In some ways, the attitude of an increasing number of commentators to Irish re-unification is similar to the attitude of an increased number of commentators after the banking crisis of 2008.
Cast your mind back to the south’s general election of 2007. Remember the TV debate in which Minister for Justice Michael McDowell was seen as having exposed Gerry Adams as an “economic illiterate”? It’s a tag which has been stuck to Sinn Féin ever since, with that debate the foundation for its veracity. But if you check back on the debate, you’ll find that Gerry Adams was urging change in the division of wealth, with more government controls on the market. Michael McDowell was chuckling at such an analysis and, as befitted a Progressive Democrat, urging more of the Celtic Tiger, foot to the floor. So when the south’s economy had its massive car-crash a year later, which man was the economic illiterate? Under the iron thumb of the Troika, the south of Ireland quickly learned to jettison the McDowell line in economics.
Likewise Irish re-unification. There was a time when no southern politician dared speak favourably of nationalism, let alone re-unification. The only people doing that were Sinn Féin, and everybody knew they were a bunch of economically illiterate gunmen. Then we had the Good Friday Agreement and Sinn Féin’s commitment to politics made it harder to sell the gunman charge. And this year we’ve had Brexit, which has sent an electric jolt through the minds of people who wouldn’t have countenanced the thought of Irish re-unification.
In addition to the expected effect of Brexit on the north, there is the contrasting economic progress of the south as a continuing member of the EU. There was the economic report by Dr Kurt Hubner of the University of British Columbia, mapping the potential economic benefits to the north of re-unification. In last Wednesday’s Irish Times Kevin Meagher, a former special adviser to Shaun Woodward, argues a similar economic case. The SDLP have long since dumped their post-nationalist thinking, as articulated by John Hume. Unionists are lining up to get their hands on an Irish passport, urged on by Ian Paisley Jr. And it’s just not farmers who are feeling very nervous about the promises from Westminster that their loss of EU subsidies won’t hurt one little bit. More and more people would appear to be opening their political minds even as they tighten their economic safety-belts. What was once exclusively Sinn Féin thinking is being shared by more and more people.
As a Fermanagh woman, Arlene Foster probably is aware of this shift in thinking. But don’t mention it to her – she has enough to be thinking about as things are.