8. The Waiting Game
Generally, the waiting game argument suggests that certain preconditions should be met before constitutional change can be engaged. We’ve encountered already some variations of this argument in the discussion of the proposals to fix the GFA’s majority consent clause. Mallon plays the waiting game in various ways, most prominently in suggesting that Irish unity must await unionist consent. Similarly, other commentators want nationalists and republicans to wait for constitutional consensus to emerge or for the winning of unionist hearts and minds to be completed. In this section, I want to highlight that others play the waiting game too, in direct but different ways. The necessity to wait forms the central part of their argument.
Many commentators suggest that some combination of the following three circumstances should be in place before a border poll is held: real reconciliation between nationalists and unionists, Stormont working properly and sustainably, and a clear road map of what exactly a united Ireland would look like and how it would be financed (MacNeill, 2020; Gosling, 2018; & Foster, 2019).
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood notably described the last precondition in his 2019 address to the Fianna Fáil ard fheis, the first since the two parties formed a partnership. He said: “There will be a special place reserved in hell for those who call for a border poll in Ireland with no plan and idea on how to actually deliver it” (Eastwood, 2019, n.p.). Eastwood’s remarks shouldn’t be seen as damning his new-found partner. Since Fianna Fáil is not calling for a border poll in the foreseeable future—or ever—it’s exempt from any necessity to come up with a plan or an idea about how to deliver a united Ireland.
At a certain level, the three “Waiting Game” arguments are sensible. Reconciliation between communities may smooth the transition to new constitutional arrangements. The recent, extended breakdown of Stormont’s devolved institutions was not conducive to addressing any issues, let alone constitutional matters. People voting for or against a united Ireland in a border poll need to know what it is they’re supporting or opposing.
But these circumstances need to be seen as dynamic elements in a fluid situation that will continue to evolve before, during and after any constitutional change; they should not be viewed as preconditions whose fulfillment must be achieved before Irish unity can occur. No one argues that meaningful reconciliation, effective devolution or a definitive solution to fiscal sustainability should be prerequisites for the maintenance of British sovereignty in the north. The reciprocal test demands that they cannot either be prerequisites for the movement to Irish sovereignty. Reconciliation will be an ongoing aim no matter the identity of the sovereign. And regional government in the north will remain a topic of discussion even if unity is achieved, as will the overall governance structures and financing of a united Ireland.
To demand preconditions for constitutional change is to empower those groups who wish to prevent change. Let’s take mapping out the details of a united Ireland as an example. Political unionism generally refuses to engage in discussions of Irish unity. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil want perpetually to delay the discussion. The British government is not interested. Nationalists and republicans should not be held hostage to the reluctance or refusal of other parties to get involved.
It’s advisable for advocates of constitutional change to listen sincerely to the concerns of unionists and others; to examine ways in which reconciliation can be advanced; to begin constructing a comprehensive image of a united Ireland; to think of new ways of addressing and financing pressing social, economic and political problems; and so on. None of these initiatives needs to await the agreement of those who may never agree. Nor should any of them necessarily be seen as definitive.
9. The Subvention Sinkhole
The subvention sinkhole refers to the economic case against Irish unity, much of it focusing on the size of the subvention. The subvention is the annual subsidy London assumes to cover the north’s fiscal deficit. The sinkhole argument is related to the “Waiting Game” view that the financing of a united Ireland must be settled in advance of any constitutional referendum. It deserves separate treatment as an argument in itself because the economic consequences of Irish unity have become such a central part of the debate over constitutional change. The argument is that the economic sinkhole is so deep that Ireland could never afford unity. The costs are ruinous.
Recent estimates put the subvention between £9b and £10b per year. UK government figures, for instance, show that public expenditure on the north in fiscal year 2018-19 was £21.8b. Public revenues collected in the north in that year were about £12.2b, leaving a fiscal deficit of £9.6b (Gosling, 2020, p. 92). The comparable figure for fiscal year 2013-14, compiled by the north’s Department of Finance, was £9.2b (Department of Finance & Personnel, 2015, p. 5).
