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1 May 2020

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The case for Irish unity and a left green economic strategy

In the aftermath of the Westminster general election, and with a majority of nationalist MPs returned in the North for the first time ever, it’s clear that the entire Brexit debacle has dealt a potentially fatal blow to political unionism. 

As DUP MLA Edwin Poots commented reflecting on the historic and symbolic loss of DUP Deputy Leader Nigel Dodds’s seat to Sinn Féin’s John Finucane in North Belfast, the cradle of the Northern Irish statelet and a unionist stronghold going back to Edward Carson: “Ultimately, if we are going to protect the union, enhance the union and secure the union, then we’re going to have to have people voting unionist”.

The lingering threat of a hard Brexit and harder border, while hopefully now receding, has nonetheless reignited the political debate surrounding Irish reunification. Indeed, there appears to be a growing consensus right across civil society that, for better or for worse, a united Ireland is now in the offing.

It seems only prudent then to start planning for this eventuality. Guarded comments to this effect from the former leader of the DUP and former First Minister of Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson, have been well publicised. As have recent, credible opinion polls indicating that, again for the first time, a majority of voters in the North favour reunification in the event of a border poll.

John Finucane

• John Finucane’s historic Sinn Féin victory in North Belfast unseated DUP Westminster leader Nigel Dodds 

History may have needed a push, but the winds of economic, political, social, and demographic change have been blowing in the direction of Irish unity for some time.

This conjuncture has also witnessed a marked shift in attitudes south of the border, with a majority now polling in favour of a referendum on Irish reunification within the next five years. Even the traditionally partitionist Southern political establishment are increasingly anxious not to be left behind by the course of events. 

Absent is an effective political strategy for Irish left-wing revival. However, Seán Byers of the insightful Brexit, Europe and the Left blog has argued that “increasingly it looks like this united Ireland will be delivered by bourgeois and civic nationalism in cooperation with liberal Unionism”.

That is to say, without a return to left cooperation and a shared vision of a socialist united Ireland, any conceivable “new departure” will be guided by the forces of neoliberal continuity, North and South, Orange and Green. If the Irish Left is to assert itself in this debate, then the articulation and planned implementation of a socialist programme of all-Ireland economic integration will be paramount. This holds especially true against the backdrop of deepening economic stagnation and financial instability in the global economy, quite aside from the economic impact of Brexit in and of itself.

The rift in the Irish establishment caused by the Brexit crisis is perhaps best exemplified by the recent, rather public disagreement between high-profile economists at the state-sponsored (and, hence, generally conservative) Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), regarding the economic implications of a united Ireland.

On one side of the debate, former ESRI Director Prof John Fitzgerald argues against Irish reunification, for the foreseeable future at least, on the basis that any conceivable adjustment would be too costly (economically, socially, politically) for both North and South. 

This analysis assumes a narrow set of policy options, however, whereby the transition is taken to be relatively immediate, and where there is a convergence, rather than a co-transformation, of economic structures – all within the bounds of what economic orthodoxy considers “sound finance” (i.e. balanced state budgets) and “necessary structural reform” (i.e. privatisation and deregulation). 


On the other side of the debate, current ESRI Research Professor Seamus McGuinness believes that a united Ireland is workable in the nearer term, once the combined effects of a sensible transition period and a transformational, all-Ireland industrial policy are factored in. As McGuinness concluded in a September 2019 Irish Times Article:

McGuinness wrote that “There is little to be achieved through a static analysis of Irish unification whereby the estimated current costs of administering Northern Ireland, which are themselves highly debatable, are simply superimposed on the current tax and welfare systems of the Republic”.

Instead he wrote that, “Responsible debate on the economics of Irish unification should be based on facts that have been established through rigorous research that fully accounts for the likely dynamics associated with any unification process”.

McGuinness is backed in this view by the current ESRI Director Prof Alan Barrett, who has likewise called for a more sober economic analysis ahead of the very real possibility that a border poll may be triggered sooner rather than later under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

Yet, as McGuinness alludes to, even at the level of crude accounting there is a case to be made that the economic costs of subsuming the North into the Southern statelet are frequently overstated. 

Former Nevin Economic Research Institute (NERI) Director Tom Healy, for example, points to the so-called “non-identifiable expenditure” component of the UK subvention to the North, which is primarily composed of the North’s contribution towards servicing the UK federal debt and UK military costs. 

