The issue of Irish unity is now a matter of almost daily conversation. Despite the negativity of both governments there is growing support for a referendum on unity and for a united Ireland.
But there is much work to be done. Republicans have a responsibility to map out the kind of shared new Ireland, we are working to build. A key element of any strategy of persuasion requires republicans address the issues of affordability and prosperity.
Of course, there will be some unionists who will remain opposed to unity on ideological, cultural, or historical grounds. Or for emotional reasons. Some may also have fears about the future. But there are others who are open to persuasion that unity makes sense in the context of Brexit. These voices were heard in the recent Féile debates. These citizens believe in the equal provision of rights for every citizen. And they are open to positive arguments around economic growth and greater prosperity.
There are also some nationalists, north and south, who also aspire to unity but are nervous, uncertain, and who similarly need to be persuaded. The issue of rights and the EU will be important for them, but so too is the question of affordability and prosperity.
The claim is regularly made that the north’s economy is entirely reliant on ten billion pounds of a subvention that comes from the block grant from Britain. In a united Ireland it is claimed that Dublin would have to find this money and that as a result public services would suffer from cutbacks. This is not true.
The reality is that since partition decisions taken around the management, investment and development of the north’s economy were the responsibility of the Ulster Unionist government at Stormont up to 1972 and subsequently by British governments. Even under the Executive almost all of the key economic levers – taxation, welfare, immigration and more – were and are directly controlled by Westminster.
British Treasury Figures relating to the north and to the block grant are deliberately misleading and are purposely used as a source of misinformation to defend the union with Britain. The British Government claims that it allocated 24bn (billion) of public spending to the north for the year 2015-16. This figure is used by political unionism and others to argue that there is a £10bn deficit.
Of this 24bn figure 3.7bn is spent on British defence, overseas representation, and debt. This spending does not relate to the north. It is a matter for the British state and is not our debt. That leaves 20.3bn.
The British Government estimates revenue generated within the north at 16.7bn. That means that the gap between what is spent and what is raised in the north is closer to 3.6 bn.
In addition British Government Departments claim that they spend 1.8bn of this on the north. Aspects of this spending may or may not be considered to be essential. It is Sinn Féin’s position that this spend cannot fully be considered to be local debt until it is devolved to local budgets.
Therefore the local spending deficit - which is the difference between the amount of money spent and raised in the north by the Executive and local authorities - is £1.8bn. To summarise, based on official British Treasury information the fiscal deficit in the north is at most in the range of £1.8bn to £3.6bn.
In the context of Irish unity, in which the entire island is part of the EU, where the additional costs relating to the duplication of services are ended and with Irish control of our economic strategies, investment and growth, it is clear that Irish unity makes economic sense and is affordable.
Support for this is contained in peer reviewed paper published in November 2015 by Professor Kurt Huebner of Vancouver University which is titled ‘Modeling Irish Unification’. It concluded that Irish unity would likely result in a sizable boost in economic outcomes and incomes north and South, with the most aggressive unification scenario estimating a boost in all island GDP of €35.6 billion Euro over eight years. That’s an increase in each of those years of €5,500 per person north and south.
More recently in July a report researched by Gunther Thurmann, who worked in the German Desk for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) during German reunification, along with Senator Mark Daly of the Oireachtas Good Friday Implementation Committee, entitled 'Northern Ireland's Income and Expenditure in a Reunification scenario' concluded that the north would cease to be a financial dependency in the event of a united Ireland. It said that the six counties would save £8.5bn a year by leaving the British state and uniting with the rest of the island. This would bring the North close to a balanced budget.
So, it’s all to play for. Achieving a referendum on Irish unity is no longer a matter of if but when. Winning that referendum and creating a new, shared Ireland inclusive of every citizen who lives on this island is similarly no longer a matter of if but when. Our task as united Irelanders is to achieve these objectives in the shortest possible time with the maximum level of popular support. That means planning for a referendum and planning for unity. Now isn’t that a challenge worth working to achieve?