I visited Northern Ireland numerous times in the 1960’s most notably perhaps was a School Civics trip from my Dublin school (St Paul’s Raheney) to Stormont in early May 1968. We were sponsored by Gerry Fitt (the then leader of the SDLP) who showed us around and I remember meeting Ian Paisley who was really charming and gracious, in total contrast to the firebrand image he portrayed on Television. I can’t say I remember any of the debate, but we had some time in Belfast city centre. The overall impression was extremely positive. The roads were vastly better than in the Republic which was immediately apparent when we crossed the border. Indeed at the time the roads in the Republic were largely maintained at a county level. My maternal grandfather from Tipperary used to tease my grandmother, from Limerick, and ask her to close her eyes and guess when the county border was crossed – at the time the roads in Tipperary were much better; they lived in Galbally on the county border. I saw my first ever colour television set, and even better, I was able to stock upon Opal Fruits (Starburst), which were unavailable in the Republic due to the strict protectionism of the local confectionery industry. (I tried them last week when I was again in Belfast but they were not the same!) I also thought the Belfast trolley buses were very exciting, it was the second largest system in the UK after London at the time. (The entire trolley bus system was closed just a week or so after my visit; there was a craze in both Britain and Ireland at the time for ripping out old transport systems in the name of modernity, which in retrospect seems vandalous.) Belfast City Hall was also very impressive and Belfast in general seemed a lot more prosperous than Dublin.
Another notable visit was to Derry possibly later in that year. We were on a family summer holiday to Donegal. Derry was potentially a lovely city with an intact city wall (similar to York) but looked very down at heel. My father explained that for a city to prosper it needs its hinterland and with partition it had lost about half of it; the border between Donegal and Derry was very detrimental to the city’s fortunes. (It is looking vastly better now, I was there last week.)
A few months later Northern Ireland took a very downward turn with the start of the Troubles and the border which was very open (at least for people if not goods) became very closed with military checkpoints on the major crossings, with many of the minor crossing closed. The border is 310 miles long and meanders all over the place with some roads crossing and recrossing. (In contrast the English-Scottish border is less than 1/3 as long; at 96 miles). The border separates the 6 counties of Northern Ireland from the 26 in the Republic and was agreed in haste in 1921 with the expectation that it would be redrawn on a more rational basis. (It was the largest area the Ulster Unionists thought they could permanently hold onto. Including the other 3 Ulster counties: Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan would have seen to close to a 50-50 Unionist/Nationalist split rather than the gerrymandered 60-40 one). A Boundary Commission was set up to rationalise the border but the agreement proved so politically contentious, the report was suppressed till 1969 and the existing border confirmed in 1925.
We were relatively isolated from the Troubles in Dublin, but in May 1974 I missed being blown up by about 15 minutes as I had cycled past the Parnell St. bomb at around 5:15 pm on the way home to Drumcondra from University College Dublin, where I was an undergraduate (the bomb exploded about 5:30 pm). This series of bomb attacks known as the Dublin and Monaghan bombings were the deadliest of all the Troubles, killing 33 civilians and a full-term unborn child, and injuring almost 300. Other major events which had a big psychological impact in Dublin were the Bloody Sunday massacre, which was bad enough in itself, but the inquiry shortly afterwards had the stench of blatant and bare faced cover-up by the ‘British Establishment’ (as indeed was also the case in the Hillsborough Disaster.) Indeed resentment regarding the Bloody Sunday Massacre was so high that the British Embassy was burned in Dublin; the Dubliners are normally a relaxed bunch more interested in where their next pint of Guinness is coming from than reactionary politics. Margaret Thatcher’s inept handling of the H-block hunger strikes culminating in the death of Bobby Sands was a particular low point. As a chemist I though Thatcher would know the difference between throwing water and petrol on a fire, but sadly not. (There is something about the right-wing Tory mindset as typified by for example Norman Tebbit, which the Irish find deeply repellent and are prepared to take to arms to resist). Shortly afterwards I moved to England and continued to be abhorred by terrorist violence on both sides. The Warrington bombings in 1993 were a particular low point and for the first time in my life I felt ashamed of being Irish. (Within a year there was a dramatic shift in opinion; there was a greater understanding that the Irish in general abhorred terrorism and also the fact that the Irish qualified for the 1994 World Cup, in the USA, and England did not had many football supporters searching out their Irish roots and being Irish was cool! ) Being Irish does also give one a sophisticated understanding if Nationalism and Terrorism which I explore in another post. (cross link here).