Economist Gunther Thumann says that a deficit of £9b or so “is not a meaningful measure of the Northern Ireland fiscal situation under unification” (Thumann & Daly, 2019, p. 9). The £9b dollar figure can be reduced by taking into account UK government expenditure that cannot be specifically allocated to the north as a region. The cost of servicing the national debt, military expenditure, and the money spent on British embassies and political activities outside the UK are examples of such expenditure, which would not be relevant in a reunification scenario. Subtracting these amounts from public expenditure in the north lowers substantially the size of the fiscal deficit. The deficit can be further reduced by eliminating the costs of pensions, for which London will probably retain responsibility after Irish unity. Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty estimates that these calculations would reduce the 2017-18 fiscal deficit from £9.2b to some £4b (Doherty, 2019). A few years earlier, Sinn Féin argued that the fiscal deficit could be reduced to a figure between £2.7b and £5.1b (Sinn Féin, 2016, p. 15). This estimate is similar to Paul Gosling’s figure of £2.8b for 2018-19. Thumann shows an adjusted deficit of just £0.7b in 2013-14 (Thumann & Daly, p. 9).
These estimates of the size of the fiscal deficit have important political-constitutional implications. Quoting a higher estimate points to the severe economic dislocation of Irish unity. A TCD Economics paper suggests that a deficit of £7b-£8b means unity comes with “a heavy economic cost for both Northern Ireland and Ireland” (FitzGerald & Morgenroth, 2019, p. 1). Unionist economist Esmond Birnie notes that such a deficit would have a significant impact on Irish citizens in the event of reunification: “Either they pay more taxes, borrow more or accept less money will be spent on public services within the former Republic of Ireland" (News Letter, 2019, n.p.).
Using lower estimates of the north’s fiscal deficit suggests an easier transition to a united Ireland. Doherty claims that the deficit “could easily be subsumed into the public finances of the Irish state over time. In recent years, Ireland has been among the fastest growing economies in the world” (Doherty, 2019, n.p.). Economist David McWilliams agrees. He recognizes that reunification “would still be a huge challenge to the Republic’s economy” (McWilliams, 2017, n.p.). But he concludes that: “In pure budgetary terms, there is little doubt that the Republic’s economy could absorb the North and this is before the commercial dynamism of unification kicks in” (McWilliams, 2018, n.p.). Gosling finds that the fiscal deficit can be more than eliminated over a 10-year period during which the northern economy reaps the benefits of reunification by reducing costs and increasing revenues (Gosling, 2020, pp. 104 & 105).
Kurt Hübner of KLC Consulting recently explored the impact of Brexit on the Irish economies. He modeled three different trajectories for the north and south: a unification path, a hard Brexit path, and a soft Brexit path. He found that “unification is by far the superior scenario,” in which the north would increase its GDP by €17.9b between 2017 and 2025, with the increase rising to €23.5b for Ireland as a whole (Hübner & van Nieuwkoop, 2018, p. 12). In contrast, both Brexit scenarios would reduce GDP in the north and the south (p.3).
Much remains up in the air when addressing the specific costs of Irish reunification or the exact impact of Brexit on the island economies. Seamus McGuinness and Adele Bergin introduce an important element of caution:
A key aspect of the current and future debate around a border poll relates to the potential cost of Irish unification. We conclude that it is difficult to be specific about this as it is determined by a number of unknowns including (a) the length and nature of any adjustment or transition period (b) the relative role of both governments during any transition period in addressing some of the key issues … in reforming educational, industrial and regional policy (c) the relative success of such policies in raising Northern Ireland productivity levels (d) the role and significance of both the EU and USA in potentially reintegrating a post-Brexit Northern Ireland into the EU and assisting in promoting FDI to the region, and (e) the outcome of discussion on the issue of debt obligations. … Other areas for consideration … include issues such as welfare entitlements, approaches to taxation etc. (McGuinness & Bergin, 2019, p. 25; McGuinness, 2019).
