Aoife Moore: If we want a united Ireland, we must start having the boring conversations now

Border poll proponents need to learn from Scotland and Germany — or even, you know, listen to people in the North about what matters to them in their day-to-day lives
Aoife Moore: If we want a united Ireland, we must start having the boring conversations now

Anyone in Ireland taking a view on a border poll would do well to look back at the hard economic realities eclipsed in our collective memory by the euphoria around the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, followed by German reunification. Picture: AP Photo/Markus Schreiber

A united Ireland is firmly on the agenda, whether many of us like it or not, and debates on flags, emblems, and what to do about Stormont and those who inhabit it are dominating the conversation.

But for all the romantic notions of a united Ireland, it's almost guaranteed that the bulk of the conversation will be incredibly boring.

Any watery eyes at the thought of the tricolour being flown over buildings in Belfast will be quickly overridden by the watery eyes when confronted with the cost of a trip to the doctor or a three-bedroom house in the new, much more expensive, Ireland.

One thing unites the North: The NHS

There is much conversation about conversation when it comes to Irish unity: We must begin dialogues, we must articulate our concerns and further explore shared values, we must pontificate about pontification until we're blue and red and green in the face. But when it comes down to the meat of it, all of this will pale in comparison to the bread-and-butter issues that people care about.

First and foremost, the uniting force in Northern Ireland, the one entity that unites Tiger's Bay and the Bogside, is the NHS.

Unionist or nationalist, neither or inbetweener, it is almost guaranteed that any mention of a united Ireland will quickly lead to a conversation about the free for all, cradle to the grave, prince or pauper, health service.

Tributes to health workers north and south in the last year include this mural on Ballyregan Rd in East Belfast. The scale of public health provision in Northern Ireland, worth £5.3bn pre-Covid, must inform the debate about Irish unity. 	Picture: Brian Lawless
Tributes to health workers north and south in the last year include this mural on Ballyregan Rd in East Belfast. The scale of public health provision in Northern Ireland, worth £5.3bn pre-Covid, must inform the debate about Irish unity. Picture: Brian Lawless

Day-to-day spending on the health service in Northern Ireland, pre-Covid19 (2018/19) was over £5.3 billion (€6.19bn), just under half of all departmental public spending in Northern Ireland.

A further £220m for the Northern Ireland Executive to deliver essential health care was announced this week, on top of the additional £1.3bn that the executive is already receiving through the Barnett formula for 2021-22 to fight the coronavirus and sustain livelihoods and keep businesses running.

It's already been noted that this funding model is unsustainable, and it's well known that Northern Ireland's health service was at a crisis point even before the pandemic hit.

Day-to-day realities

The North has the longest waiting times in the UK. In September 2019, a record 306,180 people — one sixth of the population — were on a waiting list. In the worst-affected areas, people are waiting up to four years for the first surgery appointment, according to the Royal College of Surgeons. 

In the second quarter of 2019, 41.3% of inpatient waiting times exceeded 52 weeks — and in the last five years, more than 22,000 people died while waiting for treatment, an investigation by the  Belfast Telegraph found.

All this wait and worry while, in terms of spending, the amount expended on Northern Ireland is higher than the UK average — and, for all its faults, there are few who would gladly give it up and pay £60 per GP visit just to say Ireland is united.

So where does this leave the Republic? 

South of the border, the health service has been the albatross around the neck of successive governments for years.

Waiting lists are forcing those who have the money to pay for it into private hospitals, as the two-tier healthcare system continues unabated, while Sláintecare, for all its cross-party support, dies a death in the wilderness.

Now that the idea of a poll on Irish unity is being considered, it's worth remembering that in Scotland in 2014, when things got real and the question of independence was put to the people, the debate swiftly became dominated by questions about pensions, healthcare, and currency. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
Now that the idea of a poll on Irish unity is being considered, it's worth remembering that in Scotland in 2014, when things got real and the question of independence was put to the people, the debate swiftly became dominated by questions about pensions, healthcare, and currency. Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

How would any new state deal with an additional 1.885m people, their numerous waiting lists, and their 42 NHS hospitals and five private hospitals?

What would happen to the thousands of dedicated NHS staff with their NHS pensions and the most vulnerable in society who depend on their services?

Bored yet?

This is just one boring question among a hundred more boring questions that will need to be answered before everyone starts singing A nation once again.

In the spirit of unity, both the Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald are correct on this topic. Varadkar is right when he says that setting a date for a border poll is wrong. And McDonald is right that the conversation has started, and it would be irresponsible for the Government to ignore it.

Undertaking research and analysis on things like welfare services, health, and housing is not about rubbing our unionist neighbours' faces in it — it's an insurance policy.

Consistent polling suggests that unity is only getting more popular as Northern Ireland's demographics change, and the charge levelled against the Irish Government will be that they sat on their hands when real work could have been done.

A heaving civil service, a welfare state, and a housing crisis will all have to be dealt with, while most of the conversation revolves around our cultural differences with our unionist neighbours. 

You can't eat a flag and, when it boils down to the national question, most won't want to.

Learn from Scotland and Germany

Those who studied the Scottish independence referendum will know that questions over pensions, healthcare, and currency dominated the debate, in a lead-up many thought was rushed. A lack of preparation and a lack of solid answers on boring questions allowed misinformation to fill the gap.

Likewise, in Germany, after their reunification, the absence of a proper debate on the household issues left some East Germans unhappy.

Free healthcare — which was a staple in the German Democratic Republic — was not adopted in the unified Germany and,  far away from the jubilant scenes of the Berlin wall crumbling, many East Germans were left bitter, with many social issues left to fester. 

Within a year of unification, the number unemployed rose above 3m as services that operated in East Germany were cut after reunification — much like Ireland north and south is likely to see if the border is ever dissolved. 

These are all issues we must face down before we even consider setting the date.

A border poll will be costly, divisive, and disruptive — as all polls are. But to waltz into it without the homework done would be worse and, as a fragile peace process hangs in the balance, irresponsible.

The question of a border poll is now a real one. But avoiding the boring and complicated conversations about access to services does everyone, north and south, a disservice.

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