Is Ireland Getting Ready to Unite?

Yves here. I must confess to turning my gaze away from the UK and the Emerald Isle, with the Ukraine War, US continued escalation with China, and shifting global tectonic plates consuming a lot of bandwidth. But unless polls changes markedly between now and the general election, Sinn Féin looks set to win the general election in Norther Ireland, which Adam Ramsay predicts will set off the unification of Ireland.

Ramsay explains why this isn’t as big a stretch as it seems. The biggie is, by a lot of measures, Northern Ireland in worse economic and social shape than the Republic of Ireland. But that problem cuts the other way. Northern Ireland has depended on subsidies from the UK. Unification would seem destined to lower standards of living in what is now the Republic unless its leaders have some very good ideas about how to boost commercial activity in Northern Ireland. Remember how the integration of Eastern Germany into West Germany dragged down growth, and wage suppression became the policy remedy. Some  contend that the lack of  a NHS in Ireland is a big impediment to unification.

By Adam Ramsay, openDemocracy’s special correspondent. You can follow him at @adamramsay. Adam is a member of the Scottish Green Party, sits on the board of Voices for Scotland and advisory committees for the Economic Change Unit and the journal Soundings. Originally published at openDemocracy

If the British state is under the impression that the SNP’s crisis has stalled the movement to break up the UK, then it’s not paying attention to what’s happening across the Irish Sea. When Sinn Féin wins the next general election in the Republic – which polls say it almost certainly will – it will have two items on its to-do list.

  1. Tame Irish capitalism. 2) Unite Ireland.

The need for the former is driving the party’s popularity. The latter will panic the British state. For the first time in modern history, the UK will have on its border a government intent on breaking it up. The SNP runs Scotland from within a constitutional system controlled by Westminster and without international representation. Sinn Féin will have no such restrictions.

Even the fact of the party’s victory will be extraordinary, likely triggering a screech of English nationalism.

And Sinn Féin leading the Republic of Ireland will likely coincide with Sinn Féin leading Northern Ireland. If the Northern Irish Assembly has reconvened by then, the party’s leader will be the taoiseach in the south, and its deputy leader the first minister in the north – in a sense, a form of de-facto unity.

“You just have to say it out loud” to begin to see the implications, says Colin Harvey, a law professor at Queen’s University in Belfast and a board member of Ireland’s Future, a non-profit that campaigns for unification. “You increasingly hear people talk about a referendum [on Irish unity] happening this decade.”

In the Republic

For a hundred years, Sinn Féin in the Republic of Ireland was a historical curiosity. Both of Ireland’s traditional main parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, emerged as splits from it during the civil war of the 1920s, but since then, the parent party itself has barely registered, its political support inhibited by its association with the IRA.

In the 1997 Irish general election, Sinn Féin got 2.5% of the vote share – the party’s best result since 1961. In 2016, it breached 10% for the first time in 90 years. In 2020, led by Mary Lou McDonald, it came first in the popular vote, with 25%, but she was excluded from power by an alliance between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Since then, her party’s support has surged above 30% in the polls, consistently leading its rivals by more than 10%. The next election is due by January 2025, and it’s extremely likely that McDonald will become taoiseach.

The party’s growth is largely because it is left-wing. As property prices have surged back since the 2008 crash, younger people have been pushed out of the housing market. Homelessness rates are rising. And Ireland still doesn’t have proper universal healthcare, despite long-standing promises from all parties. In the 2020 elections, voters listed healthcare and housing as their most important issues, followed by ‘the economy’ and climate change. Reunification of Ireland didn’t feature.

The opening section of Sinn Féin’s manifesto that year was clear: “Sinn Féin is a United Ireland party. Our core political objective is to achieve Irish Unity.” But the party largely won over millennial and Gen Z voters by promising “the biggest council-led house-building programme this state has ever seen”, rent rebates, mortgage caps and, crucially, an ‘Irish NHS’.

Most citizens of the Republic are in favour of a united Ireland, but it’s not a priority – for now. Just as progressive Scottish voters in 2007 and 2011 backed the SNP primarily to oppose Labour’s rightward drift but came to embrace the constitutional consequences of doing so, so Sinn Féin’s new voters in Ireland aren’t supporting them in order to create a constitutional crisis in Britain. That’s just going to be an added bonus.

Northern Ireland

In the North, The Good Friday Agreement is a beached whale: magnificent, stuck, probably dying. It achieved its main aim. The civil war ended. The peace may be incomplete, but it’s held firm. Civil war is unlikely to return.

But the era of Northern Irish politics that began with that peace deal 25 years ago has come to an end. The institutions it created – the Assembly and the Northern Irish executive, the North/South ministerial council – have mostly been suspended for the past five years.

Political Protestants, who traditionally identify as British and are used to dominating, already had difficulty swallowing a settlement that left them the first among equals, the biggest minority in a power-sharing arrangement. Now they’ve been relegated to second place behind the cultural Catholics – who normally think of themselves as Irish – both in raw numbers, according to the 2021 census, and politically, in the form of Sinn Féin election victories. The result is that the political protestants’ largest party, the DUP, won’t even sit at the table.

