Wednesday, January 19, 2005

United Ireland Debate

Frank McGahon continues a debate by asking whether people in the South would opt for a united Ireland, if they were asked to stump up a sum of money for the privilege. The debate was kicked off when Young Irelander contemplated a straw poll on the subject. All very interesting (for other comments, see Slugger O'Toole).

I'm sympathetic to McGahon: I agree that people's support for a united Ireland is pretty fragile. I've been asking around in work as to whether there has been any polling evidence garnered on what value people in the Republic would place on a united Ireland.

I just have a couple of things to add to McGahon's post. First, we know pretty well what sort of costs a united Ireland would face: they are the costs that the rest of the UK faces at the moment. Putting aside the security cost to the British exchequer, and the number of people (like yours truly) whose wages are paid by Westminster, the subvention to the North is somewhere in the region of £3.3bn. Of course, given the fact that NI receives much more per capita than English regions, some of whom are terribly poor, receive, and given that it pays in part for the supply of twice the welfare state because people are not willing to share things like health centres, this is a source of some resentment in Westminster. If they could bring it down, they probably would.

Still, if we imagine that the extra security cost for the Republic was negligible (just for the sake of argument) and that the subvention was cut by, oh I don't know, half, the cost per capita to the Irish taxpaying public would be, according to my back of the envelope calculations, about £1000 per annum. Now put that unrealistically low figure in front of people, and my guess is that any romantic attachments to the idea of a united Ireland would disappear pretty quickly. Still, that's not based on any empirical evidence beyond my intuition that the Irish electorate isn't all that different to electorates anywhere: it's ultimately the bottom line that counts.

Second, if this was established by evidence, which would mean that a united Ireland would just not happen (the Irish get to vote on it too) and this was recognised in the North, it might have something of a profound effect on political discourse. It strikes me that parties in both sides of the community mobilise their electorates by waving the unification stick in their faces. The electoral appeal of Republicans is largely rooted in the promise to deliver unification. The electoral appeal of the DUP, it strikes me is partly rooted on the threat that if the electorate goes elsewhere, a united Ireland might just happen. Now, if this motivator was taken out of the mix, I do wonder what people would find to talk about.

Republicans might be at a loss. Although their equality agenda might attract lower income voters, their generally young electorate might just stop voting. It would certainly force nationalists in general to re-assess their aims from politics.

That said, I suspect that unionists would face the biggest challenge if the united Ireland myth was dealt a blow. I suspect that the UUP is safe enough - it might rebrand itself as a local varient of the GB Conservative Party. The DUP, on the other hand, assuming Big Ian is going to pop his clogs at some stage, would face serious division, between a more evangelical membership (which from what I've read, does not mean that the DUP has a more evangelical electorate) and, er, the other lot. I'm genuinely perplexed as to what they stand for, beyond standing up to Republicanism. What would become of them? It strikes me that the last thing that unionism needs is further division.

Well, that's a bit of a ramble from me, but I suppose my basic point is: if a united Ireland was guaranteed not to happen, what would happen to politics in the North?

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