Will Northern Ireland's constitutional question be decided by financial necessity?

The debate over Northern Ireland's constitution can be a dramatic political issue. But with the Republic and Northern Ireland both facing financial problems, the solution may have to be a pragmatic one.

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The cornerstone of the peace process in Northern Ireland is the principle of self-determination. Enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement is the idea that only Northern Ireland’s citizens can answer the question of whether they want to remain in the UK or reunite with the Republic of Ireland; to be decided by a referendum if or when the province determines it.

However, whilst the issue has been fiercely and often violently contested, the debate may be taking a unexpected and altogether more pragmatic twist as it becomes an issue not of political maneuvering or cultural identity but simply an issue of cash. As the Republic continues to weather the devastating impacts of the global financial crash, there is a growing sense that even if Northern Ireland’s population wanted to reunite, the Republic simply couldn’t afford to take them.  

Last week, a border poll jointly commissioned by the BBC and Irish state broadcasters RTÉ surveyed Northern Irish citizens about the constitutional question. It found that 30 per cent of people want a united Ireland, whilst 42 per cent want to stay in the UK and 27 per cent of people were unsure. The figures were consistent with attitudes since the peace process began. However, what was most interesting about the poll was the response of citizens south of the border.

Amongst respondents in the Republic of Ireland, 66 per cent of people said they wanted to see Ireland re-united. Yet, when asked whether they would support unification if it meant them paying higher taxes, support plummeted to just 31 per cent.

When asked by the BBC if the Republic of Ireland would be able to afford reunification with Northern Ireland financially, Irish government minister Jimmy Deenihan replied bluntly: “No, really.”

The Republic has always had higher levels of social deprivation and poverty than the UK, but as recession loomed and the so called "Irish Tiger" economic boom quelled to a whimper, living standards dropped dramatically and its effect linger on still. Social deprivation has increased from affecting 15 per cent of the population prior to the recession to 30 per cent today. Similarly, unemployment rates in the Republic currently stand at 9.7 per cent, compared to 5.4 per cent in the UK. Locally there is deep pessimism when it comes to the country’s finances, with two out of three Irish college students saying they plan to emigrate the country after graduating in a search for higher living standards and employment prospects.

As the Republic struggles to provide for its own citizens, the latest border poll appears to reflect growing wariness of the financial implications of taking on responsibility for Northern Ireland’s citizens too. The concept of a united Ireland has received historic support in the Republic. However, romantic notions of nationhood, shared culture and historical brotherhood seem to be loosing foot to pragmatic financial factors.

It’s no secret that Northern Ireland is something of a deadweight financially, operating on somewhat vampiric lines as it feeds off UK money and resources whilst contributing little in return. Harold Wilson once famously criticised Ulster Loyalists as “spongers” on the UK mainland. His comments were made in 1974 yet still ring just as true today. Northern Ireland costs some £20bn to run per year, yet only contributes £9 billion to the UK economy. The £11bn shortfall is stumped up by British tax payers in the mainland.

Although financial figures might not seem the most glamorous or interesting aspects of what can otherwise be a dramatic political issue, last week’s border poll is a significant development in the debate about the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. Regardless of the Good Friday Agreement’s provision that Northern Ireland’s political status can only be self determined, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that there is simply no way that the Republic could afford a United Ireland even if that’s what Northern Ireland’s citizens wanted and only the UK’s finances are strong enough to support the province. 

Whilst Northern Ireland’s constitutional question continues to be hotly debated in the province, it seems that the question may in fact have actually already been quietly answered by the Republic’s finances.

Siobhán Fenton is a Belfast-based writer covering gender, politics and Northern Ireland.

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