In Search of a Credible Policy on the Reunification of Ireland

It’s quite clear at the current time that there is no real drive towards reunifying Ireland, and that the process has stalled with no real indication as to when or if the process will develop further. Recent polls in Northern Ireland have indicated that a growing number of Catholics have little interest in reunification, and appear content with the status quo. Eighty years of division, coupled with an international decline in nationalism, have begun to blur questions of allegiance and identity.

However there are a few facts that neither Nationalist nor Unionist, Protestant nor Catholic can ignore. The first being that Northern Ireland lies within the Island of Ireland; the second being that Northern Ireland has strong economic ties with the republic. From this, I believe that reunification needs to be driven by economic considerations, not questions of ideology or national identity.

The current political atmosphere, both north and south of the border and within the Republic of Ireland and the UK in general, could not be more different than it was at the time that the infamous Anglo Irish Treaty was signed. Anglophobia has been virtually wiped out in the Republic, and the recent visit by the Queen of England to Ireland shows that both states enjoy normal, friendly diplomatic relations. Relations between Dublin and Belfast are also productive and cordial, and while religious divisions remain strong in the North, they are not as strong as they used to be. On a more important note, however, economic factors have changed dramatically. The North is no longer the industrial powerhouse that it was at the time Ireland was granted independence, and the south is no longer a nation of small farmers and shopkeepers. Thus the fears of northern Unionists that their livelihood would depend upon the whim of a parliament of farmers in Dublin no longer hold any validity.

While full sovereign reunification will not be possible or practical any time soon, an economic union between Northern Ireland and the Republic could be achieved in the near to mid future. Both states already cooperate together on issues of agriculture, transport and tourism. As part of the European Union, there are no import or export barriers between the two states, and citizens of both states are free to move based on existing interstate treaties. The question is, where can we go from here?

The first and most obvious difference between both states, other than the currency, is that we both use different currencies. Unfortunately there is little prospect of Northern Ireland adopting the Euro any time soon. Not only has the government of the United Kingdom previously opposed it, but in an era of currency instability it would be a complete political non-starter. Yet this will not always be the case, we hope, and there will come a time (hopefully not too far in the future) when the idea of a common currency will be a credible proposition.

A more viable medium term proposition would be the harmonisation of VAT and Corporate Tax rates. Admittedly the latter would be controversial, given that the rate in the United Kingdom is just under twice the figure here. However Peter Robinson has campaigned for a reduction in the North’s corporation tax rate, therefore it would be possible for both states to reach an agreement on that issue.

Such a proposition would be a small step, but a vital step towards a general economic union, and hopefully towards a sovereign union. Economy and society are intrinsically linked, and if we can encourage business between the North and the South, we will come a long way towards healing divisions and making traditional unionists see that the south is a friend and not an enemy, and a more logical partner than the United Kingdom.

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