When such expenditures are excluded, as in a negotiated united Ireland scenario, the North’s fiscal deficit (the difference between government expenditure and revenues) falls from around £9-10 billion to more in the region of £5-6 billion (i.e. “identifiable expenditure” relating directly to the North’s public services).

Even accounting for the additional spending needed to align living standards in the North with those of the South, it’s likely that the shortfall could be covered by a solidarity tax amounting to around 2% of current Irish GDP. And less again if, as Sinn Féin Finance Spokesperson Deputy Pearse Doherty advocates, the £3-4 billion of identifiable expenditure attributed to pensions were to remain the responsibility of the British State, to which the North’s workers have been paying their pension contributions. Taking all of this together, the economic costs of Irish reunification starts to look like much less of an insurmountable barrier.

Again, this is before we have even considered the potential economic benefits of a progressive, pro-worker structural transformation of the all-Ireland economy, as advocated by the trade union-backed NERI. 

SIPTU economist and researcher Michael Taft underscores that this will require more than simply increasing taxation on high-income and wealthy households and corporations to help fund better public services, necessary and all as that may very well be. He calls for a greater focus on increasing social insurance contributions (particularly from employers), alongside a state-led industrial policy to develop Ireland’s historically weak indigenous enterprise base.

Indeed, some of the policies being developed by the left-led British Labour Party indicate how the latter might be achieved in the face of technological advance and globalisation; all the while privileging democratic worker and community ownership and control across both state and private enterprise. James Meadway has advanced complementary ideas regarding the future of work in an Irish context.

Still, a left Keynesian programme, however “greened” and “worker controlled”, will ultimately prove insufficient, and even counterproductive, given the nature and seriousness of today’s environmental crisis. The esteemed Canadian journalist, author, and activist Naomi Klein warns against such “climate Keynesianism” in her latest book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal.

Klein writes that, “Any credible Green New Deal needs a concrete plan for ensuring that the salaries from all the good green jobs it creates aren’t immediately poured into high-consumer lifestyles that inadvertently end up increasing emissions”.

Klein believes that we need “transitions that recognise the hard limits on extraction and that simultaneously create new opportunities for people to improve quality of life and derive pleasure outside the endless consumption cycle”.

This speaks to a more general issue concerning the fetishisation of Nordic social democracy within the Irish and international labour movements. While boasting impressive scores on most indices of national human development, the Nordic model has only been able to achieve this relative success through the super-exploitation of both the environment and workers in the Global South.

By way of illustration, Dr Jason Hickel of the London School of Economics (LSE) shows how even allowing that the Nordic countries regularly top human development rankings (based as they are on purely economic and social criteria), they fall way down towards the bottom of the list once environmental impacts are factored into the analysis.

Rather than attempting to replicate a flagrantly unsustainable social-ecological model, the people and the planet would be better served by turning instead to socialist Cuba for inspiration. Cuba tops Hickel’s Sustainable Development Index (SDI) as the only country in the world to have achieved such high levels of human development combined with such low levels of environmental impact.

By contrast, though the 26 Counties currently ranks towards the top of the Human Development Index (HDI), it falls well down the list to 128th place via the SDI. The 26 Counties is also a noted climate action laggard amongst European peers, the most environmentally-active of whom are still implicated in outsourcing their carbon emissions to the Global South. The UK, which presently includes the Six Counties for statistical purposes, comes in at 131st place via the SDI; well below its corresponding HDI ranking of 15th place.                                                                                                                                                        

Without ignoring the unique historical circumstances in which Cuban socialism arose, and the continuing challenges and shortcomings of that experience, sustainable development has been demonstrably achieved through state-led economic, social, and environmental planning. And this in spite of the devastation wrought by an aggressive and illegal six-decade economic blockade from Cuba’s nearest and largest potential major trading partner, the United States.

As an initial thought experiment at least, one then wonders what could be achieved by participatory and decentralised (within reason) socialist planning in the overdeveloped (as opposed to overexploited) national economies of the Global North – and, in particular, within a united Ireland. No doubt, in reality, this still seems far ahead; yet the carbon bomb is ticking, and material conditions are changing rapidly.