The local elections in May brought the most extraordinary sign of change. While Unionists could put Sinn Féin’s Assembly success last year down to a three-way split in their own vote, this time, the combined vote for nationalist parties was bigger than the unionists’. Sinn Féin won its first councillors deep in Loyalist country.

Mostly, this success has come from winning over culturally Catholic women. Polling in 2019 showed men were around 10% more likely to vote for Sinn Féin – perhaps because women were put off by the party’s macho image and association with historic paramilitary violence. But while male support has stayed steady since then, female support has shot up over the last year, to the point that women are now around 10% more likely than men to back the party.

But there seems to be something more subtle going on, too. Much of the unionist demise has come from falling turnout among Protestants. For years now, unionist voters I have interviewed have been angry at the DUP over a string of corruption allegations, its failure to stand up to austerity and, for some, its conservative social policies. But they would still show up and vote for them out of fear of a Sinn Féin victory. Now they aren’t bothering.

So while Sinn Féin leader in the north Michelle O’Neill’s efforts to cosy up to unionist communities – attending the coronation, for example – hasn’t persuaded them to vote for her, it seems to have made it harder for the DUP to scare them into turning out to vote against her.

There are other factors making Irish unity look more appealing, too. With the DUP refusing to allow Northern Ireland’s government to form under a Sinn Féin first minister, the Conservative Northern Irish secretary in Westminster has taken control of finances, setting what many are calling a ‘punishment budget’. As one contact – whose job in Northern Irish politics means they must stay anonymous – put it: “While that won’t motivate [DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson] back into power, it will move us closer to multi-service collapse”.

Thanks to staff shortages, an additional 200 special educational needs classes are needed in Northern Ireland by September to meet demand. Better pay and conditions for doctors means NHS Northern Ireland is facing an exodus of staff to the Republic. Even before the pandemic, Northern Irish patients were around 3,000 times more likely to wait more than a year to see a consultant than those in England. In March this year, the BMA warned that Northern Ireland’s health service is collapsing.

Across the border, the situation looks different.

Ireland is engulfed in a housing crisis, but its homelessness rates are far lower than the UK’s, with five times fewer people experiencing homelessness than in Northern Ireland, despite it having almost three times the population. England’s homelessness rate is also more than twice Ireland’s. In Ireland, the housing crisis is driven by the fact that the average house price has risen to around five times the average wage; in the UK, it’s seven times.

In the UK, 3.6 babies in every 1,000 live births die within the first year of life; in Ireland, it’s 2.6. The average Irish person now lives more than two years longer than the average British person and has had nearly three more years of education.

And while both the UK and Ireland have dangerously unfettered capitalisms, Ireland’s is much more successful. Its raw GDP per capita is more than twice the UK’s. (Though to be fair, Ireland’s figure is puffed up by multinationals registering there for tax reasons, while British equivalents are often in its overseas territories, so not its figure. Per capita Gross National Income figures strip out that fluff, and leave Ireland just 50% richer than the UK.) Average wages are about the same, but Ireland is significantly more equal, with better welfare support.

“It is,” as Brendan O’Leary, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says to me, “much, much better to be poor in the Republic of Ireland than it is to be poor in the United Kingdom.”

And the capsize of the Catholic Church in the 2010s in the wake of a string of scandals, followed by the magnificent referendums on abortion rights and marriage equality, has meant Ireland started appearing less and less like a bigoted backwater. In 1991, 92% of Irish people identified as Catholic. By 2011, it was 84%. In 2016, 79%. By 2022, 69%. Its influence has fallen even further. Homosexuality was illegal in Ireland until 1993. Now, the country has a gay Taoiseach.

In Northern Ireland, the result of all this has been a remarkable change in attitudes towards a United Ireland.

In June 2013, just 3.8% of people in Northern Ireland told pollsters they’d vote for a United Ireland ‘now’. Interviewing people across Belfast around that time, huge numbers told me that, though they thought of themselves as Irish nationalists, they would actually vote against unification to keep the NHS and Britain’s welfare state. That was before Brexit and a decade of austerity.

More recent polls tend to show support for unity between 30% and 40%, with around 50% opposing and the rest undecided.

Shifting Demographics

The Good Friday Agreement requires the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland to call a referendum “if it appears likely” that most people would back a United Ireland. For those who support reunification, there is still work to do to pass that hurdle – particularly in reaching the two groups that seem open to the idea.

The first is those O’Leary, who leads research into public opinion for the ARINS programme (Analysing and Researching Ireland North and South), describes as the “wobblies” – that is, those who tell researchers that they’ve changed their mind on the question more than once. These people are largely older cultural Catholics, he says. “They’d want to see the model that was specifically on offer. They’re probably more concerned about the potentially unsettling effects of unification on their welfare and their lifestyle.”

The second is voters – often young people – who aren’t cultural Catholics but who don’t oppose Irish unification as a principled matter of identity. “There is a significant portion of the Protestant population, at least 7%, maybe a little higher, who favour Irish unification,” he says – a phenomenon that barely existed a decade ago. It could also include those whose backgrounds are mixed or those whose identities lie outside Northern Ireland’s traditional dichotomy. In 2001, 0.4% of people saw themselves as neither Catholic nor Protestant. Now, that’s 20%. Around 7% don’t identify as British, Irish or Northern Irish, but ‘other’, including more than 50,000 people with Eastern European identities.

