By Patrick Donohue
‘If they don’t like it, let them go back to Britain.’ Those were the words of the first member of the audience to speak in a recent joint RTE/BBC debate on the virtues of a United Ireland titled ‘Ireland’s Call’. Having looked forward to the debate and to the respective polls from each side of the border, with confidence it would illuminate that our ‘One Ireland One Vote’ strategy presents the only credible means to achieve Irish Unity (because the British rushing to the ports of their own volition is unlikely anytime soon), no sooner had those words left her mouth than I cringed.
Having said that, most other contributors from the audience were excellent and put forward a host of worthy arguments in favour, including that in a United Ireland unionists would hold 20 percent of the vote in an all-Ireland election, thus being well-positioned to share power in a prospective coalition government in a 32-County Republic. Given their centre-right politics it’s not something necessarily to be encouraged but nonetheless, it shows they might not have as much to fear from unity as they imagine. As expected though, given it was RTE hosting the debate, they laboured on the first woman’s point at the expense of the other contributions. To be honest though, the lady who made those unfortunate comments reflects a section of republicanism who frequent social media sites shouting slogans, which in itself is grand but needs something substantive behind it. You have an ideal; you want people to endorse and pro-actively subscribe to it; so you need to effectively sell it to people.
One only has to look to Scotland, where for years various misconceptions were regurgitated that it couldn’t possibly ‘go it alone’. They had nothing going for them and were welfare junkies to England. The Barnett formula, the mechanism whereby the UK Treasury allocates the level of public spending for Scotland, Wales and the North of Ireland, was constantly evoked as the epitome of why Scotland was a welfare-whore, unable to stand on its own two feet. Polls showed support between 25-30 percent at the start of the campaign for Scottish independence, but a small matter of facts almost scuppered the pro-Union argument.
Debates on the streets, in town halls and on television dispelled urban myths that had been perpetuated for decades, as Scots learned that an independent Scotland would be per capita one of the richest in the world. Far from a welfare-junkie of England, Scotland spends #1200 more per head than the rest of the UK, affording citizens cheaper university education and free prescription drugs for all. At the same time it contributes #1700 more per head to the UK Exchequer than its other contributors, effectively losing out on £500 per person which could be spent on its own people. While it wasn’t enough to take them over the line they made a remarkable comeback all the same, especially given the near-entire disdain of the mainstream media for the independence movement.
And so to Ireland. At the time of partition the newly formed 26-county state was an economic basket case with an economy rooted in agriculture - partition having cut off the industrialised north-east, where standards of living had been comparative to anywhere in the United Kingdom, from the rest of the country. At the time it was an industrial powerhouse and yet today, almost a century on from partition, they’re 20 percent below the UK average. Over the same period standards of living on the other side of the border have increased twenty-fold (as compared to the North’s five). So when you couple what is an evident economic retraction in the North with how polarised society there has become, it is surely an irredeemable fact that partition has failed the people of the Six Counties on every level.
In his paper ‘Making the Economic Case for a United Ireland’ economist Michael Burke breaks it down into simple arithmetic. In 2013, the 26-county state produced $210 billion, with the six-county economy producing $50 billion over the same period. So in a unified all-Ireland economy the scope for a home market increases for the 26-counties by 25 percent and for the North by 400 percent. In the company I work for we don’t do any business in the Six Counties. It’s paying into two tax-codes’ for businesses and some, including the one I work for, don’t feel it’s worth the hassle. Burke also argues that since the 26-counties removed itself from the domineering control of Britain it has integrated itself more into the world economy. The same cannot be said of the six-county economy and this is glaringly evident in its ‘external sales’ (exports) which amounted to a paltry [euro]14.3 billion per annum as compared terms to €89 billion in the 26-six counties.
An important misconception tackled by Burke is the myth of the #10 billion sterling annual subvention from Britain, supposedly to keep the Six Counties afloat. Just as Scotland’s Block Grant under Barnett didn’t stack up under scrutiny, neither does the alleged subvention of #10 billion to the North. Burke, citing recent data from the ONS, showed that each household in the Six Counties (from a total number of 739,000) receives an extra £982 in state awards, including NHS contributions, than what they pay in taxes and rates, making the subvention approximately £700 million and not the £10 billion stated. If the latter were true it would make the Six Counties one of the richest states in the world on a per capita basis, whereas the economic data relating to its economy shows this is certainly not the case.
