Could the Republic of Ireland actually afford unity - now or ever?
Published 16/11/2010 | 08:00
I hope one day the Irish economy will recover sufficiently to allow the new Aviva stadium to be filled to capacity. It is a magnificent construction, but sadly not in keeping with the austerity of the Republic today.
There is something surreal about walking through the rain-swept streets of a very downcast Dublin on a Saturday afternoon and coming upon the new headquarters of the Irish Rugby Football Union.
En route through Ballsbridge, I walk along tree-lined avenues where the detached red-brick homes are now worth half what people paid for them not so long ago.
I pass by a sprawling, multi-storey, glass-walled citadel which looks as if no expense was spared on its construction. What else could I be looking upon other than the headquarters of a bank - to be precise, the palatial, ostentatious offices of the Allied Irish Bank - a lasting symbol to the extravagance which overtook a small nation and left it close to bankruptcy.
I turn another corner and behold for the first time the new Aviva stadium, a masterpiece of sporting architecture; from its undulating roofline to see-through walls encased in Perspex.
But the Aviva, unlike the old Lansdowne Road stadium which it replaced, is not in the land of the Celtic Tiger. This is 2010 and the fabled Tiger's roar is history.
The rows and rows of empty green seats over the past two Saturdays at the new stadium are testimony to the failure of the Irish economy and send out a bleak message to all of us on this island.
What price a united Ireland now - or ever? The savage spending cuts coming down the line from Whitehall to Northern Ireland are nothing compared to the financial nightmare on our doorstep in the Republic.
Every week that passes seems to bring closer the spectre of bankruptcy for the south.
The Dublin government horrified its people with initial estimates of savings of €7bn. Now that figure has doubled and there still appears no end in sight to the economic agony.
The south has fallen victim to avarice and greed as possibly no other country in Europe has done. Put into perspective, the south faces cuts of around four times the magnitude of what is expected here. The Irish government must pay 9% interest rates to the money-lenders of Europe just to keep Dublin's head above water.
Almost a century after the Irish War of Independence, questions now arise as to whether the Republic is a truly sovereign state, so dependent has it become on the European Central Bank and the German treasury.
Northern nationalist and republican parties cling to the aspiration of a united Ireland against this despairing backcloth. The new leader of the SDLP, Margaret Ritchie, told her party conference this month that Irish unity was her "number one priority". Ms Richie has many political virtues. She comes across as a compassionate politician with strong social values. She is genuinely trying to reach out to unionists and is certainly no patsy when it comes to defining the differences between her party and Sinn Fein.
The common ground between the SDLP and Sinn Fein is still the aspiration for a united Ireland. So much hollow rhetoric or an achievable ambition? The question cannot be ignored.
A dire image of the Republic is on display in the international and business media. In London last week, I picked up a copy of City AM, which described Irish independence as 'a sham' and painted a picture of impending financial failure.
Looking at the state of both north and south, it is hard to see any economic logic to Irish unity for the foreseeable future no matter how much of a priority the SDLP leader cares to make it.
How would the national health service be financed in a united Ireland? What about our education system? And what about the £10bn with which the British government subsidises all our lifestyles in Northern Ireland every year?
And what, too, would the people of the Republic think of having to make even more financial sacrifices to subsidise the north, as the UK Exchequer has done for so long?
Nationalists are fond of challenging unionism - and are entitled to do so.
But is it not time for a more realistic debate on the aspiration of unity?
What price a united Ireland - now or ever? The hard questions need to be addressed. Hollow nationalist rhetoric will not do.