The political divergence of the past decade, tracing back to the 2008 global financial crisis and intensified by Brexit and environmental degradation, can be expected to sharpen further in response to continuing financial instabilities in the global economy. Only recently, the Financial Times (FT) reported that the pre-2008 neoliberal financial deregulation agenda is back with a vengeance; and just in time to accentuate another likely downturn. As Financial Times Financial Editor Patrick Jenkins wrote last December in an article titled, “Worrying signs that a great global deregulation has begun”.

If the Irish Left is to outflank the neoliberal and far Right in response, who together offer only a sordid path to what Naomi Klein terms “eco-fascism” and “climate barbarism”, then a worker-led Popular Front of our parliamentary and extra-parliamentary forces will be necessary – united in diversity. The present historical juncture calls for a Green New Departure towards a 32-county, eco-socialist workers’ republic, drawing on Ireland’s rich heritage of national liberation struggles for popular democracy and environmental stewardship.

The raw materials for such a programme already exist, in the combined output of progressive left researchers and activists across the island. Prof Kathleen Lynch and her colleagues at the University College Dublin (UCD) Equality Studies Centre and UCD School of Social Justice, for example, have studiously documented and critiqued the economic and social inequalities that blight contemporary Irish society. 


Likewise, left-leaning (some further than others) research and advocacy organisations such as TASC, Social Justice Ireland (SJI), NERI, Trademark Belfast, Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA), and Development Trust Northern Ireland (DTNI), amongst others, have produced valuable policy analysis that can begin to cohere and form the basis of an all-Ireland manifesto.

Lessons can also be learned from the successes and shortcomings of the left-wing Right2Change political initiative. In future alliances, can such a policy platform be devised on an all-Ireland basis? Take for example the potential for a detailed policy proposal around an all-Ireland universal public health service to mobilise cross-class and cross-community support, particularly in the current era of Tory cutbacks and the stealth privatisation of the NHS in the North.

That said, the implementation of a transformative economic, social, and environmental programme in a united Ireland will also very likely require breaking with the neoliberal straightjacket of the eurozone and EU institutions.

UCD’s Dr Andy Storey has argued that the strategic terms of disengagement is a not straightforward matter for the Left. Trade Unionists for a New and United Ireland (TUNUI) could potentially play an important role in coordinating the necessary debate and policy development in all of this.

It is unfortunate that, to date, economic arguments in favour of Irish unity have tended to be couched in the language and theoretical assumptions of mainstream, “orthodox” economics, which knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

A prominent example is the oft-cited Modeling Irish Unification report (KLC Consulting, November 2015), written by consultants and academics based in Canada. The dynamic analysis therein argues that the all-Ireland economy could reap the benefit of “significant long-term improvement through a programme of economic liberalisation (particularly benefitting the North) – low-tax harmonisation; the removal of barriers to trade and foreign investment; and all-Ireland membership of the Eurozone”. 

While the assumed parameters of the model are certainly open to question, the broader concerns are twofold: (1) these so-called “general equilibrium” models, by definition, generate fair weather projections that are blind to even the very possibility of the kind of systemic economic and financial instability and crisis that befell the Irish and global economies in 2008; (2) even a relatively resurgent neoliberal economic structure cannot create the broader conditions for sustainable social and environmental development, as the Southern Irish political economy currently attests.

Left economics requires not only the development of progressive, pro-worker policies and models; but also a strong sense of, and connection with, the class-based political movement that can make them a lived reality. 

This kind of radical political economy approach can according to Frank Stilwell, be distilled from the rich traditions of non-mainstream, “heterodox” economics – the class struggle emphasis of Marxist economics; the monetary and financial focus of left Keynesian economics; the institutional economics concern with social structure; the feminist economics study of unwaged and caring labour; and the social-ecological economics study of the metabolic relation between human society and non-human nature.

Both in theory and practice, we need to stop working away in our own little silos, and instead be prepared to play a small part in something much bigger.

A Tory Brexit, modelled on what Sasha Breger-Bush terms Trump’s “national neoliberalism” is unlikely to set about the conditions for a revival of the UK’s forlorn political economy. As Duncan Weldon, a left-wing economics correspondent with The Economist writes, it is likely that “Brexit will not generate a new model for the UK, but simply an inferior version of the existing one” and “the results are likely to be messy”, but England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity.  

• Dr Cian McMahon is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the International Centre for Co-operative Management (ICCM) at Saint Mary’s University (SMU) in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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