Posted By: May 20, 2023



Distributed to Congress by Irish National Caucus

If we follow the money, the destination is a united Ireland.

But it’s not quite that simple. Irish nationalists know that economic self-interest doesn’t determine people’s political actions and identities.

Fintan O’Toole. Irish Times. Dublin. Tuesday, May 16, 2023.


So, is the economy stupid? Or is it stupid to think that people’s sense of their collective identity is primarily shaped by economics?

These questions are not, for Ireland, abstract. The political future of the island hinges on how much – or how little – the Republic’s superior economic performance changes attitudes in Northern Ireland.

If “follow the money” is the way to discover the truth, the destination is clear: a united Ireland. But will politics really follow the money?

Unionists always liked to say of Catholics in Northern Ireland that “they know which side their bread is buttered on”. Now, the butter on the southern side is much thicker and creamier.

Last week, Alan Barrett, director of the ESRI, gave a pretty blunt account of the relative performance of the northern and southern economies to the Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. If this hearing were a boxing match, the referee would have stepped in to prevent further unionist suffering.

Gross national income per capita in the Republic is about 51 percent higher than the equivalent measure of GDP per capita in Northern Ireland. Household disposable income is about 12 percent higher in the Republic, even after accounting for the higher prices in the South.

At the start of this century, productivity levels were roughly similar on both sides of the Border. But by 2020, productivity levels were approximately 40 percent higher in the Republic than in Northern Ireland.

These big figures matter less than the real effects on ordinary people’s lives – but here too the Republic is doing much better. The proportion of individuals at risk of poverty is 14 percent in the North, but nine percent in the South.

Life expectancy in the Republic began to overtake that in the North in 2005, and children born south of the Border can now expect to live 1½ years longer than their northern cousins. Early school leaving is now more than twice as prevalent in the North as in the South.

Let’s get a bit Marxist here for a moment. Old Karl told us that “changes in the economic foundation lead, sooner or later, to the transformation of the whole, immense, superstructure” of “social, political, and intellectual life.”,

It may be, to them, a horrifying thought, but unionists have historically been very Marxist about the whole business of identity. It was the economic foundation that justified partition.

It is not of course that “culture” (religion, history, belonging) didn’t count – of course it did. But the economic argument was the nuclear weapon: even if you were losing the culture wars you could always press the red button of cold, hard monetary fact. This was potent because, for a long time, those facts really were on the side of unionism. If money talks it was saying No Surrender.

Irish nationalism, on the other hand, played the culture card. Partition was bad primarily because it violated the spiritual unity of the Irish nation.

Both sides played the hands they were dealt. Unionists had the economic trump card. Nationalists tried to counter it with their ace of hearts, the appeal to a “natural” order that takes priority over grubby materialism.

But the cards have been decisively reshuffled. Nationalism now holds the winning economic hand.

Except: does it actually win? Does economic self-interest determine our political actions and identities?

Well, Irish nationalists ought to know very well that it doesn’t. They should know this because, for a very long time, they themselves completely defied this logic.

Irish independence was, for many decades, a painfully costly economic failure. Living standards were much lower than those in the UK.

But would Irish people have voted in, say, 1955 – at the nadir of the State’s economic and social failure – to rejoin the UK on a promise of “leveling up” to its standards of living and the benefits of its progressive welfare state? Not a chance.

People vote against their own economic interests all the time. German reunification cost West Germans €1.3 trillion – they paid the price because it bought different kinds of political and cultural benefits.

We have, of course, another example closer to home: Brexit. It’s a cliche that the British didn’t vote to make themselves poorer, but that’s exactly what they did. Economic arguments were no match for symbolic satisfactions.

And nowhere is this more true than among unionists in Northern Ireland. The DUP’s hatred of the protocol makes no economic sense, but that does not stop them hating it.

If economic self-interest plays into the question of Irish unification, it is, ironically, in the South. The great unspoken truth is that many in the South don’t want to pay anything at all for unity.

As the balance of economic power on the island tilts ever more decisively southwards, unionists will have to double down on culture. They will do what Irish nationalists used to do when the economic arguments were against them: claim indifference to material things and talk up ideas of belonging. They will become less Marxist and more mystical.

This is why the superiority of the Republic’s economic performance is so startling and, at the same time, so irrelevant.