As my anonymous contact puts it, many of these people are “‘Sunday brunch types’ – remain voting, pro-LGBT, hate the DUP”. They see themselves less as British or Irish, and more as cosmopolitan. They aren’t yet excited by the idea of a United Ireland. But they are open to being. They are a very similar demographic to the one Sinn Féin has won over in droves in the Republic. They are a very similar group to that which has shifted towards supporting Scottish independence over the last decade.

For Harvey, “it’s about breaking down some of the myths” about the Republic, hangovers from its past as an impoverished outpost of the Vatican. “Ireland is a successful EU state. At the end of the day, it’s a proposition about a fairer future for everyone in an Ireland that’s been held back by partition and division,” he argues.

To do this, Ireland’s Future has been calling for the Irish government to do more, including all Ireland civic assemblies looking at key questions for what unification would look like.

There needs to be, Harvey argues, “a much more focussed governmental effort around doing the work in advance – nobody wants to see a repeat of the Brexit mess where people did not really know what they were voting for or against.”

O’Leary argues that “that requires hard work over the rest of this decade” including forming a Ministry of National Reunification and “a standing constitutional forum”.

These things seem much more likely if Sinn Féin wins.

Obstacles to Reunification

Another contact – a Northern Irish political strategist – is more sceptical. “I still think a United Korea will happen before a United Ireland,” they say. “There won’t be a United Ireland until Ireland has socialised healthcare.”

And for all its promises to bring social democracy to the Republic, they argue, Sinn Féin has been in government in the North for years and consistently failed to deliver almost anything.

“They had the housing minister, and they haven’t even ended the right to buy!” says my contact, referring to the Thatcher-era policy of allowing tenants to buy the council houses they live in, which has led to a disastrous reduction of social housing stock, and which both Scottish and Welsh governments have stopped.

In the end, whether or not we see a United Ireland likely comes down to two key factors.

Firstly, Sinn Féin’s attitude after it wins in the Republic. The party can’t disappoint its young voters – it needs, probably more than anything else, to make good on its promise to build an Irish NHS. It also needs to resolve Ireland’s housing crisis – which will, as O’Leary says to me – require a confrontation with the country’s fear of dense housing and modern urban planning.

And secondly, whether Northern Irish civil society groups and pluralistic social movements can convince their fellow citizens that a United Ireland offers a clearer path to social justice and a better life than the British state. Realistically, this is who would be delivering Irish unity because Sinn Féin probably won’t win over the remaining swing voters in Northern Ireland. The party may look like a fresh force in the Republic, but there are still too many who don’t trust them in the North.

But there is a third factor, too. With more and more Northern Irish voters consciously choosing between a future under London or Dublin rule, it’s not just the Irish state that needs to sort itself out.

Anglo-British nationalism continues to spiral out of control. For the last few years, the British state has at least been able to pretend that a Labour government might come over the horizon, and solve some of the problems created by the Tories and their austerity.

If and when that cavalry does arrive, it will likely come in the flaccid form of Keir Starmer, triangulating towards a far-right Tory opposition. A Sinn Féin-run Ireland may not have to work too hard to convince voters that they are better off under its wings.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    This is a pretty good overview, although like a lot of analyses it doesn’t really get to grips with the reasons for Sinn Feins popularity, nor the real divisions within Northern Ireland.

    It is true that a United Ireland for the first time in a century looks more like a probability than a possibility. Its interesting recently that even old style Tories like Max Hastings are not just saying it is likely, but that its a good thing for Britain. I’ve always considered the most likely driver for a United Ireland being that the London establishment concluding that it was better off without NI. The close up view of the DUP forced on the Tories by Brexit likely accelerated this process.

    The first point about Northern Ireland politics is that its not split two ways, its split culturally and politically three ways. The nationalist/republican/catholic population (historically economically repressed, now far more successful); the Unionist/High Church anglophile community (mostly professional and middle class) and the loyalist/low church anglo-scot borders (who made up the traditional industrial working class, now economically annihilated). ‘Unionism’, was always an alliance between the Unionist and Loyalist communities. But this now breaking down as many Unionists really don’t see much future in the UK. Essentially, the middle class, high church protestant Anglo type is the swing voter in NI. They have usually been solidly pro-UK. They are now wavering. This isn’t just a political judgement – more and more people in NI now work in the Republic, do business here, fly to their holidays via Dublin, not London or Edinburgh and so on (thanks Brexit). And they really want their EU passports.

    Sinn Fein show what a left leaning party can do if it thinks long term and refuses to get distracted by short term politics. The Irish public are probably significantly more conservative than the UK public. However, Sinn Fein focus relentlessly on local and bread and butter issues which appeals as much to small business people or middle management types as much as to working class voters or the poor. It helps that they cannot be outflanked by other parties on issues like national identity. Their lack of appeal to leftist middle professional types – whether soft social democrat types or wannabe Trots is a huge benefit. They have relentlessly ground down the vote of the hard left in both North and South while also eating into the centrist parties. This often results in incoherent policies, but they know full well that what matters is what is said on doorsteps, not in policy documents.

