If Britain leaves the EU, it could start a domino effect – at the end of which is a united Ireland

Here’s a scenario that might not be too far-fetched. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, one that would be welcomed here; but it could happen. What will happen if Britain votes to leave the European Union in five weeks’ time?

What happens to Northern Ireland? The DUP is campaigning for Brexit, but Brexit may loosen the UK so much that the DUP could be signing its own death warrant. Here is the possible scenario that will unfold if there’s a break-up of the UK. The English lead the British out of Europe. The Scottish then go to the polls again, wanting to stay in Europe. They have to leave the UK to stay in the EU, and by a small margin they vote to stay in Europe but leave the English. Not unfeasible.

The rump UK becomes an entity involving a eurosceptic England, a modestly pro-European but compliant Wales and an ever-divided Northern Ireland. However it is a Northern Ireland shorn of its fraternal brothers, the Scots – in a union with the ambivalent English. There has never been the same cultural affinity between the English and the Northern Unionists.

The cultural glue of Protestant Northern Ireland within the UK is Scotland. I have some experience of this. My grandparents were Scottish. My wife is from Belfast. My children were born in the Ulster Hospital (where the missus and me were the only couple at the pre-natal classes not in his-and-hers matching Rangers tracksuits).

Unlike many Southerners, my bonds with that part of the world are strong. Ethnically, without Scotland, the union of Northern Ireland and a multicultural but nationalistic little England is not particularly coherent.

All the while, the demographic forces are on the side of nationalism.

As I write, I am looking at demographics in Northern Ireland from the 2011 census. The most interesting statistic shows the proportion of Catholics and Protestants in various age groups. Of the elderly, those over-90 in the North, 64 per cent are Protestant and 25 per cent are Catholic. A total of 9 per cent had no declared religion.

This reflects the religious status quo when these people were born, in the 1920s, and more or less reflects the realities of the Treaty.

When you look at those children and babies born since 2008, the picture changes dramatically. This corresponding figure is 31 per cent Protestant and 44 per cent Catholic. In one (admittedly long) lifetime, the Catholic population in the youngest cohort has nearly doubled, while the Protestant cohort has more than halved.

Even given the fact that 23 per cent of parents of infants declared themselves as having no religion, we seem to be en route to a united Ireland.

Up to now, there has been a significant number of Northern Irish Catholics who might have felt that staying with the UK was the right thing to do for their back pockets. But when you look at the numbers you can see clearly that this is a bizarre choice.

A cursory glance at the performance of the Northern Irish economy since 1922 would suggest that the Union has been an economic disaster for the people of Northern Ireland. They have been impoverished by the Union and this shows no sign of letting up. The only solace the Northerners might hold onto is the fact that all British regions have lost out income-wise to Southern England; however, “we’re all getting poor together” is hardly a persuasive chorus for an ode to the Union. Indeed, the relative under-performance of the once-rich Scottish economy was (and is) a central argument of the Scottish Nationalists in the last referendum.

However, forget the other British regions: the contrast between the economic performances of the North and South is shocking.

If we go back to 1920, 80 per cent of the industrial output of the entire island of Ireland came from the three counties centred on Belfast. This was where all Irish industry was. It was industrial and innovative; northern entrepreneurs and inventors were at the forefront of industrial innovation. By 1911, Belfast was the biggest city in Ireland, with a population of close to 400,000, which was growing rapidly. It was by far the richest part of the island.

In contrast, the rest of the Irish economy was agricultural and backward and the only industrial base we had could be termed a ‘beer and biscuits’ economy, dominated by the likes of Guinness and Jacobs.

Fast-forward to now and the collapse of the once-dynamic Northern economy versus that of the Republic is shocking. Having been a fraction of the North’s at independence, the Republic’s industrial output is now ten times greater than that of Northern Ireland. Exports from the Republic are €89 billion while from the North, exports are a paltry €6 billion. This obviously reflects multinationals, but it also underscores just how far ahead the Republic’s industrial base is. Producing 15 times more exports underscores a vast difference in terms of the globalisation of business.

The total size of the Republic’s economy is now four times of that of the North, even though the labour force is not even two and a half times bigger. In terms of income per head, the Republic is now almost twice as rich per person as the North. The average income per head in the Republic is €39,873, while it languishes at €23,700 up North.  The differing fortunes of North and South can be easily seen in the fact that, having been smaller than Belfast at the time of partition, the population of the greater Dublin area is now almost three times bigger than the greater Belfast metropolitan region.

Obviously there are significant differences in terms of prices, access to public services and housing between the two parts of the island, but the fact remains that the Union has been an economic calamity for everyone in the North. The contrast is made more significant by the fact that economically the North was, at one stage, so far ahead of the South. So where does that leave us?

Well, in the distant past, there was good reason to believe that the Union preserved living standards in the North, but this is a myth and has not been the case since 1990. Indeed, the end of the Troubles, which should have marked the resurgence of the relative performance of the North, has actually delivered the opposite.

Relative to the South, the Northern economy has fallen backwards since the guns were silenced. If there was an economic peace dividend, it went South.

Now with Brexit looming and the concrete and more profound underlying changes in demography, the issue of a united Ireland may be back on the table quicker than most of us imagined – or cared to dread.

Interestingly, Unionists have now an economic incentive to join a united Ireland because the Union is impoverishing them, but I suspect they’d prefer to get poor in a semi-detached UK rather than join a much more coherent all-Ireland economic endeavour.

The clock is ticking and the starting gun could be the Brexit vote.

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