The most worn-out phrase of any debate about a United Ireland is the old reliable “Sure, we can’t afford it!” The reality is that it simply isn’t true. Whatever the cost of replacing the UK exchequer subsidy of the north, which will probably be north of €4-6billion annually at a minimum, we are one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
Whatever the figure (and you’d think we’d want to get a grip on that) we can probably afford it.
What I find striking though, are those who suggest that we can afford it but then proceed to list out the various sections of society who should not be expected to bear any additional tax burden, as if those sections of society are not as committed to the common republican sacrifice required to ensure living standards in the north are maintained at current or higher levels.
I simply refuse to believe that low income groups or pensioners who vote for a United Ireland are not willing to take their fair share of the increased tax burden or reductions in social welfare to ensure that people living in Derry or the Shankill have their incomes protected or improved to reach our level of pension provision or unemployment assistance. There are no shortage of patriotic public sector workers, civil servants and nurses willing to take pay reductions to assist in bringing northern public servants, who are paid less than ours, up to our level. This is, after all, the completion of the great national project and no section of society can claim greater patriotism.
We should confront many of the questions for our own benefit:
- What is the actual subsidy amount, the difference between public service provision and taxes raised in the north?
- Will we increase VAT in the north from current 20% to meet our 23% to raise revenue for those services?
- Will NHS spending be guaranteed to UK levels as a bare legal minimum going forward, with spending increases decided by the British treasury legally matched through Irish taxation?
- What NI welfare/public sector pay will be brought up to ROI levels, how much will it cost, and when?
- Will northern public employees working for UK wide services have their employment, pensions and T&Cs guaranteed?
- How will we decouple NI’s share of UK national debt, UK owned assets (Buildings, hospitals, roads, council housing etc) and future pension liabilities? It’s not enough to say Not Our Problem as someone has to pay pensions the following week, and UK could decide, pending failure to agree, to simple deduct asset value from pension liability.
- NI, being markedly poorer than ROI, will be eligible for EU funding. What level EU funding are we talking about? Can we get this agreed before the referendum? Same with any US funding, which is looking less likely.
- What spending reductions/tax increases in the ROI will be required to close the gap? Should we levy a unity tax NOW on incomes, pensions and welfare payments for a locked Unity Fund to act as a cushion for the future? Would certainly provide reassurance for the people of West Belfast or Ballymena.