Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

You can bank on independence coming at a price

Alex Salmond

The Scottish referendum debate is focusing on the assets and living standards necessary to sustain an independent state. While Alex Salmond engages an army of economists to justify his case, no such persuasive effort is apparent here from those who aspire to break the link with Britain and create an all-Ireland state.

What price a united Ireland now, or in the future? The war of words over Scotland's economy should raise this fundamental question on this side of the Irish Sea, yet nationalist and republican politicians continue to ignore it.

This is all the more surprising, given that unionists are unsettled at the prospect of a break-up of their cherished United Kingdom. The unspoken unionist fear must be that, if Scotland goes, can Northern Ireland be far behind?

Strange that, after all the centuries of Anglo-Irish conflict, after nearly four decades of violent republican attempts to end British rule here, the voices of nationalist Ireland are so muted, if not silent, in the debate over Scotland.

Why might this be? Some observers are concluding that the Scottish nationalists have achieved much more by rational political debate than decades of bombs and guns in Ireland.

Indeed, Alex Salmond has attained such notoriety amongst some unionists that he has been described as a greater threat to the UK than Gerry Adams.

Whatever one thinks of Mr Salmond, his Scottish nationalist party has made spectacular political progress. He has gained the attention of the world without the need for paramilitary armies.

Indeed, if he were successful in ending the Union, he might recall these words from the Irish poet Charles Wolfe in The Burial of Sir John Moore: "Not a drum was heard. Not a funeral note. As his corpse to the rampart we hurried."

Unionists are asked to consider a border poll at a time when the Irish economy is still reeling from the worst recession in living memory. No less than the president of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, proferred this bleak view of the Republic in his address this month to the party conference in Wexford:

"A society polarised between haves and have nots ... with a toxic political culture that has existed for decades ... governed by an elite with a culture of corruption and golden circles... with cuts in living standards to vital public services," he said.

"A society with an unsustainable banking debt for generations to come... with unemployment at 12.4%, 179,000 long-term jobless and 14,0000 households in mortgage distress. A health service that is crumbling. Rural Ireland under attack, with post offices, police stations and schools closing... 10 people leaving the country every hour, 400,000 already gone."

In the light of even Mr Adam's harsh view of life in today's Republic, a border poll seems pointless and irrelevant.

For all the skirl of the kilt, rousing renderings of Flower of Scotland and bitterness over bygone battles with the English, the tartan referendum is likely to be won by whoever produces the most convincing economic case.

If ever the links between Northern Ireland and Britain can be broken, the key issue, as Mr Salmond and his opponents recognise, is that money counts.

The pound, or whatever currency is eventually agreed for the Scots, is now at the heart of the independence debate. Living standards cannot be lightly ignored.

A border poll on the future of Northern Ireland cannot be conducted in an economic vacuum.

Nationalism lies at the heart of the political debate in Northern Ireland, yet virtually no one – including the media here – is asking the searching questions which, in Scotland's case, must be keeping Alex Salmond awake these nights as the referendum approaches.

What would be the cost of nationalism for the people of Northern Ireland? Can anyone produce a coherent economic strategy which might convince some unionists of its merits?

Why are those who vote for nationalist parties not demanding answers for themselves and their families? Or are they simply, as the opinion polls suggest, paying lip-service to the aspiration of unity, while acknowledging they are better off in the UK?

So many questions are being asked of nationalists in Edinburgh. Perhaps the time has come to ask here, too.

What price a united Ireland, now, in the future, or ever? In the light of the Scottish experience, nationalists in Northern Ireland may be living a distant dream.