Immigration and border tensions make Unity more urgent
Immigration and border tensions make Unity more urgent


The May 2024 local election results in England have confirmed what the opinion polls have suggested for the past year. The Conservatives are destined to lose the next UK General Election. But their actions for the remainder of their time in government can still have an impact on both Britain and Ireland.

We saw in the run up to the local elections how immigration and in particular, the British Government’s Rwanda Scheme, was being used for the Conservatives’ own electoral purposes. In that context, a disagreement with Ireland over its impact was seen as beneficial. Rishi Sunak said that migrants going to Ireland showed that the scheme is working. The UK Government also said that they would refuse to take asylum seekers back from the EU via Ireland, unless the EU agreed to take them back to France.

Unfortunately this is not the first time that we have seen the British Government seek to use the border in Ireland as a point of leverage with the European Union. When the Conservatives threatened to leave the European Union with no deal, one of the potential consequences from that outcome would have been a requirement that Ireland install border checks with Northern Ireland or that they would have seen a lessening of their membership of the European Single Market. This talk about desiring a no deal exit could be seen by any rational person as a bluff at best. But the impact on Ireland if the British Government had left with no deal and additionally failed to adhere to the Withdrawal Agreement, would have been severe.

Ultimately this did not happen but it reinforces that for however long a border remains on the island of Ireland with one part under the sovereignty of Britain, there will always be a potential risk to Ireland’s position within the EU. While the British Labour party have said that they will end the Rwanda scheme when they form the next British Government, they are committed to maintaining Brexit, with some minor tweaks. So there could be other issues, where Britain’s non-EU status causes friction with Ireland. No part of Ireland can be free from this threat, until all of Ireland is free from British interference. This can only be achieved by permanently removing the border in Ireland through unity.

Immigration is an important economic driver, it has multiple benefits for a fast growing economy such as Ireland. Many people have emigrated from the island of Ireland over the centuries to seek a better life elsewhere. That is one of the reasons why Irish culture is celebrated in every part of the world. Ireland is now a prosperous country and much wealthier than Britain, which in turn is much wealthier than Northern Ireland. There are challenges for Ireland which are often faced by fast growing economies and populations, such as a lack of housing, pressure on the health system and having to manage increased inward flows of migration.

The Belfast to Dublin corridor can be seen as the economic spine of Ireland and this will undoubtedly be strengthened by reunification. I believe that the economist David McWilliams is right that we need to plan for an island of ten million people. To accommodate this growth we need to allow people access to prosperity across all parts of the island. By this I mean provide good quality housing and provision of high speed broadband. Hybrid and remote working is now more accepted than ever and this provides us with a unique opportunity to have people building their lives and careers in places like Donegal, Sligo, Galway and Cork rather than feeling the need to live and work in Belfast or Dublin. If people can reliably work in these places, then they can live there with their families, go to local shops, pubs and restaurants.

All of these things, along with the provision of schools and healthcare help to create and maintain thriving local communities. It’s also better for the environment than having all our people commute to urban centres. Providing these facilities efficiently across Ireland will require time and financial investment but it is the best way that we can ensure that everyone has access to good quality homes and also to avoid the damage which would be caused by an unbalanced economy that relies too much on growth within Dublin.

Immigration is a complex issue and we know that far right agitators often seek to create fear and hatred of others. But we must acknowledge that there are genuine concerns from people who are struggling to get a home or feel that they are being squeezed out of the job market. We must call out the bigots who seek to sow discord and dissent but we must also listen to those who need a home or who need help upskilling so that they can compete in the job market. Enabling balanced growth across all of Ireland will help to address these concerns.

Ireland is a compassionate country and we must never allow those whose motives are creating agitation and division, to change our character. Those who come to Ireland want to do so because they desire a better life, just as millions of Irish people have emigrated to every corner of the globe .

At the time of the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement, when both the UK and Ireland were part of the EU, it could be claimed that the British and Irish Governments acted as twin stabilisers for the peace process. That is no longer a viable viewpoint. Irish unity was for me a long term aspiration from the time of the Good Friday Agreement but since Brexit, it has now become an urgent necessity, to avoid the chaos of Brexit. Ireland willingly agreed to pool its sovereignty with other European countries, as its voice is stronger as part of the largest economic zone in the world. As Emmanuel Macron has said we are now in a time where there are significant risks to the future of Europe.

There are multiple threats for the continent of Europe and Ireland is not immune to these. Ireland is stronger and safer as part of the EU. Patriotism for me is not about blindly ignoring political and economic gravity, as Brexiters have done. It is about being pragmatic and maximising your influence through working with your neighbours when you can. But we have seen plenty of malevolent actors who would like to unpick Ireland’s relationship with the rest of Europe. Ireland can never be in control of its destiny until it is in control of the entire island.

We saw the damage caused by the two states in Ireland adopting at times contradictory approaches to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. You do not have to be a healthcare professional to recognise that taking different and at times contradictory approaches to dealing with a highly contagious and potentially fatal virus on a small island, is not a good way to safeguard the public health of its citizens. Just as we need to work together as one across the island to address climate change, we must also take advantage of our island’s geography to protect against further pandemics which are increasingly likely. We can secure our island through reunification so that we can protect everyone who lives across Ireland while we use the time to seek vaccines and treatment for those who will be affected by the pandemics.

None of us can now be in any doubt, removing the border permanently and completely from the island of Ireland, should not be treated as some vague idealistic notion to be considered at a future date. Those who live in the South of Ireland cannot be hermetically sealed off from what is happening in the North. We need to plan and prepare now for Irish unity, as our independence, our place in the European Union and our prosperity depends upon securing it.

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