Jonathan Caine is a Conservative peer and former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office.
Over the past couple of years, it has become increasingly fashionable to assume that a united Ireland is now somehow inevitable. This view extends well beyond the traditional and most devoted champions of Irish unity. Many media commentators across these islands seem to assume that for those of us who support the Union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, the game is finally up and that the end of the Union will happen in a matter of a few years at most.
A number of factors have contributed to this – in my view both erroneous and actually grossly irresponsible – position. They have included the three years in which Northern Ireland lacked a functioning, power-sharing government, leading some to question whether the so-called ‘struggle’ for Irish unity was entering a new, post-1998 Agreement phase.
Then, most obviously, there were the uncertainties presented by Brexit and the Irish border used, at least until the 2019 UK General Election produced such a clear outcome, by republicans to push their campaign for a border poll.
Now, added to these, has been the Covid-19 pandemic and its effective ‘weaponising’ by those who advocate the need for an ‘all-island’ approach to health as a proxy towards a united Ireland. Central to the argument has been the respective responses to the crisis of governments in London, Belfast and Dublin.
A narrative has been allowed to gain hold that while the UK, including Northern Ireland, has been at best slow and at worst incompetent, the reaction in the Republic has been more surefooted and effective. As a result, it is argued, there have been far fewer deaths south of the Irish border.
In a Policy Exchange research note, published this week, Graham Gudgin – the think tank’s Chief Economic Adviser and former special adviser to Lord Trimble as First Minister of Northern Ireland – successfully debunks a number of myths propagated by those who have sought to politicise a tragic, global, human health pandemic – though not, it should be pointed out, the current Irish Government.
He notes that the President of Sinn Fein has argued that the crisis “dwarfs Brexit in terms of reflecting the danger of partition, the fact that it’s not sustainable, and the necessity for us to work as one island”. This is not a line, thankfully, that Leo Varadkar has echoed. The Taoiseach has wisely not sought to claim that policies in Ireland are more effective than those in Northern Ireland.
The argument is not, however, Sinn Fein’s alone. A wider discussion about the effectiveness of UK policy as applied to Northern Ireland has taken place in academia and among public health experts. One notable intervention came from the retired Queen’s University sociologist professor, Mike Tomlinson, in the pages of the Irish Times.
He argued, as the headline put it, that “Ireland is one island with very different death rates” – and that southern policy had been much better at keeping people alive during the pandemic. He provided charts to illustrate that the per capita death rate associate with the coronavirus pandemic is 50 per cent higher in Norther Ireland than in the Republic. This was due, he claimed, to the North’s “lower rates of testing, the lack of contact tracing, and slower application of lockdown measures compared with the Republic”.
Anyone who has listened to England’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, in recent weeks will know that international comparisons are inherently very difficult and, as he recently put it in a Downing Street press conference, “largely a fruitless exercise” for the time being.
Indeed Dr Gudgin shows that in Ireland’s case, North-South comparisons are “bedevilled by definitional differences”. In addition, the UK Statistics Authority has recently urged the Northern Ireland Department of Health to improve the quality and presentation of its published data. It is no surprise, therefore, that the paper concludes that “it is not possible to reach any definitive conclusion and certainly not the conclusions drawn by Tomlinson”.
Even the available evidence “leads to a conclusion that the death rate in Northern Ireland is almost identical to that in the Republic”. This judgement is supported by the health authorities, North and South.
Dr Gudgin also takes aim at those in the media – whose overall performance throughout this pandemic will be a matter of scrutiny for some time to come – who “uncritically accept superficial or incorrect evidence on the superiority of Irish policy on Covid”. In this rush to judgement, crucial factors have been overlooked, including the matter of timing in the arrival of the epidemic. It also might be more worthwhile comparing the difference in approach and outcome in the whole of these islands and countries in the Far East and Australasia.
Of course, any comprehensive assessment of the response of governments across the globe to Covid-19 will take time, itself alien to the 24-hour rolling news cycle. It may be many months before we have a definitive international comparison.
Yet, for me and many others, rather than advancing the case for Irish unity, if anything the current crisis has reinforced once again the strength and security that Northern Ireland gains from being part of the United Kingdom.
That includes a National Health Service that has coped brilliantly with the demands placed upon it. It is a view that is also underlined by the scale of the support for businesses and families that derive from being an integral part of one of the leading global economies and something which no other constitutional relationship could hope to match.
Looking ahead, there are wider questions about how the United Kingdom Government makes a stronger case for the benefits of the Union for all the peoples of our country. These are not, however, arguments for today when the overriding need should be for all people to come together, whatever to fight the virus and keep people safe, rather than seeking to exploit it for blatantly political ends. We need a discussion based on fact, not prejudice, and Dr Gudgin’s paper provides exactly that.