting a large amount of high value FDI, but is exposed in Agrifood (Ireland exports 90% of its food production – about 37% of this to the UK). Ireland has no longer any auto manufacturing, but a large medical instrumentation sector which sources components etc from the UK, so may be vunerable. Sectors such as Pharma, IT and Finance will probably benefit from Brexit. So swings and roundabouts.

      Brexit may actually turn out to be very good for Ireland, but I still hope the whole idiocy of Brexit will make it fall apart.

      1. Peter May -

        “Brexit may actually turn out to be very good for Ireland” in that it may unify?
        Agreed there but it is still an even more offshore island than GB so I fear not that good…

      2. Samuel Johnson -

        Not necessarily in that may unify, no – – that is an aspiration of most on the island but it will bring problems that may be ameliorated by patience.

        Ireland will be the only English language country in the EU that the US, already a major investor, can use as a springboard to the single market. It’s got US immigration pre-clearance (uniquely in Europe). There’s a gathering trickle that will soon be a flood into Dublin from London. So far mostly flag in the ground moves but these will scale and are bringing jobs, investment & tax revenues.

  4. Sean Danaher -

    in one sense you are exactly right in that geographically Ireland is a bit isolated. Great in times of European war (unless like 1690-1 it was raged in Ireland) but less so in time of peace. I went through the channel tunnel recently (we normally take the ferry from Newcastle when going to the continent) and there were big ads stating that there were £65bn trade flows PA through the tunnel with a picture of auto manufacturing.

    Exports to the UK from Ireland last year were 11% of total, but the use of Britain as a trans-shipment bridge is a greater worry. Ireland is indeed very vulnerable in terms of high volume items, a point that Ray Bassett one of the few Irexit proponents makes well.

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