The recent debate over the future of the Northern economy is a perfect microcosm of the Northern Ireland issue as a whole.
Naturally, Sinn Fein want to see the North’s economy tied to the Republic’s; if a full link was made the island would only be baby-steps away from a United Ireland. The SDLP, the more reserved Nationalist party of the North has also put forward its own proposals; “North-South Makes Sense” which detail a workable programme for greater North-South links.
On the other side of the political divide the DUP are, unsurprisingly, opposed to any moves that would see greater co-operation with the Republic, especially those that would see both states sharing a budget.
Speaking from a point of view that is extremely poorly versed in economic management it seems to me that neither side of the debate has the intentions of their own state’s at heart but is instead showboating for their constituants.
As it stands the fiscal deficit of Northern Ireland amounts to £5bn a year. Only a fool would assume that Irish politicians would be happy to take on such a huge cost, just like a fool would assume that the British government enjoys seeing this much money being sucked from their budget each year. Is Peter Hain’s support for a unified economy an attempt to rid the British of the huge cost of keeping Northern Ireland afloat? Who knows. Is Bertie Ahern likely to reject an honest offer of a unified economy? Probably not. The fact is that both sides (Ireland and Britain) have gains and losses to be made from a unified economy, handling the situation carefully would ensure that the gains would far outweight the losses.
Personally, I have no authority to come to a considered conclusion on the plausibility of a unified economy, I can only take the opinions of people like David McWilliams to make my mind up. The problem with this situation is this; politicians in Northern Ireland, namely the majority parties, are too busy flexing their respective muscles to actually engage each other in a fair debate on the matter. The DUP are too stubborn to admit that North-South links make sense, even if it isn’t at the scale that Peter Hain suggests. Sinn Fein are too ignorant to actually put a case forward for change; everything they do seems to be a poorly veiled move towards Unity, something Unionists, naturally, oppose. The SDLP have been considered enough to prove that North-South unity is a possibility but again the DUP refuses to listen; they want to see West-East (Northern Ireland-Scotland) links increased, stating:
“Bearing this reality in mind, the most obvious and natural area of co-operation is co-operation undertaken on an east-west basis, rather than the unnatural and politically-motivated north-southery”
To me, refusing point-blank to discuss North-South co-operation is about as politically-motivated as it comes. This issue, just like so many others, is destined to stalemate until one side or another gets the guts to move; something the DUP and Sinn Fein are unlikely to do at present.
What I find most interesting is this; both sides seem afraid to move for fear of angering the voters and losing seats but if this situation continues for much longer voters will become alienated and frustrated and move away from the majority parties. The DUP and Sinn Fein can only blame each other for so long.
I understand and respect the DUP’s stance on negotiating with Sinn Fein; but does that mean that no progress can be made at all in Northern Ireland? Do the DUP like seeing Sinn Fein hold the steering wheel on Northern Ireland’s future?