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Joe Brolly and Sinn Féin are sick of experts. Have any of them heard of Brexit?

The united Ireland conversation involves listening to people who don’t agree with you and whose advice you don’t want to hear

“I think the people in this country have had enough of experts,” the British minister and leading Brexiteer Michael Gove said at the height of the Brexit campaign in 2016.

He was right, too, as the result of the referendum showed. The British people had indeed enough of the experts who were warning them about the economic effects of Brexit. They are repenting that particular mistake at their leisure now. And while pondering the fact that Brexit has not actually cut the levels of immigration to the UK, they might also consider the desperate damage that Brexit has caused to Britain’s standing in the world.

There was once a time when the UK was seen by countries all over the world as an exemplar in politics and statecraft, a model to be emulated. Now, alas, it is seen as the opposite – as a warning about a particular type of politics.

Nowhere is the folly of Brexit more keenly appreciated than in Ireland, where we had a ringside seat and skin in the game. Which is why the lessons of Brexit should be so apparent to us.

As one Northerner said during the focus-group discussion: ‘The way Brexit was handled... was completely arse about face. They agreed to leave and then they negotiated it. That was completely bizarre’

Many participants in focus groups for last year’s North and South series, which examined attitudes to a possible united Ireland and related issues, were very clear about the lessons of Brexit: if and when border polls come in the two jurisdictions, many participants said, they want to know what’s on offer. What are the plans for a united Ireland? What would it look like? What will change? What will stay the same? And how much will it cost?

As one Northerner said during the focus-group discussion: “The way Brexit was handled... was completely arse about face. They agreed to leave and then they negotiated it. That was completely bizarre. So, for the Ireland debate it has to be the other way around. Agree the terms of leaving and then put it to the vote.”

Some participants in The Irish Times Inside Politics live podcast in Belfast this week said much the same.

Northern Ireland has weathered Jeffery Donaldson's shock departure - for now

Listen | 68:34

And Sinn Féin and the wider united Ireland movement have been saying similar things – we need to work out what a united Ireland looks like. Their favourite word is “conversation”. Let’s have the conversation about a united Ireland, they say. Let’s hear from everyone.

But like Michael Gove, it seems, some of them don’t want to hear from experts when they don’t like their conclusions.

Last week, the pro-conversationalists sought to jump all over the recent report from economists John FitzGerald and Edgar Morgenroth, which calculated that a united Ireland could cost the Republic up to €20 billion a year for 20 years. They rubbished the research, sought to discredit its methodology and in some cases, attacked the authors personally.

Sinn Féin TDs, including chief whip Pádraig McLochlainn and others, disputed the findings and insisted that after unification the British government would still be obliged to fund some costs in the former Northern Ireland, an approach characterised by some unionists as “feck off and leave your wallet on the table”.

Those who didn’t like the conclusions questioned the research, citing other more favourable surveys and reports.

But the outburst by Joe Brolly, football pundit, barrister and spokesman for Northern nationalism’s resentment of their Southern confreres, was an ominous foretaste of how a united Ireland debate in the future could become bitter, personalised and partisan.

John FitzGerald, he said, “is Fine Gael royalty. His grandfather a founding member of FG. As taoiseach, his father Garret supported Margaret Thatcher’s position on the hunger strikes. He loathed our community.”

Talk about playing the man, not the ball. It’s a good example of how partisans – on all sides, probably – will seize on anything that bolsters their case, and dismiss anything that doesn’t. If FitzGerald’s research had found that a united Ireland would lead to an economic nirvana, Brolly would probably have hailed the fact his grandfather fought in the GPO in 1916.

Brolly’s outbursts are not infrequent, and occasionally entertaining. I agree with him about Gaelic football, as it happens. But this one was a warning to us that the passions that will be stirred by the united Ireland debate will be intense and combustible. People may be personally attacked for their views and beliefs. This is not an argument to avoid that debate; it is, however, an argument to proceed cautiously towards it. And if it comes, to conduct that debate in a civil and constructive fashion. To bear in mind the idea that is so often missing from politics – that people can in good faith disagree.

And what of the substance of the question about the economics of a united Ireland?

What is beyond doubt is that we will need a comprehensive economic assessment of all aspects of unity – even if the big unknown would be political stability in the wake of unity

On the one hand, the recent history of this country would suggest that providing for worst-case scenarios would be the prudent thing to do. Before the financial crash unfolded a decade and a half ago, politicians and economists were full of soothing noises about a soft landing.

On the other hand, departing taoiseach Leo Varadkar made important observations this week. He underestimated, he said, the capacity of the economy to bounce back after the financial crisis and again after the pandemic. Had he not done so, he said, a programme of public investment – especially in housing – could have been commenced earlier. Maybe it would, maybe not – but he’s right about the strength of the Irish economy.

What is beyond doubt is that we will need a comprehensive economic assessment of all aspects of unity – even if the big unknown would be political stability in the wake of unity. The economic debate, and indeed the wider political debate, should be about facts, truth and reality. Not a shouting match about what side you’re on. Conversations require listening as well as talking. And let’s not get it arse about face.


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