Lessons from Europe on reuniting Ireland and debunking a few myths

Derry Journal columnist pictured at the 'Reuniting Ireland' conference in Brussels. (1511MM08)
Derry Journal columnist pictured at the 'Reuniting Ireland' conference in Brussels. (1511MM08)

There we were in Brussels, reuniting Ireland. Well, not actually reuniting Ireland but we were thinking about it. Don’t scoff – that would be too easy!

I was with a group visiting the European Parliament on the invitation of Martina Anderson MEP. From many places in Ireland we gathered in Brussels for a day looking at relevant experience in other countries.

First, a spot of myth de-bunking. One of the most common myths about Ireland, believed by unionists, is that people are better off in the North than they would be if they were in the Republic. Unionists think Northern Ireland has benefited from its link with Britain. It hasn’t. It’s a widely held belief because unionists are always saying it. Once upon a time I believed it myself. That soon crumbled when confronted by facts about the Irish economy encountered in college nearly 50 years ago. The claim that the North is better off is nothing but a great big fat lie.

Michael Burke is a leading economist who has written extensively on Britain and Ireland. He pointed out that, in 1921, at the time of partition, per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the six counties that became Northern Ireland was slightly higher than it was in England. In the other 26 counties, which later became part of the Republic, per capita GDP was much lower. It was around 40% of the figure for England.

By 2012, the situation had dramatically reversed. Per capita GDP in the Republic is now far higher than it is in Britain. On the other hand, per capita GDP in the North is now far lower than it is in Britain. Bear in mind also that Britain provides a very poor benchmark. It has underperformed most European countries. So for the north, “to have under performed even Britain is quite something,” said Mike Burke.

“That’s what happens in countries that are colonies or treated like colonies,” he says. Colonial powers use their resources for their own ends. Trade is almost always with the imperial power. “That’s how economics work,” says Mr Burke, “if you can you will”.

In countries invaded by Britain all around the world GDP grew significantly after they gained independence. So it was, for instance, in Ireland, in India and in China. Under British rule in the 19th and early 20th centuries there was often a fall in GDP.

Fair enough, in independent Ireland the improvement got off to a slow start. The economy was really transformed in the mid 1970s when, “the tide of globalisation met the EU”. Despite recent problems in the public finances, self government in the Republic has been a roaring success.

Another highlight of the Brussels meeting was a talk on the reunification of Germany by Professor Christa Luft. Professor Luft was Finance Minister in the East German transitional government from 1989 to 1990.

On October 3, 1990 the two German states were reunited for the first time since 1949. The Eastern population had longed for reunification for many years but when change came, it came much faster than anyone had expected. There was no time to draw up a proper blueprint.

The wealthy West (FRD) insisted that the poorer East (GDR) should accede to their constitution. The West deemed itself the victor.

Now, 23 years later, nobody wants to go back says Professor Luft, but the people of the East have paid an enormous human price for the change.

Westerners paid for it in financial terms but they acquired massive industrial and business assets at fire sale prices in return. Before reunification the eastern population had enjoyed the right to work, excellent housing, education, childcare, healthcare and social benefits but these rights were swept away. Suddenly, millions found themselves unemployed. Professional qualifications in the East weren’t recognised in the West. It was a bitter experience. “Humiliation was brought to bear” said the professor, although East Germans also appreciated there were many improvements.

The lesson, for Ireland, is that reunification needs to be much better planned.

It’s impossible to give a fuller account here but the Brussels discussion was most informative. Hard-working Ms Anderson deserves credit for organising it.