Of course in Northern Ireland things were a lot worse; there may have been no individual incident which was as bad as the Dublin and Monaghan bombings but the frequency of bombing and shootings were a lot higher. By the end of the Troubles the death toll exceeded 3,600, with as many as 50,000 people injured. The Northern Ireland economy did not do well in the Troubles. Added to the difficulty of the Troubles, much of the Northern Ireland economy was based on heavy manufacturing, and the vast majority of jobs in that area have disappeared. Most famous perhaps is the case of Harland and Wolff, who built the Titanic, which employed 35,000 people at their peak, but now only employs 500. This was of course not unique to Northern Ireland; many other parts of the UK in the North of England, Scotland and Wales had similar dramatic decline. What was unique to Northern Ireland was the blatant sectarianism, with the work force being almost exclusively from the Protestant/Unionist tranche of the population. This has led to resentment amongst this community as this decline happened at the time when Northern Ireland was becoming institutionally less sectarian and also the arrival of EU membership. The difference between causation and correlation (or subsequence and consequence) can be difficult to grasp. Also there has been a long history of a “zero sum game” mentality between the Unionist and Nationalist communities which adds to intransigence.
There was very little heavy industry in the Republic, partially for geological reasons: there is almost no coal and iron ore. This proved to be a blessing towards the end of the 20th century as there were few of the “blue collar workers” who were so badly let down by the neoliberal revolution launched by Thatcher in the UK and Regan in the US. People with the mentality of Farage and Trump would get near zero traction in the Republic, but possibly very strong support from many of the working class Unionist/DUP voters in the North.
In 1973 both the UK and Ireland joined the then EEC. To say there has been some “history” between Ireland and the UK (in particular England) is an understatement. It is fair to say there was considerable mistrust between the two Governments. One dividend of the EU was that the UK and Ireland had to work together, creating mutual trust and respect at a high level. This was one of the fundamental building blocks in creating the peace process in Northern Ireland eventually leading to the Good Friday Agreement (also known as the Belfast Agreement full text here) in 1998. Also of course the fact that Ireland and the UK were members of the EU made the Good Friday agreement possible.
Ireland prospered within the EU; agriculture is a much larger fraction of the GDP than in the UK and the farmers in particular did very well in the years immediately after accession, with the transition from the UK Cheap Food Policy to the Common Agriculture Policy. The ’80s did not go so well however the country did exceptionally well in the “Celtic Tiger” years between 1990 and 2008. The 2008 crash however was particularly bad for Ireland ultimately costing about 40% of annual GDP to bail out the banks, due to over-lending during the property boom. This was much higher than the equivalent UK figure. However unlike the UK the economy it is again performing very strongly, though the real economy is probably growing at about 5% per annum rather than the headline 26.3% rate for 2015 (Leprechaun Economics). The statistics in terms of GDP per capita for Ireland are misleading. Many league tables place Ireland as one of the wealthiest countries in the world and the second wealthiest in the EU. However because of the nature of the Irish economy the headline GDP figure is about 20% higher than the real domestic economy, Gross National Income, GNI, is probably a better measure for Ireland (the country is doing well but is not super-rich). Brexit however creates particular challenges for Ireland as the UK and Irish economies are heavily interlinked. Ireland, unlike the UK is a nett exporter of goods and services. In 2015 for example the UK was Ireland’s number 3 export partner, well behind the US and just behind Belgium. The UK was however Ireland’s number one import partner and the UK has a very strong balance of trade surplus with Ireland. Indeed in terms of balance of trade in 2015 Ireland was the highest in Europe, though of course the overall trade volumes with say Germany are much higher. (A nice visualisation of trade flows is available here, very little to do with this post but a great resource.) The road network has also been totally transformed. In 1968 there were no motorways in the Republic. Now there is over 1000 km of motorway and the roads are as good and indeed in general much better than Northern Ireland (or indeed England).
Overall Brexit might prove a nett positive for the Irish Economy as foreign investors may come to Ireland rather than the UK, given that it will remain in the Single Market and many companies want an English speaking base inside the EU. The Dublin Finance Centre for example may also benefit significantly. The agri-food sector however may suffer. Another area of concern is that there is a marked regional disparity in Ireland. The 2016 Eurostat Interactive Atlas for example scores the Southern and Eastern part of Ireland as having 150% of the EU average in terms of PPS (the EU measure of income per head), but the Border, Midland and Western region only as having 88% of PPS. (The equivalent figure for Northern Ireland is even worse at 82%, and the poorest part of the UK is West Wales and the Valleys at 69% PPS.) The introduction of a hard border will have the greatest effect on the area which is in most need and will be particularly bad for Donegal (and Derry within Northern Ireland). It is possible however that a considerable number of businesses will relocate from NI to the Republic somewhat mitigating this in the Republic (but obviously making things worse for NI).