The economic arguments for Irish Unity stack up then and can run concurrent with those relating to the undemocratic nature of partition of itself, imposed as it was under duress and against the wishes of the people. That said, we should not be waiting for the ghost of James Connolly to return and can’t be living in the graveyards. While we have a great past littered with Martyrs that we rightly commemorate, we have to remember the past and not live in it. We need to live republicanism on our streets and in our communities, utilising modern forms of communication (such as social media) more intelligently, making our project and our ideas relevant to ordinary people on the street.
In terms of polls, time and again they have proven favourable to our argument and yet some maintain the South doesn’t want the North. All polls, even those designed to inhibit arguments for unity, indicate this to be false. I can say conclusively there has never been a poll in the 26-counties where a clear majority have not expressed their desire for reunification. In the Ireland’s Call programme, only 14 percent in the 26-counties said they didn’t want to see a United Ireland in their lifetime - a remarkable figure in line with other similarly run polls. With ‘don’t knows’ excluded, only 40 percent in the North wanted to see a United Ireland in their lifetime, which although a disappointment is nevertheless encouraging given there has been no real debate on the matter. Just as in Scotland, once misconceptions are tackled in a meaningful debate we could see a swing in our favour.
RTE, being RTE, tried to swing things in a negative direction, asking if people were to pay more taxes would they still want to see Irish Unity. They may as well have asked would they like a kick to the genitals. It’s a negative question begging a negative answer, which they seemed to revel in. Interestingly, this was the only question were ‘don’t knows’ weren’t shown. Why not? The show also included polls on social issues, presenting near-identical numbers on either side of the border. Though it wasn’t touched on, unsurprisingly, this indicates that despite partition and regardless of what side of the border people are on, no matter how the likes of RTE might try and implant partitionist mindsets, we remain a homogeneous people despite divisions carefully fostered by an alien government, as first made mention of in the 1916 Proclamation.
Given the inherent media attitude to reunification and republicanism in general, it is important we make the argument for unity about more than the simple liberation of the North. Our effort must be to liberate the country as a whole. To realise the goals and ideals of Irish republicanism we must address the perception they relate only to freeing the Six Counties, projecting the reunification of this country as an island-wide project to transform the country as a whole. Without the strangling effect of the border, with an estimated boost of [euro]36 billion accruing to an all-Ireland economy over 8 years following harmonisation of tax and the breaking down of trade barriers on the island (study by Dr Kury Hubner, University of British Colombia, November 2015), we would be well positioned to bring about a new and vibrant self-sustaining Ireland - not an extension of the 26-county entity I live in today.
We are promoting something that deep down the vast majority on this island aspires to. But with that in mind, we might ask ourselves why is it republicanism can be seen in such a negative light. Is it because its proponents are not presenting the message correctly? We’ve allowed ourselves to be pigeon-holed as angry, irrational, apolitical, anti-British reactionaries, with no argument to offer that would benefit wider society and the country as a whole. The antidote is to forward a coherent and transparent argument in favour of unity that can resonate with ordinary people. The information is there to be used and show how we could all live in a more prosperous country if we worked together within an all-Ireland framework, to the betterment of all of our people. The partition of what is a small island on the periphery of Europe has failed. It could never work to begin with, we’re too small an entity, and Ireland will never reach its full potential, economically, culturally and socially, until we end it.
Nelson Mandela once said, ‘let your choices be defined by your hopes and not your fears’. As republicans we must give that hope to our people and we have the tools to do it. We know a majority on the island aspire to unity but we won’t progress until we articulate the message better than we have thus far. This year of all years presents an opportunity to challenge the misconceptions, to present the argument for a new Ireland where the Proclamation exists as reality, not an afterthought from the past. That’s the best way to commemorate 1916 and the immortal words of Pearse at the GPO, which carry our hopes and aspirations for a free and better Ireland, for all of our people and for which we still strive to this day.
* Patrick Donahoe is a former Organiser with the 1916 Societies and current Secretary of the Sean Heuston Society in Dublin