What price a united Ireland now? With every passing day of the credit crunch, it is a question which you might well ask.
Time was when even the most diehard unionist must have doubted how long Northern Ireland could remain within the United Kingdom. Those were the days, not so long ago, when we looked enviously southwards at the breath-taking wealth of the Republic.
All we could see were new millionaires and billionaires a plenty. A property boom everywhere. Motorways to match the best in Europe. Irish banks overflowing with profits. A small island state hit by a seemingly unstoppable tide of good fortune.
Look south now my friends and what do you see? The Celtic Tiger, having roared across the 26 counties and stood rampant at the gates of Ulster, is lost in the bogland of the recession. Celebrations of wealth have been replaced with an economic wake.
“The public coffers have been emptied, the developers and the banks are bust, and trade unions have little to offer. The game is up ? ” said Enda Kenny, the Fine Gael leader this week.
The Republic is borrowing at the rate of €55m euros per day, the equivalent of €4,500 euros per annum for every man, woman and child in the country. House prices have collapsed by 40 per cent. Migrant workers are going home jobless. Unemployment is heading towards 12 per cent this year. Even some of RTE’s top stars have said they’ll take a pay cut. The emerald jewel of Europe has lost its shine.
All of this is nothing for any of us northerners to gloat over, if only because so much of what goes on in banking and commerce these days is on an all-Ireland basis. The tills may be ringing up short-term profits in Newry, Enniskillen and north-west shopping centres but most of us on each side of the now invisible border between north and south cannot escape the island-wide consequences of such a dramatic downturn.
Many business people buried their heads in the sand at warnings of what has now befallen the south. I recall reading surprisingly optimistic prophesies from bank economists not so long ago, claiming that any property price falls were but a blip. Some of them should hang their heads in shame particularly in front of a man whom I’ve never met but whose predictions have proved uncannily accurate.
Professor Morgan Kelly, head of economics at University College, Dublin, has been nicknamed Dr Doom. Two years ago he was warning that the Irish property boom would go bust. I recall quoting him in this column as saying he had been unduly optimistic in predicting that house prices would only fall by 50 per cent in a decade.
Needless to say his assertion that the property market in the Republic was unsustainable was not welcomed by estate agents and property developers. Many of them, along with the Irish banks, refused to accept his assessment until the slogan ‘credit crunch’ was written in capital letters on the gable walls of their offices.
The professor is now predicting that Irish house prices could fall by as much as 80 per cent in real terms. Meanwhile Taoiseach Brian Cowan struggles to right the ship of state, imposing a massive pensions levy on public sector employees and forecasting that many more billions will be required in savings in the years ahead.
The reason why I ask the question — what price Irish unity now? — is because of comments made recently by one of Sinn Fein’s emerging figures, Conor Murphy. Mr Murphy has proved himself, unlike his colleague Caitriona Ruane, to be an adept Stormont Executive minister, articulate and on top of his brief in charge of Regional Development. He is clearly on the up within Sinn Fein and, who knows, might get Gerry Adam’s role as president one day. Any perusal of Sinn Fein’s website and of Mr Adams’s activities in recent months shows that he and the party are gearing up with a new united Ireland strategy.
In line with this strategy, Conor Murphy addressed a gathering at Westminster in December and said a referendum on a united Ireland could be held before 2016.
The fading international spotlight on Northern Ireland and the current economic climate could create the right environment to go to a vote, he said. Reunification was not a spectator sport.
“I actually think it could happen sooner than that in reality if we keep the momentum going when the economic realities and the political realities hit. We have received an awful lot of attention over the last 10 years with American presidents and other nations dropping in but that will start to wane.
“Then we will start to realise we are a small island, we have quite a lot going for us. All these small signs show we will ultimately have to take charge of ourselves.”
The 90th birthday of Dail Eireann was celebrated the other day but the big one is the centenary of the Easter Rising, little over seven years distant. We can expect Sinn Fein’s united Ireland strategy to intensify as Easter 2016 approaches.
Conor Murphy told his listeners in London that he was looking forward to a new border poll. This surprises me. While there are many factors beyond the pound or euro in our pockets which make us feel unionist or nationalist, it is surely hard to escape the current economic reality of Ireland, north and south. Our standard of living in Northern Ireland is dependent on an annual £9bn injection of funds from the UK Exchequer — a figure which the First Minister Peter Robinson said recently was not enough. The current pressure on his Executive’s budget, squeezed as it is in every direction, is proof that he is right.
If the people of the Republic were to be asked to replace the £9bn subvention to Northern Ireland, it would require £2,000 from every man, woman and child per annum for the foreseeable future to keep us in the services and welfare state lifestyle to which we have become so accustomed. This, from a country which is currently borrowing billions to keep its own head above water!
Of course, Irish nationalists and republicans will say that unity is not simply about money. In their eyes, it is about an historic righting of an age-old wrong. It is about building bridges and getting us all to pull together. It is about ‘a nation once again’ and ‘united we stand, divided we fall’.
Well, that’s as may be, but the economic facts of life today cannot be ignored. I would suggest the credit crunch has destroyed any hope of a united Ireland for another generation at least, if not longer. Certainly, even the most optimistic republican can hardly foresee his or her aspiration achieved, as Gerry Adams once suggested, by 2016.
So let me pose the question to you, the one million strong Northern Ireland electorate. Do you want a united Ireland? Yes or No? That’s what a new border poll would ask you.
As I survey the state of the Republic and Northern Ireland, I know my answer.
I saw it written in the red ink of the Irish government’s balance sheet last week as well as the squeeze on Stormont’s finances in recent months. Mine’s a No. What’s yours?
This article is taken from belfasttelegraph.co.uk