In terms of Northern Ireland, the province has been transformed post the Good Friday Agreement. It is again a very attractive place to visit. Indeed the Titanic Museum has recently been crowned (2016) as the best tourist attraction in the world. Dublin has been outdone! in 2015 the Guinness Storehouse was only crowned the best tourist attraction in Europe. In contrast however to 1968 however NI feels considerably less prosperous than the Republic, when I visit, the most recent time being last week. The open border with the Republic has benefited Northern Ireland greatly. Brexit however is a major worry. Whereas there are some economic studies (of debatable quality) which show that Brexit may be beneficial to Britain, there are none to the author’s knowledge which predict a positive outcome for Northern Ireland. It is in nobody’s interest to have a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The NI dairy industry will be particularly badly hit. An other small example is that when I visited the Bushmills Distillery last week, (the ionic NI whiskey and Black Bush is a personal favourite) I discovered all the malted barley comes from Cork in the Republic; it is not economically viable to grow it locally. It may be difficult however to avoid what will be a border between the EU and an external county. Given the likelihood of a hard Brexit, in the joint statement from Kenny and May aspiring to “as seamless and frictionless a border as possible,” the word to look at is “possible.” There is a belief in Ireland that the “seamless and frictionless” term came from the packaging of a new pair of Enda Kenny’s cycling shorts – he is a keen cyclist. It appears it is not possible under existing EU law as it will be an external border to the EU; possibly similar to the Poland/Ukraine border if a hard Brexit is indeed the outcome of the negotiations.
The consequence of a hard border may not be just be economic, there is a distinct possibility it could destabilise the peace process in the province and needs to be avoided if at all possible. Here are some options however as to how it might be achieved sorted from most to least likely.
- A bespoke deal is done for Northern Ireland. It remains in the UK but the border is moved to ports and airports within Britain.
- Northern Ireland joins the Republic to create a United Ireland.
- Ireland leave the EU and negotiates a separate deal with the UK.
- Ireland rejoins the United Kingdom.
There are obstacles to each of these scenarios. Option one of moving the border to Britain is possible as there is considerable goodwill towards NI from the EU (very much more so than the UK as a whole), hence a bespoke deal might be done, possibly even keeping NI as a semi-independent entity within the EU. Indeed the status of the NI border will be very close to the top of the EU’s agenda in Brexit negotiations. There is also a precedent, as this is what happened during the 2nd world war. The hard-wing Unionists (DUP) will however not like this at all. The demographics in NI are however changing, and for the first time ever, there is a (slim) nationalist majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly. This however may be down to one-off factors such as the head of the DUP, Arlene Foster, being particularly sectarian and unsuited to the job of being first minister (whose job is to govern for all; not just her faction) and the cash for ash scandal, which has badly damaged the DUPs reputation. The DUP also was the only major NI party to campaign for pro-Brexit. One “highlight” of their campaign was to pay for a UKIP like pro Brexit wrap around cover for the London issue of the Metro at the cost of £282,000. The source of this money is highly controversial and the campaign has further damaged the DUPs reputation. The Sinn Féin election machine was also particularly effective; using the idiotic “feeding the crocodile” remark by Arlene Foster very much to their advantage. Since the very poor DUP result in the recent Assembly elections however there is evidence that Foster realises that she needs to be less sectarian and her warm tribute to Martin McGuinness after his untimely death is a sign of hope as indeed the fact that she turned up to Martin McGuinness’s funeral. At the present time it is by no means clear that Sinn Féin and the DUP will be agree to form a working executive, with the likelihood of reversion to direct rule from Westminster. This is particularly troubling given the exposure of NI to the Brexit negotiations.
