I think it would be fair to say that something like 90% of people in the Republic of Ireland never think about Northern Ireland these days, other than, very occasionally, as a place to go to do some cut-price shopping. The North doesn’t even enter their consciousness.
A striking example of this was on the evening of Friday 21st August, when the viaduct across the Malahide estuary which carries the main Dublin-Belfast railway line collapsed, with the prospect of serious disruption of that vital communications link for up to six months. In the reporting of this incident on RTE over the following weekend, it was as if the North did not exist. In the dozen or so news bulletins I heard, this was a ‘commuter’ line serving north Dublin and Louth. The 800,000 passengers who take the Enterprise express every year were simply invisible. It was not until the Sunday night that this changed, brought about – it seemed to me – by the spokesman for the Automobile Assocation, of all organisations, underlining the ‘iconic’ importance of the Dublin-Belfast line to the island of Ireland.
The deep economic crisis in the South is, of course, all-consuming when it comes to both politicians’ priorities and public concern, and this understandably leads to a turning inward of public opinion, a concentration on one’s own serious problems and a lessening of interest in the neighbour’s. That plainspoken Fianna Fail politician Martin Mansergh – the main architect of the Southern dimension of the peace process – articulated this well when he told the annual conference of the Institute for British-Irish Studies in June: “The Republic is engaged in a major struggle to maintain, within the EU and the euro zone, its economic viability and sovereignty. It is hardly the moment to press claims to the North which we have renounced, and, it has to be said, the advantages and flexibility of joining up with a small sovereign state in the present global turmoil are for the moment a lot less compelling today than they were two or three years ago.”¹
If the South’s economic crisis has pushed the prospect of a united Ireland well into the future in the view of one of Ireland’s most far-sighted political leaders, for ordinary people it is now a nonsense for more practical reasons. A survey this summer by the Southern magazine Consumer Choice found that the cost of commonly used services was now on average 30% higher in Dublin than in Belfast.
Dublin people now pay 45% more for a mechanic; 33% more for a plumber; 29% more for a dentist; and 25% more for a driving instructor or a chiropractor. The gap between dental charges can be even more dramatic: Consumer Choice found price differences for a routine dental examination and polish between the two cities of up to 54%.² Those of us who live and work between the two jurisdictions know that to go to the doctor in the South costs €50 just to walk into the surgery, whereas consultations are free in Northern Ireland. Unemployment in the heavily subsidised North is currently running at 6.7%, compared to 11.7% in the Republic.
It is reasonable to ask in these circumstances how anybody in their right mind could advocate moving to a united Ireland as a way forward for the island. Even the most fervent republican must accept that until the Republic has sorted out its massive problems of bank indebtedness, public finance overspend and loss of international competitiveness, Irish unity is simply off the agenda. One of the South’s most eminent economists, Frances Ruane, director of the Economic and Social Research Institute, estimated this month that the Republic would not return to the economic situation pertaining in 2007 before the latter half of the next decade³ – which, with some ironic symbolism, would mean not before 2016 at the earliest.
As Martin Mansergh said, the barriers to cooperation, communication and understanding, both within Northern Ireland and between North and South, have never been lower. Let’s concentrate on continuing to lower those barriers. Whether it is through the work of the Community Relations Council, One Small Step, and other ‘shared future’ organisations in Northern Ireland, or the North/South bodies – particularly those, led by InterTradeIreland, working towards an ‘island economy’ – Cooperation Ireland and the Centre for Cross Border Studies across the border, let us continue building on the success story of ‘cooperation, cooperation, cooperation’ which has done so much to underpin movement towards peace and reconciliation on this island. There is enough work in that difficult, painstaking process to keep us all busy for the next 10 years and more. We should be wise enough to concentrate on what we can achieve together as good neighbours rather than raise the level of threat once more by continuing to demand the impossible.
¹ United Ireland less compelling now, says Mansergh, The Irish Times, 10 June 2009
² Cost of common services 30% higher in Dublin than in Belfast, The Irish Times, 5 August 2009
³ Address at Merriman Summer School, Ennis, 22 August 2009