Discussing Irish reunification - A 32-county state is a very long way off

THE stars have aligned to facilitate a new round of discussion around the possibility of Irish reunification; the possibility that, at last, the four green fields might be as one.

The legitimacy of that aspiration is matched by its capacity to frighten the horses, to harden attitudes and deepen division rather than bridge it. 

Nevertheless, the discussion can’t be avoided. Demographics and democracy make huge decisions inevitable sooner or later. 

The Good Friday Agreement offers a path to the idea’s peaceful realisation but, at this point, it still seems a remote possibility. That path is littered with landmines and is still blocked by the kind of never-never-never opposition learned only on a mother’s knee.

Brexit, and a hard border despite the North’s Remain vote of 55.77%, combined with London’s barely-disguised indifference to the consequences for Ireland, north or south, make it easy to argue that the North’s economic interests would be best served in a united Ireland. 

It is more difficult, though, to decide whether that argument boils own to a choice between peace or prosperity. Both are laden with risk.

The Stormont elections underlined how visceral opposition remains. Arlene Foster’s Croppy-lie-down sectarianism ensured a strong turn-out of nationalist voters. That she did not understand this or, if she did, was indifferent, hardly suggests that she or her supporters would warmly welcome anyone who wished to discuss a 32-county Ireland. 

Sinn Féin pressing the issue will do the same in reverse and refocus Unionists possibly mellowed by a decade of relative peace.

That tragedy is deepened by the fact that Ms Foster’s blindness is mirrored by the vengeful triumphalism of her opponents who, as soon as they could, curtailed the display of cherished Loyalist symbols.

Against this background, it is not at all surprising that moderation remains, like marriage equality, an aspiration north of the border. 

Extremists, no matter how disguised by the buffing caresses of public relations tutors, prevail. 

Southern discomfort with the Old Testament fundamentalism active in the DUP would influence any vote. A similar argument focussing on the Grace and Tuam scandals would be legitimately used in the North.

There would also be the cost. Each year, Britain subsidises the North to the tune of €12bn — or close to €50m every working day. If it is impossible to see how that largesse will be sustained by a post-Brexit Britain, it is even more difficult to see how even an all-island economy could do so. 

Imagine if one of the first tasks of a 32-county government was to axe public services supported by Westminster?

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon yesterday declared that she plans to trigger another independence referendum. 

Should she and win, that will make unity even more remote. To paraphrase Wilde: “To lose one country may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness.”

British attitudes to a 32-county Ireland would harden. In any event, a vote on reunification would become a vote on how well we have used our independence.

Seen in that light, the issue is far from cut and dried — even through emerald-tinted glasses.

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