Political representatives from a variety of political backgrounds are, in one way or another, beginning to address the constitutional future of our island.
It can be taken as a given that while many nationalists push for a border poll to achieve a united Ireland, unionists fight against it to preserve their place in the United Kingdom.
What appears less clear, however, is the reasoning in either side’s arguments, much of it hidden behind age-old rhetoric, particularly on the issues that young people find themselves concerned with.
In this article, The Student Social attempts to break through the rhetoric and into the reality of the situation.
The calls for a border poll and Irish unity were undoubtedly accelerated by Brexit. The fact that the north voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU during the 2016 referendum has been latched onto by those advocating a border poll. This will be of particular interest to young people who voted overwhelmingly to remain, particularly in the 18-24 age bracket.
Speaking on BBC’s Question Time, Sinn Féin’s Vice President and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill noted “that the EU have said in the event of a successful unity referendum, the north would automatically go back into the EU with the rest of Ireland.”
However, Stuart Hughes, an Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) councillor and Chairperson of the Ulster Young Unionists (the party’s youth wing), made the argument that the UK outside of the EU will still retain considerable influence internationally in a post-Brexit world, citing its “global and strategic importance.”
“(The UK) is still going to be a very influential soft power in diplomatic terms, whether that’s with the permanent seat on the UN Security Council, as part of NATO, or whether it’s our diplomatic relations with the US.”
Councillor Hughes accepts that this alone may not make enough of a case for the union to convince young people, but argues that “what does sell (the union) is its economics.”
“It’s not just about accepting that the economy we have at the minute is perfect”, he says, while also stating that “those economic concerns aren’t going to just go away if you have a united Ireland.”
“There are large employers that are based in Northern Ireland because of its place in the UK, that employ people because their staff can be in the UK. And yes, they are perhaps taking advantage of, perhaps, a lower cost base and lower salaries, and it’s those types of jobs we need to attract and we are attracting.”
He also says that the north is one of the “big up-and-coming” places in the UK in terms of tech investment.
“If people are wealthier, then I think constitutionally they’ll be happier.”
Sinn Féin, however, argue that the economic needs of the north cannot be addressed by a government in London.
In a discussion paper entitled ‘Economic Benefits of a United Ireland’, the party claimed:
“The economic impact of this relationship on the North of Ireland is clear, and decidedly negative. The North is the slowest growing economy on these islands, and teetered towards recession in 2018 even as the British and southern Irish economies grew.”
The paper argues that, unlike in the south where citizens can lobby the government directly on national issues, citizens in the north “must hope that a Tory or Labour government in Britain, with no mandate in the North makes economic policy in line with the needs of Newry, Ballymena and Omagh.”
It also claims that, as result of an out-of-touch government in London, the labour market in the north can be characterised “by jobs that are lower-paid and less secure than anywhere else in Ireland or Britain”, citing figures from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency.
The same paper also argues, as a result of the border, resources along the border region are divided amongst a huge number of bodies, including local councils, Westminster, the NI Assembly and its Executive as well as the Oireachtas, effectively stifling the growth of the economy of the island of Ireland as a whole.
A key concern, and a major selling point for unionists, is the National Health Service (NHS), largely viewed as superior to healthcare in the south.
Councillor Hughes acknowledges that the NHS in the north is currently “under considerable pressure”, but argues that “the model it provides for healthcare is most certainly the model we need to be pursuing.”
Hughes’ UUP colleague Robin Swann is currently Minister for Health in the north, and Hughes says that his party and colleague have been clear in their messaging since taking up the role. Hughes told The Student Social that his party “do believe in the NHS, we cherish the NHS and we want to see that longer-term investment into it.”
Opponents of the concept of the NHS, a healthcare system free at the point of use and funded through taxation, are far and few inbetween right across the political spectrum. Both Sinn Féin and People Before Profit are in favour of a border poll, and also want to see an all-island healthcare system based on the model of the NHS.
However, little progress has been made on this front, meaning people in the north losing access to the NHS in a united Ireland remains a valid concern. To date, the most notable progress has been a motion passed on Dublin City Council in support of all-island NHS. Such a decision, however, would have to be a result of north-south cooperation.