David McWilliams: 'It makes no sense for an island this small to be divided'

<span style="font-family: Arial, sans-serif; ">Economist David McWilliams, speaking to The Irish News in Belfast. Pictures by Hugh Russell</span>
Economist David McWilliams, speaking to The Irish News in Belfast. Pictures by Hugh Russell

Economist David McWilliams has said a combination of demographic change, poor economic performance and Brexit means the direction of travel to a unified Ireland is now “only one way”.

The high profile writer and commentator said while he believes unification will take another 30 years, more people from outside the traditional ‘green’ circles of Irish nationalism need to become involved in the discussion.

Speaking in Belfast, he also described the Northern Ireland Protocol as “an open goal”, suggesting that the north could eventually outperform the Republic in attracting foreign capital and talent.

The economist was in town for his latest ‘Ireland’s Future’ event, where he told an audience of 500 that the Swiss confederation offers a model for how a future united Ireland could work.

Speaking to The Irish News, the one-time Central Bank of Ireland economist, who married an east Belfast protestant, accepted he is an untypical advocate for the proposition of Irish unity.

“I’m an apolitical person and I do think that maybe more southerners, who are not green in their DNA, should involve themselves in this discussion, because it’s a discussion about our island and our country.

“It makes no sense for an island this small to be divided, it really doesn’t make any sense," he said.

Two years ago he joined 1,000 high profile names from across the island to sign an open letter to then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, calling for the establishment of a citizens’ assembly to look at ways of building broad support for a united Ireland.

“My wife is from east Belfast and my children were born in the hospital at Dundonald.

“I know this part of the world, although I only really know the protestant side of Northern Ireland.

“It’s unusual for people like me to get interested in this. But it’s something I’ve noticed in my own life, coming up here for once a month for the last 25 years.

“I’ve noticed what’s happened. I’ve talked to my family and I sense a change in their thinking."

McWilliams said the recent demographic change underpins the importance of having these discussions now.

“The basic message from the 2011 census is that the unionist population is old and the nationalist population is young.

“The direction of travel is only one way, so consequently all of us in Ireland have to say ‘what are we going to do about it’.

“Are we going to stick our heads in the sand or have this discussion?”

He also said the combination of long-term economic under performance in Northern Ireland, and more recently, Brexit, had “loosened the bonds” of the United Kingdom, and prompted more undecided people to seriously look to the strength of the southern economy.

“The argument used to be that the south can’t afford the north. That’s actually not true any more,” he claimed.

“It strikes me, that all these things together, you’d be very unwise to ignore what’s going on and think, let’s just preserve the status quo, because the status quo is up for discussion.”

While he said “extreme care” is needed, and that the health system question still “needs to be figured out”, he said: “This is a 30-year plan. This is not a 30 week or 30-month plan. My children will be middle aged and I’ll probably be well gone when this happens.

“But the direction of travel, it is only one way.”

When it comes to the question over where power might lie in a unified Ireland, McWilliams believes the Swiss have a potential solution.

He said the 26 cantons, which make up the Swiss Confederation, offer a system of devolved regional power that ensures a balance of competing ethnicities and interests in the country.

“You devolve everything, so that people in Larne and Carrickfergus really look after 80 per cent of their own affairs. So they don’t feel that they’re actually being governed by somebody else.

“That’s where we’re going to go,” he said. “We will have an Irish confederation in 20 or 30 years’ time, and we need to lay the ground work now.”

As for the here and now, the economist said the dual access Northern Ireland enjoys to the EU and UK markets under the Northern Ireland Protocol “is an extraordinary opportunity”.

“That you could actually do what the Republic did, but do it even better, in terms of attracting foreign capital and in terms of attracting in foreign talent. I think you’re in a great position, if only somebody could stand up and say look here’s the opportunity.

“It’s kind of like an open goal.”