The apparent softening of Sinn Féin's determination to achieve Irish reunification and sovereignty as soon as possible has led some commentators to draw incorrect conclusions. From the extremes of unionism there comes crowing about how unionism is now dominant, while from the extremes of republicanism come accusations of betrayal.
Yet at the same time both extremes are keenly aware that Sinn Féin continues to push an agenda that is nationalist in word and deed. Sinn Féin has clearly not capitulated to unionism, and equally clearly has not betrayed its republican aspirations. Unionists continue to whine about Sinn Féin's on-going policy of removing, or balancing, British and unionist symbols, in contradiction to their claims of unionist dominance.
So what is really happening? Why is Sinn Féin not pushing for immediate British withdrawal, and immediate Irish sovereignty?
One possible reason is staring us all in the face. In the current economic climate unionism is right about one thing – the south could not afford the north. The sheer scale of the dependence of Northern Ireland on financial transfers from wealthy south-east England means that immediate British withdrawal would lead to economic meltdown, not just in the north but also in the south, which would have to try to foot the bills. To be blunt, Northern Ireland is an economic basket-case kept going only by the fact that the majority of its people live off the taxes of the British. In the current recession that is not going to change – there are simply not going to be any big new investments in Northern Ireland in the next few years. Ironically, however, Northern Ireland's welfare dependence may mean that it will suffer less from the recession than other parts of Ireland or Britain.
The best short-term financial strategy for Northern Ireland, therefore, is to continue to suck money out of south-east England until the global economy improves. In this way people in Northern Ireland have a standard of living that is far superior to that that their productivity would provide, and they have no strong incentive to change that situation. Given the complexities of the British taxation and expenditure systems, any increase in productivity in Northern Ireland would not particularly benefit people in Northern Ireland. In the same way, a non-functioning private sector economy does not particularly reduce the standard of living in Northern Ireland.
The demographic evolution of Northern Ireland's population is going to deliver a Catholic majority within a generation, and this will, in all likelihood, translate into a nationalist majority – or at least a nationalist plurality. When this happens, and national re-unification becomes the principal political issue in Ireland, it will be important for Northern Ireland not to be seen as a welfare dependent drag on the economy. But this situation is still 15 years away – another two full business cycles. In the meantime, while demography is working its discreet magic, Sinn Féin's strategy may simply be to work away on removing the visible symbols of Britishness, while deliberately extracting as much money as possible from the British state – a form of invisible reparations for the generations of damage and division that Britain has caused in Ireland.
In this way Sinn Féin will be in a position to lead Northern Ireland into the new Ireland with good roads, schools, hospitals, housing and infrastructure, all financed by the unwitting British taxpayer. Unionist boasts of intra-UK solidarity are hollow when the 'solidarity' is in reality a one-way flow from south-east England to poorer regions including Northern Ireland. But the real irony is that these transfers are acting as reparations payments that will in turn facilitate the reunification of Ireland in a few years.