Given the many contradictory predictions and the looming presence of imponderables, it’s unlikely that economic arguments will win over many unionists to the cause of Irish unity. Future UUP leader Steve Aiken’s dismissive response to Hübner’s modeling exercise shows the stubbornness of unionist opinion on the issue of the economy. Aiken said: “I can only presume when they continue to put data into the model, they will suddenly realise something we have known all along—that unification is not an answer and would be a net detriment to Northern Ireland” (Black, 2018, n.p.). Aiken is correct, many unionists “have known all along” that unity will not work economically, and they will probably continue to know it regardless of economic circumstances.
The Life and Times survey reinforces the conclusion that unionist opinion on the economy is rigid. For the first time in 2019, the survey asked respondents a series of questions to measure how certain issues would affect the way they might vote in a border poll. On the economy, the survey asked:
The Republic of Ireland’s economy is one of the fastest growing in Europe, but Northern Ireland’s is one of the slowest growing. In what way might this difference influence how you would vote in a referendum on a united Ireland?”
Some 75 percent of Protestants said “it would not make any difference to how I vote.” This group represents a considerable bloc of probably immovable opinion. Thirteen percent of Protestants said that the economic issue “would encourage” them to support unity. Any inclination to see this group as a harbinger of constitutional change is tempered by the knowledge that almost the same number of Protestants (12%) said that the issue “would discourage” them from supporting a united Ireland. Advocates for reunification will find little comfort in the distribution of opinion here (ARK NILT, n.d.).
The economic case for or against a united Ireland must also consider the potential influence of Brexit, which many commentators predict will be an unmitigated economic disaster. While Brexit has certainly contributed to the increased public salience of Irish unity, any impact it might have on the outcome of a border poll remains unknown. The impact will, of course, be partially determined by the exact circumstances of Brexit, which are still unclear.
There has been much speculation, but little hard evidence, that Brexit might move some moderate unionists into supporting a united Ireland as a route back to the EU. What evidence we have suggests significant movement is not likely, at least among Protestant unionists. The 2019 Life and Times survey found that 65 percent of Protestants said that the issue of the north leaving the EU while the south remains a member would not make any difference to how they would vote in a referendum on unity; only 7 percent said it would encourage them to vote for a united Ireland, with 17 percent saying it would discourage them from so voting. Similarly, 72 percent of Protestants said that Brexit has made no difference to how they feel about a united Ireland; only 5 percent said Brexit has made them more in favour of a united Ireland, while 10 percent said it has made them less in favour (ARK NILT, n.d.). The University of Liverpool’s 2019 NI election survey found similar results.
Again, we see that a substantial segment of the Protestant (unionist) population may not be moveable on economic-related issues like Brexit. For those who are flexible, the net effect of any moves may not be favourable to the outcome of Irish unity, with Brexit causing more Protestants to shift away from a united Ireland as towards it. As Jon Tonge says, Brexit could “create momentum for constitutional change,” but in the face of such survey results “we continue waiting” (Tonge, 2020, n.p.).
For many unionists, the debate about the economic implications of unity is probably as much about identity, culture and ideology as it is about the material costs and benefits of constitutional change. Their summary dismissal of any economic case for unity and the inflexibility of their opinion on economic issues reflect historical stereotypes contrasting the rural, smallholder and anti-modern south to the urban, industrious and progressive north. And they are reminiscent of the unshakable belief in the relative superiority of the British political-economic system that helped to fuel partition.