    It is almost certain that they will be the main party in a future coalition (probably with the centrist/nationalist FF party) in the Republic, and they are now the dominant party in the north. But the Assembly in Northern Ireland will never sit again – the DUP see no gain in it and they have no coherent alternative. Brexit was an almighty calamity for Unionism which is why many Sinn Feiners voted for it despite the party’s official opposition. They could see full well it would lead to the break up of the UK. It was also, incidentally, a calamity for the Irish hard left as they had nothing interesting to say on it (northern left parties advocated pro-Brexit) and they got wiped out for their pains.

    Incidentally, the ‘Irish NHS’ thing is an irrelevance, nobody talks about that in Ireland, this is a purely UK obsession. The Irish health system is an expensive mess, but its been gradually getting better over the past 2 decades (mostly cos mountains of cash has been thrown at it) while the NHS has been destroyed by the Tories. Irish doctors are much better paid than in the UK and they will not give this up. So Sinn Fein will simple accelerate reforms – the result will be a hybrid system which will look nothing like the NHS.

    But Sinn Fein will not rush into a poll. They know they have one shot at it and they have to get it right, and they are well aware that many people revert to the default when they are confused or scared, so they don’t read too much into the polls. Most likely they will take the Napoleonic strategy of not interfering while your enemy screws up, and there seems endless capacity for London to screw things up. My own prediction is that a Sterling crisis is on its way and this would be the likely catalyst, as NI is in practice a dual currency area (shops generally accept Euro in most areas). Getting your wages paid in a stronger currency is a very big incentive for someone’s vote.

    The money for unification isn’t likely to be an issue either. The Irish government has quite literally more money than it knows what to do with right now (it can’t spend its surplus due to inflation fears) and if there is one thing the Dublin establishment is very good at, its getting foreigners to pay for its screw-ups and problems. A united Ireland would actually have huge economic benefits – the Republic needs more workers and more houses, and NI has plenty of both, and integrated agriculture and construction, etc., has significant benefits.

    1. Aurelien

      Thanks PK. I’d just underline what you say about the British establishment’s indifference to all this. The historic commitment to Ulster actually started to fray in the 1970s, when the popular image of NI Protestantism became increasingly Ian Paisley and the Protestant Paramilitaries. The PPMs were regarded as a bigger problem than the Republicans by the security forces, because whilst the latter had an ideology and a strategy, the PPMs really did seem to engage mostly in mindless violence. By the 1980s, politicians of all persuasions would actually have been happy to let Ulster go if that had been the majority view (“tow it out and sink it” was a common view in Whitehall at the time) but were worried about the Protestant backlash and the risk of wider conflict, as well as the residual loyalty in parts of the Tory party and the media. My sense is that that has pretty much evaporated now, and the antics of the Unionists over Brexit destroyed whatever credibility they had left with the British establishment. Ulster has been a money sink and a political drain on Britain for the last fifty-odd years and I think a lot of people would sigh with relief if it just went away.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Essentially the Army Council – the shadowy group involving people like Gerry Adams who really ran (run?) the Republican movement realised in the 1980’s that they’d run down an alleyway with no way out. The military campaign was at best a stalemate and the real support within the community was 10% at best. So they switched focus to a long game of building a movement from the ground up to give cover to giving up their arms and creating a political movement that would eventually take over north and south. This included, for example, recruiting attractive younger politicians with clean hands who would be the face of the movement (hence the large number of women in senior leadership roles). They realised this would be a generational fight, but that notion is embedded within the republican movement since the 19th Century so it wasn’t a big conceptual shift for them.

        1. Lexx

          Thank you, PK.

          If the council includes a ‘large number of women’, this Wiki page is out-of-date.

          I’m interested in any party that plays a multi-generational long game. I think then they’ve realized the limits of their own dogma and their opponents and have become clear on what they really want… but I could be wrong.

          ‘They have relentlessly ground down the vote of the hard left in both North and South while also eating into the centrist parties. This often results in incoherent policies, but they know full well that what matters is what is said on doorsteps, not in policy documents.’

          Enjoyed those sentences.

          1. PlutoniumKun

            By ‘a large number of women’ I meant visible women in electoral politics. Its an open question as to who really wields the power, most people assume the Army Council still pulls the strings.

    2. Ignacio

      I hope everything goes smooth and quietly. The West is fully immersed on divisive politics and politicians and this might be a good example of the contrary, hopefully.

    3. Wæsfjord

      You think the Irish health service has been getting better? Better than Rwanda? My Brazilian housemates were shocked at how appalling it is. I haven’t received mental healthcare in 3 years. Forget about dental. It is impossible to find a doctor even taking patients where my brother lives in West Dublin. My sister left nursing because it is so hopeless. Another sister cannot accept jobs where she is most needed because there is no accommodation. My mum (also a nurse) caught so-called nurses from the so-called third world looking up simple procedures on Youtube. It’s impossible to verify qualifications from certain countries. (You know who you are.) people fly abroad for the most routine medical care.

      Nobody talks about the NHS in Ireland because we are such beaten, demoralized, forelock-tugging cucks that we dare not dream of such things. Anyone who would give up the NHS for a united Ireland needs their head examined.

