February 25, 2020 / 3:32 PM / a month ago

Breakingviews - Ireland has more pressing needs than unification

Sinn Fein supporters celebrate the result of voting in a count centre, during Ireland's national election, in Cork, Ireland, February 9, 2020.

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Unity is easier to talk about than to achieve. Sinn Fein, the former political arm of the Irish Republican Army, wants to form a coalition government after its surprisingly strong showing in Ireland’s Feb. 8 elections. Its even more ambitious aspiration is to hold a referendum on uniting the republic with Northern Ireland. Reversing the partition of nearly a century ago would saddle Irish taxpayers with a big bill. But that’s not the biggest hurdle to unification.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald’s election manifesto called for a public debate on unification. More than half of Irish voters share her enthusiasm, according to a recent Irish Times poll. That shows politics trumps economics on this issue. Northern Ireland’s expenditures outstripped its revenue by 9.4 billion pounds in the 2019 fiscal year. That’s equivalent to around 3% of Irish gross domestic product. The extra fiscal burden would be manageable in good times when the country is running a surplus, as is currently the case. But a recession would mean Ireland would probably breach European Union budget rules.

Even if a majority of Irish voters were willing to accept this trade-off, there’s more reticence north of the border about unification. True, economic output per head of population is nearly 10,000 euros a year less in Northern Ireland than in the republic, according to Capital Economics. And the former might stand a slightly better chance of attracting companies if its tax rate were aligned with Ireland’s 12.5% rather than Britain’s 19%. But, again, economics is not voters’ only concern.

A poll last week showed fewer than a third of the Northern Irish public would vote for unity. One reason is concern that talk of unification could revive the sort of sectarian violence between Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists that was common before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Second, Northern Irish voters prefer the British healthcare system, which is free at the point of delivery, to the Irish one, which is modelled on the U.S. insurance system.

Unification is therefore unlikely to be on the cards for some time. If Sinn Fein wants to have a big enough presence in Irish politics to further this ambition in the coming years, the party will need to deliver on the healthcare and housing promises that were the real vote winners at the election.


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