Yet, economic questions remain vitally important to the project of Irish unity. Peter Shirlow, Director of the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool, advises advocates of Irish unity to reframe their campaign away from a focus on the fears and doubts of unionists; instead, they should devote more energy to devising a blueprint for a united Ireland that engages issues relevant to the marginalized, the poor and the young (Shirlow, 2019). There are considerable economic (and political) hurdles ahead for a united Ireland that addresses the issues of inequality, poverty, youth unemployment, women’s rights, healthcare, housing, social welfare, immigration and job quality. To finance meaningful reform in these and other sectors while absorbing the subvention is a daunting task. There needs to be more detailed discussion to facilitate the realization of progressive change as Ireland advances to reunification.
Public opinion appears malleable on some of these issues. The 2019 Life and Times survey shows that Catholics more than Protestants are available to be convinced of the economic merits of unity. Only 35 percent of Catholics in the north said the economic issue would not make any difference to how they would vote in a border poll; we saw already that the Protestant figure of 75 percent was more than twice as high. Many more Catholics said the economy would encourage them to support unity (61%) than said it would discourage them from doing so (3%). Catholics are also from seven to 10 times more likely than Protestants to be moved to support Irish unity as the result of Brexit. Catholic unionists may well prove to be the key constituency in constructing a majority in favour of constitutional change.
Healthcare is another issue that has intruded heavily into the constitutional debate. There are obvious differences between the south’s private-insurance-based system that lacks universal access to care and the north’s system that guarantees universal access that is free at the point of use. Losing the NHS is an argument that very much works against the project of unity in the north. In the 2019 Life and Times survey, 56 percent of all northern respondents said the healthcare issue would discourage them from supporting a united Ireland in a referendum. The corresponding figure for Catholics was 48 percent; for Protestants, 61 percent.
Commentators tend to present the healthcare part of the reunification debate in categorical terms: the British system is simply better than the Irish. The Life and Times survey, perhaps necessarily so, starkly framed British-Irish differences in a way that highlighted the advantages of the northern healthcare system. There is a large element of truth in this view. But a more nuanced comparison of the British and Irish cases produces mixed results. One analysis suggests that “the gap between the Irish and UK health systems has narrowed, presumably as a consequence of much higher levels of per capita health expenditure by the Irish government and the impacts of austerity policies in the UK” (McGuinness & Bergin, 2019, p. 25). The Irish system outperforms the British on selected indicators of the availability of healthcare services. And, surprisingly, the share of total health spending financed by out-of-pocket payments borne directly by the patient was, in 2016, two percentage points higher in the UK than it was in Ireland (OECD & European Commission, 2018, p. 173). This is not to underestimate the healthcare challenges facing Ireland, especially in the circumstance of unity, but the two systems seem to be heading in different directions. Should advocates of unity prove successful in devising a programme for meaningful healthcare reform, support for reunification could be considerably increased.
More detailed discussion of these issues, of the kind Shirlow urges, is needed to allow the referendum electorate an opportunity for informed choice. And, as I noted in the previous section, there’s no need for nationalists and republicans to wait on the approval of others before they begin or continue such discussions.
10. Race to the Middle
Race to the middle refers to reinforcing centrist parties and political actors in an effort to manage or marginalize the extremes. It was a discernible strategy of the British and Irish governments in the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, both to shore up the SDLP against an emerging Sinn Féin and to encourage moderate unionism to look favourably again at the option of Sunningdale-style devolution (Rolston, 1987; O’Leary & McGarry, 1996).
Many analysts believe that the new hope for the middle is the Alliance Party, which shuns the polarizing constitutional debate between Union and unity. The party surged to prominence as the result of three strong electoral performances in 2019. In the local election in early May, it increased its votes (+4.8 percent) and seats (+21) far more than did any other party. Alliance continued its strong showing in the European election three weeks later, receiving 18.5 percent of first-preference votes—its best result ever—outpolling both the UUP and SDLP, and securing its first European seat, however fleetingly. The Westminster election in December produced another impressive result for Alliance, with the party winning 16.8 percent of the vote and consolidating its position as the third largest party in the north, behind the DUP (30.6%) and Sinn Féin (22.8%) (ARK Elections, n.d.).