      One last thing: how did you get the idea that the govt has oodles of money to squander when the national debt is approaching a 1/4 trillion USD?

      1. Odysseus

        how did you get the idea that the govt has oodles of money to squander when the national debt is approaching a 1/4 trillion USD?

        It is entirely possible to have outstanding bonds and also Scrooge McDuck style swimming pools of coins. Just because the budget is balanced doesn’t mean the bonds get called.

        At the height of the Celtic Tiger era in 2006 when the exchequer was awash with property-related tax receipts, the then government reported a budget surplus of €5.1 billion. This year the Government’s budget surplus or general government balance is expected to be almost double that at €10 billion.

        On the basis that spending increases are limited to 5 per cent, as per the Government’s spending rule, and there being no major shock to the public finances, it will rise to over €16 billion in 2024; to €18 billion in 2025; and to nearly €21 billion in 2026.

    4. hk

      Who knew that Sinn Fein were old fashioned American politicians, or is it the other way around? (Old fashioned American politicians were, after all, heavily Irish.)

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Sinn Fein have a very impressive network of contacts in the US – especially in Democrat circles, although this is obviously weakening as a generation of Irish Americans dies off or loses its identity. US style urban machine politics was pretty much an Irish 19th Century invention as they had to organise to defeat the Wasp incumbents in Boston and New York.

    5. William Cooper

      An interesting take on what the political situation is, or what you think it is? A border poll will show that while the PUL population has stopped voting for the mainstream Unionist parties, they are still pro Union. It seems that like the article above that you base your piece on, the pro Nationalist narrative is very strong at the moment.

  2. Louis Fyne

    here is the rub….reinventing a post-industrial Rust Belt (Northern Ireland) is very hard.

    (arguably) the USA still hasn’t reinvented its Rust Belt (it’s more of a managed decline). Companies largely leaving facilities in the Rust Belt for greenfield sites in the right-to-work states, and this trend is still continues under Biden—compare/contrast new energy projects in the southeast, ex-California southwest versus Michigan, Illinois or the northeast.

    Northern Ireland has about 2 million people, the Republic 5. That’s a big meal for the Republic to digest relative to its size….much bigger than West-East Germany.

    To be a downer, if West Germany failed East Germany (take a look at the mass depopulation of post-unification East Germany), odds are the Republic will fail Northern Ireland.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Northern Ireland was never really all that industrialised by European standards, so while it has a lot of rust belt characteristics its not at the scale of what you can find elsewhere. The key problem is that you have a very substantial population of loyalists who grew up in a culture of being able to walk into secure blue collar jobs in shipbuilding or aircraft manufacturing, but that is very long gone – but the culture of macho hard work didn’t, which makes them particularly ill-adapted for a modern economy. Hence catholics have proportionately done much better in the past three decades, mostly thanks to a traditional focus on education. Most loyalist towns/estates are now really hellholes of crime and poverty and its hard to know what can be done with them.

      The northern Ireland economy is still mostly just a dependent regional economy on the UK core, so the biggest employer is the government. Agriculture and service is also big. But it will always be a drain on wherever is the capital.

      But the optimistic side is that a very substantial proportion of the population of NI is within reasonable commuting distance from the Dublin region, so an economic integration should be relatively straightforward. Integrating the agriculture and tourism industries would also have very substantial benefits. So you could well see Belfast becoming a prosperous outer satellite of Dublin, with Dublin benefiting very substantially from an injection of cheaper property and more workers. At the moment, Dublin is heaving with too much business investment and not enough houses or public transport. As a geographical economic unit, a united Ireland makes far more sense than a divided one with one chunk a distant colony of London.

      1. The Rev Kev

        ‘Hence Catholics have proportionately done much better in the past three decades, mostly thanks to a traditional focus on education.’

        There is an echo of this in the late 18th century on where Catholics were able to prosper and changed Ireland as a consequence. I had to learn about this as part of family history research but you might be interested in the following passage from my own notes-

        ‘Irish Catholics like E.P were able to thrive in Ireland as merchants due to several factors. The merchant section of the Irish population were like other merchants which depended on individual initiative, personal contacts, religion as a connecting link and marriage connection leading to Catholic businessmen sticking closely together. Also, Catholics in 1778 were again permitted to take long leases, and in 1782 were placed on the same footing as Protestants in the matter of property rights which led to considerable expansion of Irish trade in the last quarter of the 18th century. The lack of ostentation that they displayed led them to become wealthier – especially since they were shut out of costly guilds, city jamborees, elections and even the turf – and they maintained a low profile until the end of the century. The net result was the establishment of a Catholic middle class in many of the towns and cities of Ireland by the middle of the 18th century.

        This stemmed due to the fact of the revenue that was required to pay for the administration in Ireland. There were few sources available to raise the taxes needed except those for commerce, imports, exports and sales taxes on tobacco & alcohol. Taxes on land would have solved the problem but as Parliament was made up of mostly landed Gentry this was never going to be allowed. Therefore, Catholic merchants and traders were protected from excessive taxes on their businesses in order to protect the revenue stream for the government no matter how loud the opposition from Protestants. As trade was considered not a fit activity for the Gentry and was in fact held in contempt, this cleared the field for ambitious Irish businessmen – so much so that most of the trade in Ireland for decades was under the control of Irish Catholics, especially since they were not permitted to own land.

