Oxford triumphs over Trinity in SER debate

The Hist hosted students from Oxford and Trinity in debating whether to unite Ireland post-Brexit.

The chamber in the GMB was full to the brim on Wednesday evening as the College Historical Society hosted the first of Trinity’s two annual Student Economic Review (SER) debates. Professor Gail McElroy, head of the School of Social Sciences and Philosophy at Trinity, served as chair. An esteemed panel of judges included both Imelda Maher, Dean of University College Dublin’s School of Law, and Queen’s University Belfast economics lecturer Dr Alan de Bromhead.

Before commencing the evening, Caoimhin Hamill, Record Secretary for the Hist, joked that 34 seconds of silence would be held in respect to The Phil for missing the registration deadline for a debating competition by the same margin last week. This elicited laughter from the audience as well as boos and jeers.

Captain for the Trinity team, Mark Finn, opened the debate in proposing the motion This House Would Unite Ireland Post Brexit. His opening was evocative and emotional, describing the economic hardship that would greet Northern Irish citizens as a consequence of Britain’s exit from the European Union. Finn highlighted the unfairness of the situation caused by “the devastating effect of Brexit.”

Xavier Redmond opened the case for the Oxford team in opposing the motion. Choosing to base his argument from a legal perspective, Redmond stated that it is increasingly likely that the UK will stay in the customs union post-Brexit and therefore will avoid the grim consequences for Northern Ireland as argued by Finn. Redmond highlighted the £10 billion pumped into Northern Ireland annually along with a spending deficit of 33% of economic output and how the Irish government would seek to address this in a unified Ireland.

Caoimhin Hamill responded from the Trinity team saying that in Redmond’s listing of legal terminology throughout his speech “he didn’t take the time to explain what any of that meant”. Countering Redmond’s argument, Hamill said “just because Theresa May said something will happen doesn’t necessarily mean that thing will happen”, which drew applause from those in attendance. Hamill also argued that the Troubles were caused by overwhelming economic inequality and that in modern times both Nationalist and Unionist communities “are human beings with jobs and families” and that economic necessity would force even staunch Unionists to consider a united Ireland.

Justin Graham of the Oxford team said that if the Trinity team could imply they would be able to shift the political calculus of Northern Ireland then the Oxford team could equally imply that a hard Brexit is not likely. He argued that in order to reunify Ireland, the Irish government would have to initiate massive cutbacks and by making Northern Irish civil servants redundant would increase unemployment as well as tax increases which would worsen economic conditions for both the North and South.

Ryan Grunwell compared the fortunes of both the Republic and the North, arguing that uniting the economic institutions and structures of both was the “only feasible long-run strategy.” The dominance of both Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party ensured that no policymaking gets done as there is little room to compromise between the two parties who represent communities that are still deeply divided. Grunwell slammed the suggestion that the Irish government would have to ensure the protection of the Protestant community as “in the history of Ireland both North and South, Protestants have never faced discrimination”.

Oxford team captain, Imogen Edwards Lawrence, stressed the primary concern of the debate should be the interests of the Northern Irish people and that currently “34% of those surveyed in the North would be open to the idea of a united Ireland, and only 11% would vote for it.” Hugh Murphy argued that a border must exist under a hard Brexit, but under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, there must be no implementation of this. The only solution that satisfies both requirements, he argued, is a unified Ireland that allows for greater social stability and cohesion, economic growth, and employment.

Sophie Furlong Tighe said that in the history of the two nations, Britain had exported all of its problems to Ireland. “The North is not a prize owed to Ireland after years of colonialist rule, but a continuation of this process, where the Irish people have no real appetite for it, and the Irish government would be unwilling to foot the bill.” Furlong Tighe concluded that “Britain must reap what it has sewn, and that they cannot run away from a political mistake like Brexit and expect Ireland to burden the cost.”

Harry Hogan drew laughter from the audience saying, “if there’s one thing I’ve learned about the economy over the past ten years is that no one has a clue what’s going on, and so I’ll follow Irish tradition and show no knowledge of economics whatsoever”.  Nicole O’Sullivan summarised saying, “The increasing likelihood of a unified Ireland would push Ireland further down the graph towards a frowny-face emoji”. While the decreasing likelihood of a united Ireland “would push Ireland further up the graph to a laughing-cry emoji”.

Professor McElroy then put the motion to the floor with the audience being in favour of the motion. McElroy offered her take on the possibility of a united Ireland, and highlighted a generational divide, in how younger generations in both communities North and South are more open to the idea but that in reality both the Republic and the North had moved on. Before adjourning the debate, the judges gave their verdict and announced the Oxford team as the winners of the debate, while Caoimhin Hamill was awarded best speaker.

Cian Mac Lochlainn

Cian Mac Lochlainn is an Economics and Politics student, and a staff writer at Trinity News.