As with all immature arguments there is a partial truth at its heart, but the partial truth is distorted and exaggerated to give the appearance of an irrefutable proof.
The net cost of Northern Ireland is certainly high, but no-one really knows how high. Tax revenues are subsumed into the British exchequer, and some expenditure (on reserved or excepted matters) cannot be separated from that of the UK as a whole. But in order to fund its devolved responsibilities Northern Ireland receives some £10 billion a year from London.
Clearly the Dublin government, already facing a monumental budget deficit, would not be capable of matching this type of transfer – even with Northern Irish tax revenues taken into account it is likely that Northern Ireland is a net recipient of several billion pounds a year.
Of course there is no reason why the cost of Northern Ireland could not be met by simply reducing its cost – cutting expenditure on Quangos, schools, roads, and social welfare. But if a post-reunification Dublin government did that, then a lot of people, and not just unionists, would question the wisdom of reunification.
On that level the immature unionists are right – Northern Ireland is so dependent on outside funding, and so incapable of supporting itself, that it must remain on welfare for the foreseeable future. The question, though, is whether the generosity of London will, or can, continue.
Britain is also suffering, and suffering badly. As The Economist put it: "Britain’s public finances, however, are on some measures the worst of any rich country. It is likely to have a bigger deficit in 2010, as a percentage of GDP, than even the likes of Italy. With the financial heart shot out of the economy, tax revenues have fallen dramatically just as social spending has increased. That is unavoidable; but the government’s heavy borrowing, even before recession hit, was not. Now Mr Brown needs to tap the markets for £175 billion ($254 billion) in the current fiscal year and the same the year after. In last year’s budget, public net debt was expected to be 39% of GDP this year; now it is put at 59%, and likely to increase to 79% by 2013-14. This outcome would push Britain only to the middle of the rich-country pack. But the rapid increase in borrowing is eye-watering."
And this is before Britain addresses the other issues that it has been putting off: the need to build hugely expensive power stations to replace the aged ones that are in use, the need to upgrade road and rail infrastructures, the appalling schools, the impending pensions time-bomb, and so on. Unemployment in the UK has just risen by "the biggest quarterly rise since records of the ILO measure began in 1971".
Faced with almost insurmountable financial problems at home, the British government may increasingly cast a jaundiced eye at its ungrateful yet costly little colony across the Irish Sea. A British government that is, to most extents, an English government, but one with a need to keep Scotland sweet, may increasingly resent the billions of pounds that Northern Ireland costs, especially when it sees, night after night, that the 'natives' are a mixture of rebellious nationalists and costly 'loyalists'. English money spent policing Northern Ireland's unnecessary and downright illiberal 'marching season' could have been spent on schools or hospitals. If the British government took a closer look at the costs of the dozens of Quangos and tribunals that add precisely nothing to the wellbeing of the people, yet provide some people with a standard of living much higher than that of working people in Britain, it may be tempted to rethink its generosity. The extent to which Northern Ireland depends on taxpayer-funded jobs, and its apparent lack of interest in actually creating any wealth, must grate on voters and politicians from areas where people work hard and take risks.
So Northern Ireland is caught in a fork. By remaining dependent, and producing far less than it consumes, it remains unaffordable for Dublin, and this puts a brake on aspirations for reunification. But by the same token, by remaining dependent it taxes London's patience. Nobody would suggest that Britain would ever unilaterally cast Northern Ireland aside without a border poll in favour of reunification, but if London starts to feel that the cost of Northern Ireland, and its careless dependency, is at the expense of improvements in Britain itself, attitudes towards Northern Ireland could harden.
If the power-brokers in London decide that something must be done to reduce the Northern Irish drain on the British exchequer, this could involve two possibilities, neither of which is in unionism's interests:
- A Tory government (and maybe the next one) might decide that Northern Ireland's welfare addiction must be cured. The cure could mean a radical slimming of the bloated public services, the overlapping authorities, and the unaccountable Quangos. Thousands, even tens of thousands of cushy jobs could be lost. Northern Ireland could be expected to stand on its own feet, and contribute to the British exchequer for the first time in generations. Wages would tumble as unemployment rose, and Northern Ireland would become a low-cost back-office for richer parts of Europe. The 'cost' of Northern Ireland to the British exchequer would drop, as its tax revenues would start to balance out the transfer from London that covers the costs of the remaining public services. But at the same time, of course, the potential cost for Dublin would also drop, and unionism's childish taunt that "Dublin couldn't afford us" would no longer be true. Reunification would not cost Dublin much money, and it would inherit a reasonably sound economy in Northern Ireland.
- A British government of either flavour could decide to use its undoubted influence to act as a 'persuader for Irish unity'. There is no doubt that it could make life much more uncomfortable for unionism, and if the demographic and electoral tide towards a nationalist majority became clearer, the British government could push the process of Irish reunification forward rather faster than unionism might want.
Unionism's 'strength through weakness' – the unaffordability of Northern Ireland – could turn out to be simply a weakness. No government in the current climate will happily subsidise an underperforming, yet sullen and difficult, region. But any solution to Northern Ireland's welfare dependence will render Irish reunification easier and more likely.