There was much media speculation, and a certain amount of relief, about a reorientation of the party system towards the moderate middle ground (Manley, 2019; Irish News, 2019a). Irish News columnist Tom Kelly was especially enthusiastic about the increase in Alliance votes (Kelly, 2019). Liam Kennedy emphasized that the rise of Alliance is one development, among others, that could move politics away from the orange-green binary and upset Sinn Féin’s plans for a united Ireland (Kennedy, 2020).
It’s much too early to tell what Alliance’s surge means for northern politics or the party system. We don’t know if the party’s recent performance represents a temporary deviation from the electoral norm that will soon see it return to its usual levels of seven or eight percent support among voters. Or if it indicates a major and more lasting realignment that will see Alliance maintain or surpass its 2019 electoral results. We need to see additional election outcomes before we begin to understand what’s in store for Alliance and the northern party system (Irish News, 2019b).
The three 2019 elections in the north were marked by an unusual confluence of dramatic circumstances: the continuing collapse of Stormont amid Sinn Féin-DUP acrimony, widespread public demand for talks and a settlement, a particularly acute phase of the Brexit crisis, unprecedented government instability in Britain, a sharp deterioration in London-Dublin and Dublin-unionist relations, and the tragic killing of Lyra McKee. It’s difficult to know how these developments, or others, might affect elections and the tenor of northern politics in the future. Certainly, though, many commentators share Kennedy’s hope that transformational party change is imminent.
Kennedy’s investment in the growth of Alliance stems primarily from the party’s position on the constitutional question, not from any belief that its social and economic policies are effective solutions to the north’s ills. But neither does the party offer any resolution of the fundamental constitutional issues of sovereignty and identity. This is precisely why Alliance is attractive to commentators like Kennedy. By not actively engaging in the discussion of Ireland’s future, the party offers a means of indefinitely deferring constitutional matters, of keeping them at the end of, or off, the political agenda. The party supports what Denis Bradley calls “a stale status quo” on the constitutional question (Bradley, 2020, n.p.; Bradley, 2019). Alliance’s position here, combined with the presumption that “only a small minority of its members favour Irish unity,” are what allow Kennedy and others to promote the party’s “middle position” as an effective block on the project of Irish unity (Kennedy, 2020, n.p.).
It’s a little unclear which way Alliance voters would break if they were asked to choose between Union and unity in a border poll. The conventional interpretation, reflected in Kennedy, is that the vast majority of them would opt for the Union. The University of Liverpool’s NI General Election Survey 2019 reinforces that view; it found that 70 percent of Alliance voters support staying in the UK (Breen, 2020a). But another poll, conducted at almost the same time, showed the opposite result. The LucidTalk opinion survey, commissioned by the Detail, found that some 68 percent of Alliance supporters would vote for a united Ireland in a constitutional referendum (Nolan, 2020).
The startlingly discordant poll results reflect different survey methodologies but also contradictory patterns of Alliance Party support. Of all the northern political parties, electoral support for Alliance has been the most fluid in recent years. In the 2019 Westminster election, Alliance was the only party that attracted a majority of its support from people who had either voted for other parties in the 2017 Westminster election or not voted at all. Alliance’s traditional unionist position is perhaps fortified by some former DUP voters who are moving behind it. But this position may be eroding both by an influx of former non-voters concerned about the impact of Brexit and perhaps considering Irish unity as a way to return to Europe, and by the party’s new-found popularity in nationalist areas like West Tyrone, which saw it draw support from some former Sinn Féin voters (Nolan, 2020; University of Liverpool NI General Election Survey, 2019).
I think the constitutional profile of Alliance voters is probably closer to the University of Liverpool’s finding of strong support for the Union than it is to LucidTalk’s pro-unity result. But again, the highly volatile nature of Alliance’s electoral support means that circumstances could change rapidly.
