Belfast Telegraph

Irish unity is but a will-o'-the-wisp ... the internal politics of Northern Ireland and the Republic are chalk and cheese

Debate about a united Ireland is profoundly intellectually dishonest, says former Irish cabinet minister Ivan Yates

If you don't fix your final destination, it's easy to lose your way. An attempt to give us the contours for the future shape of our island for 2040 has been unveiled. The first decade of the Republic's National Planning Framework investment was launched last week in Sligo with the publication of the National Development Plan. Amid the looming Brexit chaos, and another dismal failure on Northern Ireland with the Executive consigned to indefinite cold storage comes a blueprint for our future.

On taking over from Gerry Adams, Mary Lou McDonald reiterated at her first leadership event that Sinn Fein's ultimate goal is a united Ireland. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar also seems intent on expediting the quest for a unitary state as an achievable medium-term objective.

Brexit fallout has naturally shaped the debate on the consequences of an EU UK separation, meanwhile demographic trends pointing to a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland have also put the spotlight on the constitutional future for the province. It seems the two islands are set fair to pursue divergent destinies in or out of Europe. Not only separate currencies. Separate trade treaties, markets, customs unions. Different economies and administrations on either side of the 310 mile border all inevitably involves a deepening of partition.

I believe that "Unity" Emperor has no clothes. These musings about a united Ireland are predicated around a profoundly dishonest debate.

Three generations of nationalists in Northern Ireland (since 1922) felt betrayed by the south - they saw themselves as effectively abandoned to the tyranny of unionist majority rule. In the south, there was a grievance born out a romantic historic goal to reclaim the fourth green field of Ulster. As nature ordained. And it's an unspoken assumption that one day unity will naturally recur.

In the interim however, the practices of partition for the best part of a century now require a more conscientious reappraisal. Some 96 years existence as separate states delivered new generations confronting different new realities. Today, the internal politics of the Republic and Northern Ireland are simply incompatible.

Northern nationalists, even those living in the south, are in deep denial about the time warp of their troubled politics. Violence brings dysfunction and the scars of strife have deprived too many of the vision to be objective and to see beyond singular goals.

Normal political discourse must also embrace employment, investment, tax, health services, education, welfare standards, infrastructure, transport and housing. These are not issues that prevent devolved government; they are the engine that keeps it running.

Political progress can't keep being delayed because of tripping over tiresome tribal baggage. It's unimaginable that Irish language legislation could prevent the government being established in Dail Eireann. But such is the potency of identity politics in the North that if there's to be an Irish Language Act, there must be an equal Act to recognise Ulster/Scottish and whatever you are having yourself.

Difficult legacy issues like fresh inquests into so many unspeakable deaths, are further evidence of a political life unable to look away from the rear-view mirror. The hands on history's clock keep turning and we must move on, not forgetting but not being frozen in time.

Naturally, northerners are deeply offended by any external objective analysis of their modern-day society - particularly from southerners. But let's call it for what it is: much of daily northern life is still deeply sectarian.

Let us also not pretend that 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement, ecumenism pluralism and a harmonious community ethos has yet to evolve.

It seems as if things are as bitter and bigoted, as ever.

Let's do away with the pretence: sectarianism is still is a core characteristic of Northern Ireland's two largest political parties. Both sides feed off blinkered approaches to life - the goal is to get one over on the other side.

A retreat to the bunkers was never more evident than in the party responses to the perils of Brexit. Faced with a 12% collapse in Northern Ireland's GDP based on research, you might think they could find common cause.

Far from uniting with both EU/UK allies to obtain the best of both worlds in terms of north-south and east-west trade, the DUP and Sinn Fein have seized on Brexit to drive their individual tribal agendas.

The DUP wrapped their Union flags around Tory Eurosceptics to drive a wedge away from the Republic. Sinn Fein, seized upon a harder border, to leverage a border poll for a united Ireland.

Thus tribal rivalry trumps what is best for the community as a whole strangling progress, and possibly jeopardising economic survival.

The unpalatable truth is that Northern Ireland is a dependent economy. Its largest, most vital, component is still the public sector/services. It requires an annual subvention from London of £10bn. That's an interesting figure. Coincidentally, it's equivalent to the €11.5bn for each year of the Republic's National Development Plan. In a united Ireland, the entire resources of €115bn over the next decade would have to be siphoned off just to sustain subventions to the Northern Ireland economy.

So, forget your Cork-Limerick motorway, designated regional cities, Metro or second runway at Dublin. All fiscal resources would have to be funnelled into Belfast.

By contrast, while life in Northern Ireland remains a prisoner to the past, society in the south has rapidly and irreversibly modernised. The Republic is becoming more secular and multicultural with each passing year. It increasingly ignores the woes of Northern Ireland. Ergo. Editors/producers throughout the Republic's broadcast and print media, deliberately diminish and even excise out coverage of northern political affairs. People have turned off, or tuned out; they have become tone deaf to the incessant circular arguments.

The unpalatable, unspeakable truth of southern millennial perspectives on Northern Ireland is grounded in the everyday reality of inter-generational partition. Leaving aside the consent of one million northern unionists, resisting being shoehorned into a united Ireland, we need a deeper analysis than unthinking green rhetoric.

By 2040, the prospects for a Federal Ireland - involving two separate states - seems a much more plausible notion. To acknowledge the divergences of the respective body politics, societal aspirations and economies.

This is a non-conflict constitutional aspiration. It is the optimal context for maximising good neighbourly cross-border co-operation. It might also secure external fiscal life support from both the UK/EU. But a vision born out of a misrepresentation is a disingenuous basis for shaping our island.

Ivan Yates was the Republic's Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry from 1994 to 1997

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.


From Belfast Telegraph