        In this era, it was common to find Catholic landed Gentry who also had a hand in trade as well via relatives who worked at trade and commerce. These relatives would provide the financial infrastructure that was lacking at Ireland at this time for their landowning family. In fact, due to the restrictions on the available occupations for Catholic gentry, many younger sons took up trade for their careers both in Ireland and overseas.’

        Sourced from “The Rise of a Catholic Middle Class in 18th Century Ireland” – Maureen Wall ‘Irish Historical Studies’, Vol. 11. No. 42 (Sep. 1958)

        1. PlutoniumKun

          If you go to the Bordeaux region of France or many parts of Spain and Portugal you’ll find a surprising number of vineyards with Irish surnames (Hennessy Brandy or Lynch-bages for example). This was due to the catholic aristocracies using their religious links to marry into continental merchant families for the wine/brandy/port trade, which mostly went to Britain via Ireland. Second sons were invariably sent to France to either become mercenaries or to marry the daughter of a French merchant. As the article says, they had to keep their wealth and contacts discreet as the Protestant landowning aristocracy of Ireland did not tolerate upstarts.

  3. eg

    From the outside looking in, and as someone who would dearly love to see a united Ireland, I hope that those in charge take the long view and delay any such vote until the result is inevitable — best not to scare the horses …

  4. Eustache de Saint Pierre

    Another factor I believe has had some significance is that many working class protestants have become disenchanted with the UVF & the UDA, due to them basically evolving into drug cartels, which has led to certain murderous actions that come with that territory. Recently a turf feud erupted between the two, with a few weeks of tit for tat burning out of people from their homes. Another factor could feature in that many of those who took an active part in the Troubles are either on their last legs or are dead, which includes the dissident old men in the hills, while those within cities are also recognised as being criminal gangs. The young for the most part I believe just want to get on with their lives.

    I’m not sure about PK’s assertion of lots of houses as there is a growing homelessness problem here, not helped due to the lockdown induced house price rises, resulting in over half of the private rentals being sold off & a massive increase in rents due partly I suppose to increased demand – although perhaps PK is referring to another aspect of the subject.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Yes, the old UDA and UVF are essentially drug gangs with a government subsidy, thanks to the oddities of the settlement. They are very powerful in those communities, but not powerful enough to have any impact beyond their boundaries. Its noticeable that despite the travails of the DUP, the small political groupings around the UDA and UVF have never managed to take advantage in the polls. The DUP survives only because the alternatives are so useless.

      With regards to housing, I’m really just talking in terms of pure bed numbers. There is a huge population influx into the Republic which it can’t keep up with. Northern Ireland in general has had a decline which has left a reasonable stock which could be absorbed usefully, not to mention construction capacity that could be put to use (Brexit created awkward locks making it difficult for Irish companies to make use of UK contractors, a major unspoken reason for the housing crisis). When you look at Ireland as a geographic economic unit, the obvious growth pole is the East coast from Belfast down to Rosslare Harbour. The border unnaturally clipped this region which has long been an economic deadweight on both sides. That said, it is dissolving anyway thanks to Brexit. I recently talked to a Scottish friend who said the Stranraer Ferry seems dead these days – his Belfast contacts tell him that everyone now ships things or travels via Dublin and Rosslare when formerly everything went via Scotland and London. Its just more convenient. These things have a momentum of their own.

      1. Eustache de Saint Pierre

        I get your point PK, thanks.

        It doesn’t help the overstretched public housing executive in the North, that those who are petrol bombed who are generally no angels themselves have to be re-housed, meaning that the HE has to always keep a fairly large stock of houses on the side, which could I suppose be better used for others in need.

  5. Des Hanrahan

    I query the idea that Sinn Féin are a left wing party . To me they are cynical opportunists who are firmly aboard the Neo Liberal bandwagon . Incidentally their policies on emigration are increasingly opposed in their working class strongholds . This will cost them in the next election . To sort out the mess in the South ; firstly you need to tackle our institutionalised corruption . I maintain that the housing crisis was deliberately manufactured to protect some peoples economic interests . If Sinn Féin are in coalition with Fianna Fáil then that is not going to happen . Whilst a majority in the South favour unification this is largely because it is a vague concept that people don’t have to deal with in the real world . Faced with the reality , a vote in favour cannot be guaranteed .

    1. britzklieg

      I don’t have a dog in this fight, but that’s what it looks like to me, bolstered by some anecdotal opinions of Irish friends in Dublin who have lost faith in the “left” part of Sinn Fein.

      1. Geoffrey

        I maintain Sinn Fein will prove relatively useless if/when they get into government on the important economic issues like housing, health etc. Historically – and I assume still – they are too closely linked to Irish-American capitalists to in anyway significantly challenge the neoliberal orthodoxy whose fountainhead is in the US; US multinationals have so much subtle leverage here that the public need never see any of it but it is capable of overwhelming any significant change emanating from government. Ireland is also locked into the neoliberal project via Brussels (EU Commission) and Frankfurt (ECB). Property is the single biggest way of generally extracting wealth from an economy, so no significant amelioration of the housing crisis under SF. National debt is so high that Ireland doing anything less than playing fully and enthusiastically to the Brussels neoliberal, pro-NATO tune would lead a budgetry crisis emanating from Frankfurt. Just witness SF’s back-peddling on Ireland’s historic neutrality, as it accommodates itself to the post-Ukr externally-imposed-reality of an accelerated ever closer engagement/involvement with NATO.