True to the party’s agnostic stance on the constitutional question, Alliance voters would prefer not to be confronted with a border poll. This avoidance of constitutional change, and hence support of the constitutional status quo, is what distinguishes the middle as an impediment to the project of Irish unity and explains some of the gushing enthusiasm for the party’s enhanced electoral status.
Irish unity is not inevitable. There is no clear democratic path to a united Ireland. The route laid out in the Agreement now appears so tortuous and littered with debris that reaching the desired destination may prove impossible. A forbidding array of interests is set against reunification. If a border poll is ever held, the state of public opinion on the constitutional question suggests that a pro-unity outcome is by no means assured, with many unknowns still in play (White, 2020). Circumstances conducive to the public discussion of Irish unity wax and wane. An electoral setback here or an unexpected global shock there could decisively change conditions.
In the end, regardless of how circumstances change, the success of the project for Irish unity will be partly decided by the democratic momentum behind it. I compiled this set of arguments and counter-arguments as a contribution to the popular mobilization that needs to come.
The biggest obstacles to Irish unity are the British veto, in the form of the arbitrary and unaccountable power to call (or not to call) a border poll vested in the office of the Secretary of State, and the various proposals to “fix” the GFA’s formula for constitutional change. The British veto and the fixes are especially invidious because they could steal Irish unity even in the face of majority support for it in the north and south.
Some arguments that counsel waiting by suggesting now is not the time for a border poll are also proving to be serious hurdles to a united Ireland, partly because of their duplicity. Hiding behind the often reasonable case that today may not be the best time for a border poll lurks the essence of their argument that there will never be an appropriate time for Irish unity. They postpone a border poll for a tomorrow that will never come.
These and many of the other arguments I’ve examined are rooted in a rigid political-constitutional hierarchy that elevates unionism above nationalism and republicanism. They share an unrelenting hostility to equality, parity and reciprocity. The anti-democratic and regressive nature of these arguments does not lessen their appeal to certain constituencies in Ireland, north and south, and in Britain. It may in fact heighten their popularity. To respond effectively to this anti-unity movement requires, first, understanding its political and constitutional positions and, second, activating and conjoining the democratic forces of resistance.
 Though he cautions: “The statistical adjustments made here are in no way sufficient to gain a picture of the Northern Ireland fiscal situation after reunification, which will depend on a vast number of factors, including the economic situation and the fiscal structures observed at the time and the policies adopted by the governments involved” (p. 9). I’ll mention more about these factors in the text in my discussion of the work by Seamus McGuinness and Adele Bergin.
 Compared to Hübner (2015), FitzGerald and Morgenroth have more pessimistic assumptions of the dislocation of trade between the north and Great Britain, the impact of foreign direct investment and the extent to which productivity levels would converge between north and south. These assumptions also lead them to conclude that unity would bring a big economic shock.
 A certain amount of simplification of complex issues is unavoidable in the construction of questions for survey research. The question on the economic issue, for instance, was also presented in stark terms. The healthcare question is: “When people are deciding how to vote in an election or referendum, they often take many factors into consideration. Please tell me in what way, if at all, the following issues would affect your decision on how to vote in a referendum on a united Ireland?
The healthcare system in the Republic of Ireland is based on payment of private insurance. In Northern Ireland, healthcare is free at the point of use, and is paid for by National Insurance contributions. In what way might this difference influence how you would vote in a referendum on a united Ireland?” (ARK NILT, n.d.).
 Generally, the survey evidence on the strength of the middle ground in northern politics is mixed (Hayward & Rosher, 2020; Tonge, 2020).
 In her estimate of Alliance voters supporting the Union, Breen eliminates “don’t know” and other responses. I’ve eliminated these responses in my recalculation of the figures reported in Nolan. Nolan reports that 47 percent of Alliance voters would support Irish unity, 22 percent would support the Union and 31 percent were unsure or said “don’t know” (Nolan, 2020).
⏮ Mike Burke has lectured in Politics and Public Administration in Canada for over 30 years.