Belfast Telegraph

Demographics are shifting towards a united Ireland - we must have a plan

In a highly thought-provoking article, economist McWilliams claims the 2011 census in Northern Ireland tells a story that many do not want to absorb

By David McWilliams

Co Down is one of the most beautiful counties in Ireland. It’s a pity so few of us in the Republic head up the M1 to witness the hauntingly empty beauty just a few miles to the north.

Sitting in the Slieve Donard Hotel, Newcastle as the sun is going down behind the vertiginous Mournes, it’s difficult to imagine a more peaceful place on the island. However, this being Northern Ireland, I can hear in the distance the local Orange pipe band practising ahead of the ‘Glorious Twelfth’.

For about three hours last night, the band belted out their top ten marching tunes, making sure no one was under any illusion about what this time of the year signifies to some people around here. But Newcastle is a broadly nationalist town as evidenced by the large Palestinian flag at the roundabout on the way in. So maybe the band belted out the tune more loudly just to remind local people that they haven’t gone away.

Not to be outdone, a few miles down the road in Kilkeel, the Israeli ’Star of David’ flies proudly on the main street beside the Ulster Scots Heritage foundation. Quite what the link between the Ulster-Scots dialect and Hebrew might be is anyone’s guess. But this is Ireland— or at least a certain corner of it.

The sectarian division of Co Down is stark.

North Down is overwhelmingly unionist and South Down is overwhelmingly nationalist. For the uninitiated traveller, the flags are a good pointer. When you cross from Palestine to Israel, you know where you are. If you drive down the beautiful Ards Peninsula, flags change from village to village.

In economics, geography is as important as history. Proximity demands attention. Much as we Southerners might like to ignore what is happening in Northern Ireland, we can’t ignore it indefinitely. The demographic sands are shifting towards a United Ireland; Brexit and the attendant political car crash in England have accelerated this process immeasurably. 

The demographics in Northern Ireland from the 2011 census tell the story that many in Dublin don’t want to absorb.

The most interesting statistic shows the proportion of Catholics and Protestants in various age groups. Of the elderly, those aged over 90 in Northern Ireland, 64% are Protestant and 25% are Catholic. A total of 9% had no declared religion.

This reflects the religious status quo when these people were born, in the 1920s, and more or less reflects the realities of the Treaty.

How did your town vote in our United Ireland border poll?

When you look at those children and babies born since 2008, the picture changes dramatically. The corresponding figure is 31% Protestant and 44% Catholic. In one (admittedly long) lifetime, the Catholic population in the youngest cohort has nearly doubled, while the Protestant cohort has more than halved.

Even given the fact that 23% of parents of infants declared themselves as having no religion, we seem to be en route to a united Ireland.

Up to now, it has always been argued that a significant number of Northern Irish Catholics believe that staying with the UK was the right thing to do for their back pocket. But when you look at the numbers, you can see that this would be a bizarre choice.

It is unfashionable to say it, but the Union has been an economic disaster for both tribes in Northern Ireland.

If we go back to 1920, 80% of the industrial output of the entire island of Ireland came from the three counties centred on Belfast. This was where all Irish industry was. It was industrial and innovative; northern entrepreneurs and inventors were at the forefront of industrial innovation. By 1911, Belfast was the biggest city in Ireland, with a population of close to 400,000, which was growing rapidly. It was by far the richest part of the island.

Fast-forward to now and the collapse of the once-dynamic Northern economy versus that of the Republic is shocking.

Having been a fraction of the North’s at independence, the Republic’s industrial output is now ten times greater than that of Northern Ireland. Exports from the Republic are €89bn (£77.85bn) while from Northern Ireland, exports are a paltry €6bn (£5.25bn).

This obviously reflects multinationals, but it also underscores just how far ahead the Republic’s industrial base is. Producing 15 times more exports underscores a vast difference in terms of the globalisation of business.

Immigration is a good indicator of economic success. People move to places where they feel their kids will have a better life.

Today in the Republic one in six people are foreign-born. In Northern Ireland it is one in a hundred.

If immigration tells you about foreign people’s choices, direct foreign investment tells you about the choices made by foreign capital. Since the Good Friday Agreement, American corporations alone have invested close to $400 bn (£312bn) in the Republic. This is equivalent to 56 years of the British Government’s annual subvention to keep Northern Ireland afloat!

The dependent nature of the NI economy has become endemic, with handouts from Whitehall replacing the urge to pay for itself. This is evidenced again by the DUP’s approach to propping up May’s government which has nothing to do with making Northern Ireland self-sufficient — in fact, it is nothing more that a subsidy junky’s shopping basket. This will make Northern Ireland’s economy more, not less, fragile.

At the moment, the Republic’s budget deficit is 1% of GDP. If Northern Ireland had to pay for itself in the morning, the budget deficit would be about 22% of GDP!

We in the Republic can’t ignore this because we have a dog in this fight. Our dog, whether we like it or not, is the Hound of Ulster. In time, demographics will deliver the North to the South and we will need to have a plan.

The unionist population in a United Ireland will be no more than 14%, that’s considerably smaller than our immigrant population at the moment.

The issue won’t be one of physical absorption but of economic direction.

Whether it’s a ‘hard’, ‘soft’ or ‘Mickey Mouse’ Brexit serves to focus our mind on the future of this island.

Here in Newcastle, as the pipe band belts out its tunes, wouldn’t it be nice for once, to think about the future not the past.

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