        1. Geoffrey

          I just wanted to add that – like the UK’s NHS – the Irish health system is moving closer to a North American structure, with increasing involvement of PE and health insurance companies offering ever increasing suites of services….

  6. JW

    As a Brit and an Englander now living in France and ex-UK for 24 years, I can’t think of a single reason why I would not cheer the unification of Ireland. Personally I think its very different to the Scottish situation, which appears to be engineered by a few power hungry individuals. Its totally logical that with the passage of time and changing demographics, the isle of Ireland becomes one nation.

    1. paul

      I fear you are a little misinformed about the ‘scottish situation’

      Polling recently has shown about 53% pro independence, as the power hungry individuals (the sturgeon era lifestyle politicians) are all climbing into the ongoing,decadent unionist binfire that the SNP has been groomed into.

      Indepence enthusiasm up.

      SNP enthusiasm through the floor

      The power hungry ones are jumping ship as fast as they can.

      There is little they can satiate over.

  7. JohnA

    Are there any statistics on how many Northern Ireland British passport holders have also applied and obtained as they are entitle to, a Republic of Ireland passport to gain the benefits of EU citizenship?
    I know plenty of people in England that have obtained Irish passports for this reason, via generational links.

  8. John Beech

    Something for nothing. Everybody wants free healthcare and a free house. The question is, how do we pay for it? Sort that and the rest is easy.

    Not having to pay for a standing army is a huge fiscal advantage – until you regret not having a standing army because by then you may not have a country! And no, not saying Ireland needs a standing army, just saying that extrapolating beyond its borders to other countries in Europe – ones who have consistently not paid their Danegeld – is starting to look like a poor decision as Ivan wakes up and flexes his muscles.

    For example, Wagner in Belarus is on the door of Poland. Think the lessons of WWII and blitzkrieg. Fortunately for Poland, they have been paying their share of Danegeld and they’re on their toes and spoiling for a fight (with NATO backing them up, of course). But what about Germany? Unthinkable? Maybe. So what about Hungary? Maybe Orbán would welcome rejoining Russia, but is this true for all his compatriots?

    Interesting times, eh?

    1. The Rev Kev

      Wagner is in Belarus precisely because Poland is spoiling for a fight. That is why Putin moved some nukes to that country – as the Poles were making threats to Belarus and the nukes shut that talk down. Duda and his regime are just a bunch of nut jobs who want their country to go fight the Bear, even if the Poles don’t want that. This whole idea of Russia invading NATO is just malarky as even with the 300,000 men that they called up last year, that is still not enough soldiers to occupy the Ukraine alone. It is NATO that keeps on threatening Russia and hardly a month goes by where you do not hear of NATO nations sending yet more formations to be near Russia’s border and soon they will be militarizing Finland. Can you imagine the reaction if Russia, China, Belarus and Cuba were sending military formation after formation into Mexico to be near the Rio Grande? Think Washington would tolerate that?

      1. Ignacio

        Problem for NATO is what can they promise to Ukraine in exchange for keeping the fight as long as they can? NATO guarantees… that once Ukraine collapses they will remember and honour their sacrifices for a couple of weeks or so.

    2. Polar Socialist

      A few years back Poland did a war game about capturing Kaliningrad (in the context of there being a NATO-Russia conflict). In three days they lost Warsaw. And that was a game with them NATO rules that think Russians can’t and won’t fight for real.

      That didn’t seem to sober them up at all, though.

      1. The Rev Kev

        Duda is in Kiev right now and Alex Christoforou reports that the reason is to set up with Zelensky a Polish-Lithuanian military contingent to enter the Ukraine in the next coupla weeks in two waves. I wonder if the Poles and Lithuanians themselves are on board with this?

          1. Polar Socialist

            Of course not. This is a fight for democracy so people don’t need to be asked. That would only weaken as at this dire moment in the battle against autocracies.

            On the other hand, such an escalation sort of gives the Old Europe a good excuse to disregard the Article 5 in the later phase when Russia responds.

            With any luck Polish and Lithuanians will tear NATO apart by their adventurism.

            1. JBird4049

              >>>With any luck Polish and Lithuanians will tear NATO apart by their adventurism.

              Yes, and a lot of people will die during the process. Then there are wounded, the crippled, and the refuges.

    3. ChrisPacific

      Historically Ireland wins wars by losing them and then converting the invaders to some variant of Irish culture. They have the largest diaspora per capita of any nation.

    4. paul

      Something for nothing. Everybody wants free healthcare and a free house.

      What is wrong with that?

      We all get free weapons,most useless, whether we like them or not.

      If we (the global world) got those two,plus enough to eat, and could hand them to the next generatiion, we we would have much less conflict

      As for paying for it, where does money come from mr beech?

