Forcing Ireland’s equal education system on Northern Ireland middle class would be ‘unpopular’

Northern Ireland’s educational system does not offer equality of opportunity to children from different backgrounds. Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

Forcing the Irish education system’s “equality of opportunity” on Northern Ireland’s middle class nationalists and unionists in a united Ireland would be “very unpopular”, an economist has claimed.

John FitzGerald, adjunct professor at Trinity College Dublin, has said Northern Ireland’s educational system does not offer equality of opportunity to children from different backgrounds, with “particularly damaging effects” for working-class children.

He told the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement that if Northern Ireland was to reform its education system, it would reduce the cost of a unification.

Prof FitzGerald published a report last month which estimated that the reunification of Ireland would cost around 20 billion euro a year for two decades.

The findings were published by the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA).

The report took into account the current level of funding Northern Ireland receives from the UK Government, as well as the share of UK national debt it presumed would carry into a united Ireland.

Prof FitzGerald, who co-authored the report with Edgar Morgenroth, a professor of economics at DCU Business School, spoke to the committee about Northern Ireland’s educational system.

“If you think about this huge problem with the education system in Northern Ireland, we on this island, the ethos is one of equality of opportunity, whether you’re from a poor agriculture background or a working-class background, you should have an equal opportunity,” Prof FitzGerald said.

“If you unify and the educational system has not been reformed in Northern Ireland, do you immediately force the Irish system on Northern Ireland, which I know will be very unpopular with middle class nationalists as well as unionists-background people.

“Or do you leave it there where there’s an ethos that doesn’t believe in equality of opportunity, and doesn’t look after kids from disadvantaged backgrounds in Northern Ireland?

“You really need to do that and have that in place before you unify because for the Republic to say ‘you’re going to have to accept our ethos of equality of opportunity if you want to join us’, that’s going to be a difficult sell.

“That’s why I think it is vital that Northern Ireland reforms itself first.”

Prof FitzGerald also said he estimated that to raise Northern Ireland welfare rates and public sector pay rates to the levels in Ireland, would cost around another 5% of national income.

“Commentary on our report has quite rightly highlighted the fact that the subvention to the North is only one element of the major economic changes on this island that would result from unification,” he added.

“There would be a wide range of other factors, some of them positive and many of them negative. These have not yet been seriously examined.”

Fine Gael TD Fergus O’Dowd asked if they considered whether a significant contribution to reunification would come from the European Union, the UK or the US.

Prof FitzGerald said: “It’s very hard to see a large enough contribution from Europe to make a difference given that Ireland will still be one of the richest countries in Europe.

“To expect the rest of Europe to subsidise Ireland when we have chosen to unify is unlikely but it’s possible.

“In terms of the UK, they could be very generous, but if they’re very generous with Ireland, it has major implications in terms of Scotland.

“We don’t know for certain. We just think it’s unlikely.”

Prof Morgenroth said the cost of reunification could end up being higher, as the report did not include one-off costs such as changing road signs.

“Unification itself would lead to additional costs and there are a huge range of them. Some of them probably quite minor, others probably quite large,” he added.

“They ultimately end up on the practical side of things and we see this currently with Brexit. There were costs associated with Brexit that nobody anticipated and unification, because you’re trying to unify two systems, it’s very, very similar only in the other direction.”

He also told the committee that the report “just talks about cost”.

“We don’t talk about the value of what might arise and that’s a really important thing,” he added.

“Our paper and our work is trying to stimulate some discussions about how we how unification could be done most efficiently and best for the people rather than saying we should or shouldn’t do it.”

Sinn Féin TD Rose Conway-Walsh was critical of last month’s report.

“It was difficult to understand how such strong conclusions were given and explicitly, considering the narrow focus of the work that you have done,” she said.

“I think it’s just important that you don’t have too many nuances. Obviously, you have to have certain assumptions in any paper, but the assumption just seems to go towards a headline of 20 billion euro.”

Prof FitzGerald also told Fianna Fail’s Brendan Smith about the issues of students and graduates leaving Northern Ireland to study and work in Great Britain.

“Kids who leave school with A-levels go to England, they don’t come to the Republic to university, predominantly. They go to England, not Scotland and two-thirds of them don’t come back,” Prof FitzGerald said.

“They are predominantly from the unionist community and they don’t go back to Northern Ireland. It’s a huge potential asset.”

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