Brian Feeney: Where is Dublin's reunification plan?

Brian Feeney

Brian Feeney

Historian and political commentator Brian Feeney has been a columnist with The Irish News for three decades. He is a former SDLP councillor in Belfast and co-author of the award-winning book Lost Lives

Former Royal Irish Ranger and UUP party officer Glenn Bradley told John Manley in Monday’s Irish News, “yes, I’m looking at Irish unity – and yes, I accept that at the minute there isn’t a plan, but there’s nothing wrong with discussion.”

Bradley also hit out at the oft-repeated popular myth about the NHS being ‘the best in the world’. Its committed staff are undervalued, underpaid and overworked and the service is underfunded. It has been so since the Conservatives took over in 2010 and the main culprit was the long time health secretary now chancellor Jeremy Hunt. The medical journal The Lancet ranks the NHS 23rd in the world, but the Republic 11th. The Republic has longer life expectancies and better health outcomes than here.

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Most people in the north haven’t a clue about the south’s health and education systems. They don’t know the south pays vastly higher benefits than the UK. If you’re single and under 25 you get £265 a month universal credit. In the south from January you’ll get €220 a week (sic) jobseekers benefit. How would people here know this? The electronic media here is silent about all such details only comparing the north with, altogether now, ‘the rest of the UK’.

This ignorance is pertinent to the growing conversations about Irish reunification. Currently the Irish Times is publishing the results of a comprehensive series of polls and focus groups conducted by universities in Ireland and the US on the subject of referendums on reunification and constitutional structures. One remarkable feature about the findings is the large number of ‘don’t knows’ in the north – 19 per cent. It’s true that in the north ‘don’t know’ often means ‘won’t say’, but nonetheless, other findings show uncertainty about the social and economic consequences of voting for reunification.

As Glenn Bradley says, “there isn’t a plan”. Such polls are therefore asking people to voice their opinion on something that’s unknown. That means their opinion is mainly based on sentiment and emotion rather than on any firm facts presented to them.

It’s notable that in 2012 only about 30 per cent of Scots backed independence, but in the 2014 referendum 45 per cent backed it. What happened in the interim was that the SNP produced a book hundreds of pages long describing exactly how independence would work so people knew what they were voting for (or against).

The difference in Ireland is stark. Since the shambles of Brexit the debate on Irish reunification has intensified and developed including universities, civic groups, political parties, seminars, podcasts, but disgracefully, from the one voice that is missing and the most necessary voice, that of the Irish government, there is a deafening silence. Their only response is dishonest: “now is not the time” they say in the full knowledge that no one is asking for a referendum now. People ask for a plan as Glenn Bradley does

At least the present Irish government is consistent with its predecessors. No Irish government, never mind any taoiseach, since partition has given a second’s thought to how the country could be reunified. No Irish government has ever had a policy about how to reunite the island, and incidentally, this gap is one which astonishes EU politicians and officials in Brussels. They respond to individual Irish politicians advocating reunification there by saying that since the Irish government doesn’t advocate unity they can’t very well step in and invent such a policy for them.

In contrast to poll results for the north where a clear majority opposes reunification, in the south 66 per cent would vote for it. You might think a government that saw a policy supported by two-thirds of voters would jump at a chance to promote such a policy and devise a plan. Not this Irish government, nor will they.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have created a cosy cartel for themselves they’ll not disturb until the voters remove them. Change is in the air.