Working towards Irish Unity



Rishi Sunak speaking to Leo Varadkar on the phone.

At The Crossroads

This writer read with some interest an article that asked, Is Britain really as poor as Mississippi? Pro-union advocates often cite the ‘UK’ as the fifth largest economy in the world as part of a counter argument to Irish re-unification. That Britain was overtaken to fifth place by former imperial possession, India, in 2022, certainly does little to diminish an impressive sixth position in world economic standing. Pointing out that Britain’s economy is ‘highly London centric’ demonstrates a skewed regionalism. Although not confined to Britain, this regional disparity accounts for a much greater percentage of economic output than other European financial hub comparators. By removing London’s ‘outsized share’ from the equation Britain, the analysis concludes, drops 14% in living standards and falls behind the poorest American state.

Revealing the obscured reality of British living standards Phil Alston, Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, in 2019, identified austerity as the primary contributor for the “systematic immiseration of a significant part of the British population”. Ideologically driven rather than of economic necessity it has resulted in over 300,000 excess deaths since 2011. Coupled with nearly 250,000 deaths from Covid successive Conservative governments have presided over half a million preventable deaths in ten years with the poorest in British society suffering disproportionately. While particular armed conflicts receive ubiquitous media coverage, what amounts to class warfare on an epic scale appears to be a much more acceptable violence and less newsworthy.

Alston’s assessment of austerity as an ideological choice originates with the 2010 Conservative/Lib Dem coalition led by David Cameron and has continued unabated. Consistent decline in living standards since Brexit, another consequence of Cameron’s political career, have plummeted amidst the current ‘cost of living’ crisis. Keir Starmer’s New Labour has followed the Conservative swing further right. His refusal to scrap the two child benefit cap should he become PM at the next general election has earned him the nickname ‘Sir Kid Starver’ reminiscent of ‘Maggie Thatcher milk snatcher’ while also abandoning pledges to strengthen worker’s rights. Inevitably the Lib Dems will seek a space somewhere between the red and the blue. With no credible alternative, the fact of the matter for the British public is that whatever colour they vote in next year’s GE they’ll get Tory.

More-of-the-same politics means continued social decline in Britain despite being the sixth largest economy in the world, should that ranking hold. If the political elite in Westminster, either through wilful neglect, calculated class war, or a mixture of both, have such scant regard for their own working-poor then they have considerably less concern for those in the remaining Irish outpost of the ‘United Kingdom’. Particularly when there are no votes to be had.

As ‘rule takers rather than rule makers’ the London government remain unaccountable to the local electorate in the north, save for a handful of MP’s who will never form a government. Metrics in the six counties with direct correlations to poverty such as Infant mortality or deaths by suicide which are highest in the north of Ireland, are of little consequence. During the Covid pandemic death rates reached twice that of the ‘UK’ and ten times higher than in the Republic. As Jonathan Evershed poignantly remarked at a Féile an Phobail event, the break-up of ‘the Union’ is ‘literally a matter of life or death’.

The deliberate dismantling of the ‘sacred cow’ of the British state, the NHS, to near collapse has created a life or death emergency. The north of Ireland has the worst health waiting lists across these islands, getting GP appointments is almost impossible. For anyone who has had the misfortune to be in hospital accompanying a loved one or relative, as this writer has recently, it is impossible not to feel anger. Seriously sick men and women, many of whom elderly, lying on beds in corridors, or any available space, without privacy or dignity for hours on end, as overworked staff deal with 3,4 and 5 patients at a time.

Like global warming the decimation of the NHS in preparation for privatisation is not a future event, it is here, almost complete, and will continue under the next British government. Despite legitimate criticisms of southern healthcare many people in the six counties languishing on waiting lists pay for private medical treatment already, such is the scale of the crisis. An emotional connection to a NHS that no longer exists has not kept pace with the reality of the situation. Was Pat Cullen really that far off the mark?

Yet health care is but one component of an overarching social structure. Looking southward welfare payments are double that in the north, and many other indicators likewise demonstrate higher standards of living such as educational attainment and wages. Roads and infrastructure are of a much superior quality in the south than they are in the north, a full reversal from thirty years ago as cross-border travellers of a certain vintage will attest. Britain has a national debt of almost £2.5 trillion while the Republic of Ireland has a budget surplus of €10 billion this year.

A decent quality of life constitutes the basics of life. Poverty and societal well-being are fundamentally entwined with the constitutional question transcending identity politics. Questions must be asked therefore, as to how long we can afford to accept such conditions in the six counties and at what point do those of a pro-union persuasion begin to consider a constitutional alternative? What is the tipping point if one exists at all for this cohort? This is purely subjective but worthy of quiet reflection. Undoubtedly many of those that self-identify as British will never assent to breaking constitutional ties with the ‘UK’, yet these questions remain.

Consequently, Irish unification is synonymous with Irish republicanism that seeks to end those same constitutional ties. Yet associating the re-unification project in purely republican terms narrows the debate. It is a vast undertaking that requires widening the scope in which discussion and preparation can take place. It is a human rights project, an environmental project, a peace project and much more besides, requiring a broad range of input.

Meticulous planning is key. A new course can be charted out of this status quo toward an existing, more stable union into which the north will be automatically welcomed. People will rightly want to know what they are voting for and whether a new Ireland would be better. Why would they support it otherwise?

Westminster honouring commitments in the Good Friday Agreement will allow the people of Ireland to finally exercise their legal and moral right to self-determination. A truly post- colonial future is achievable where the process of national reconciliation can begin without external impediment. Electing a government representing the values and aspirations of the country, and one which can be held accountable by the electorate will fill the current democratic deficit, essential in any new Ireland dispensation. Wishing Britain well to enjoy whatever post-Brexit future they see fit Ireland will certainly extend the hand of friendship and neighbourliness. Either that or continue to play the blues at a Mississippi crossroads.