  9. Jokerstein

    Question for those who have a nose for this sort of thing: if unification becomes a real possibility, could that drive an influx of remainers from the rest of the UK into NI, hoping to (re-)acquire an EU passport? The types most likely to do that, it seems to me, would be PMCers with decent education, experience, wealth, which might goose the NI economy.

    I’m wondering whether there might be requirements for residential terms in NI.

    Asking for a friend, you understand…

    1. PlutoniumKun

      The passport situation is pretty simple – if you have a grandparent born on the island of Ireland, you are entitled to a passport. This comes to around 6 or 7 million UK citizens. So nobody needs to move.

      You can of course get a passport through residency, the usual is five years legal residency (excluding students and some other categories). I would imagine that many PMCers for career reasons would consider a job in Ireland early on as a means of getting a joint citizenship.

      1. JohnA

        When Jack Charlton was manager of the Ireland soccer team and recruited many players from England, often with dubious connections to Ireland, the word was you only needed to have drunk a pint of Guinness to qualify.

  10. mohookoo

    Hmmm. Aurelien has it about right. A vote for unification would be greeted with cries of relief from British government and public.

    NI always – absolutely always – is the part of the UK with the highest per-capita subsidy from central govt. Such a referendum, on both sides of the border, will surely involve a much more stringent account of cost than the Brexit referendum did. Will the UK pay for pensions, health etc for 20 years of transition? (Would still be a good deal.) Or will southern taxpayers take on that cost?

    What standard-of-living guarantees will be offered to northeners by both govts, and will they be kept? Ditto for cost subsidies offered as inducements to southerners.

    Ireland is the place of very, very long memories. Older people are the most assiduous voters and they will remember the violence very, very well. Would you like to handle taking a million crazies into your country (as it might be seen)? How many would it take to kill a vote for unification or a post-unification peace, once the guns are dug up? How will the marchers in the marching season take to being policed by the Garda?

    What’s in it for the southern voter, apart from satisfying a dim sentiment? Why take the risk? In a cost-benefit analysis, is there any benefit? If I was a southern voter I would plug my ears against the UK’s siren pleas to take the problem spouse / deranged, incontinent, disabled elderly parent off their hands. Britain created this Kosovo / Republika Srpska / failed statelet of W Europe and it is rightly stuck with the cost of that folly.

    The actual yes/no vote would be easy bit. The rest of the ice-berg beneath the surface would challenge even a Chinese peace-broker.

    Britain has “no selfish economic or strategic interest” in Northern Ireland.These were the words spoken by Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Peter Brooke on the 9 November 1990.

    “No strategic interest”?

    Nobody could actually want this albatross. Unless, of course, an impoverished, independent NI statelet was to seek funds by offering a naval base to Russian warships in Lough Foyle, ha ha!

  11. Geoffrey

    While the UK did leave EU by Brexit, it often appears it is now more ‘in’ Europe than ever, acting as the US’s lieutenant as a leading voice/actor in NATO, coordinating/triangulating with the US in steering the EU towards a new future. (I believe, true to its history, Brexit was an attempt by Britain to throw a spanner in the works of the EU as it then was, defacto being ‘Germany’s liberal empire’, or at least in tandem with US, start the EU in a different direction more suited to London’s (and Washington’s) interests). Who knows what EU will emerge after several more years of stress induced by ever-rising global tensions? Suppose the EU fractures, or the centre of gravity shifts (it already appears to have), or several new sub-regions emerge within it (I have already seen this written about, to wit, in common with the US, regions may not officially secede, but they will just ignore the writ of the centre when it suits them). It sometimes seems that despite the nominally independent flags flying over each home-nation (Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales) a united Ireland may become more closely bound in with the rest of UK, thru cross dependencies in several areas, like NATO oversight/membership perhaps; indeed this may be the outcome/conditionality of any Irish-unification: a truely ironic outcome….??

  12. Old Sarum

    One the things about the Irish independence process that surprised me is that there was no official barrier created to exclude Irish people from the UK so the social and cultural links between the peoples are strong. Did/do Irish citizens even need a passport to enter the UK? As a subject of Charles the Third (living in a non UK country with His-Chuckness as head of state) I have no idea*.

    I wonder what will happen as and when the EU collapses like that big bridge in the centre of Genoa; Is reunification on the cards? Would re-unification make the DUP froth at the mouth? Somehow I think it would.


    * The Computer Says “No”.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I would not be so gleeful. Yanis Varoufakis opposed Grexit and his big reason was that the negative consequences to the EU would severely damage Greece which has the EU as far and away its biggest source of trade and tourism funds.

  13. orlbucfan

    Wow, what a read. As a Yank whose paternal great-grandparents were lucky enough to flee the British Induced Famine in the mid 19th century, I sure learned a lot today. Yes, my maiden name is a common Irish one. Yes, my ggps were non-wealthy Catholics. I’m all for an united Ireland, even with the headaches that will cause. I wish the Irish folks the very best of luck.

  14. paul

    I do think one element is missing.

    How would westminster cede the counties, yet deny scots nationhood?

    That is the value of the constitutional weeping sore.

    Lose NI from the UK, maybe others in GB will be emboldened.

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