Option two of a United Ireland would make economic sense, particularly for Northern Ireland. A recent report undertaken by the Canadian consultancy firm KLC and University of British Columbia academics, who have carried out similar reports on German and Korean unification — suggests “significant long-term improvement” in the economy of Northern Ireland post unification; in the region of 5-7.5% of GDP. There would also be minor benefits for the Republic (0.7-1.2% of GDP). There are however significant political and economic difficulties in the short term. The UK government subsidises the NI economy to the tune of about £10 bn per annum. For the Irish government to match this would be very expensive; given that the Irish economy is only about 1/10th the size of the UK economy. Politically there are also issues. At the current time there would not be a majority of people who would vote for a United Ireland in NI. This may change however as the demographics are not in the Unionists favour and within 20 years they are likely to be in a minority. Given the likely disastrous consequences of a hard Brexit for Northern Ireland; this might be accelerated to 5 to 10 years time. In the South, whereas there is a romantic attachment towards Northern Ireland, even if people can be persuaded to take on the short term economic burden, the though of having half a million people with the mindset of the DUP is very off-putting. Indeed Sinn Féin is not very much liked either amongst many in the South (its links with the Provisional IRA are treated with deep suspicion), whom are far happier with the more centrist SDLP. I’m also not sure also there is the political will. Unlike with Germany reunification there is no Helmut Kohl type figure. Indeed there is general dismay as to the quality of politicians in Ireland. (I reassure my friends at home by saying I think exactly the same of the Westminster politicians; the current mediocrity of a PM, Theresa May, only gets away with it as the leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn is even more inept). However under the Belfast agreement the Republic is legally committed to a United Ireland provided a majority of people in NI want it. The key text from page 3 of the agreement:
“i) recognise the legitimacy of what ever choice is freely exercised by amajority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status,whether they prefer to continue to support the Union with Great Britain ora sovereign united Ireland”
Furthermore in item 5 (on the same page)
“it will be a binding obligation on both Governments to introduce and support in their respective Parliaments legislation to give effect to that wish”
This may have seemed a fairly safe thing for the Irish Government to agree to in 1998 (just like the copper bottomed guarantee to bail out the banks after the 2008 crisis) when the prospect of a majority in favour of a sovereign United Ireland was remote, but it now seems much less fanciful. Demographic changes are such that as current children become 18 there may well be a Nationalist majority within 15 years (at school level there are more Catholics than Protestants at ever year in the NI School system). Some sort of federal structure with a gradual winding down of UK funding over around 10 years might and an automatic right to British citizenship for people born in the six counties in perpetuity might be workable. Also it is possible (maybe even probable) that Britain as a political entity may not survive for more than a few years as the likelihood of Scotland becoming independent seems to grow by the day.
Option three is currently unlikely. Despite support for the EU being down after the 2008 crash, (many blame the EU for being over harsh in the bail out terms, more blame the banks and the reckless open-ended guarantee given by the Irish Government), support is still very much higher than the UK with opinion polls suggesting about 70-90% in favour of the EU. A recent EM Ireland poll puts support at 90% and fairly flat across social class and age group. Indeed when asked the specific question “if the UK were to leave the EU, Ireland should leave also?” only 19% agreed. The main-stream media in Ireland is also very much supportive or at least neutral towards the EU. There is not the rabid right wing anti-EU press that exists in Britain (or at least it is read by a small fraction of the population). There is considerable intellectual resentment towards the recent EU as being too neoliberal and putting money before people, and a belief that the EU needs urgent reform, but the Irish are by no means unique in this view. Indeed on a trip to Dublin, shortly after the Brexit result, it was put to me that if Ireland was still in the UK there would have been enough pro EU votes to keep the UK as a whole in the EU. If however Brexit proves to be a major success for Britain (very unlikely) then things might change. Alternatively if Marine le Pen gets elected to be president in France, the EU itself may fall apart (sadly more possible).
Option four of Ireland rejoining the UK is in the “pigs might fly” territory. There has never been more than a tiny minority within the Republic who thought reunification with the UK would be a good idea. At Christmas when I said Nigel Lawson was advocating this, my brother replied “Is his daughter Nigella feeding him magic mushrooms?” Indeed after the Brexit referendum, I would be surprised if even 5% of the population of the Republic think this would be a good plan. The way the Brexit referendum was fought was deeply off-putting to the Irish. If there was any lingering view that English referendum politics was better than the Irish version; it died during the campaign. The quality of the Oxford Union trained oratory was admired, but the fact that much of the leave argument was based on “industrial scale dishonesty” was not. The racist UKIP lead campaign was considered even more abhorrent. The banality of the remain camp’s campaign was also evident; indeed the Irish Government became so concerned that it offered help to the Cameron team, which was refused.
The subsequent arrogant dismissal of the pro EU vote in Scotland and Northern Ireland by the May Government is not looked on well. There is a feeling that they are being treated with complete contempt. Indeed there is concern that the UK is becoming a totalitarian right-wing one party state obsessed by immigration and that it is becoming a deeply unpleasant place in which to live. It seems as likely as Canada joining Trump’s United States. There was some surprise in Ireland in 2014 when Scotland voted to stay in the UK among my many Irish friends and relatives. “Aren’t they fed up at being bullied by London?” was a comment from my sister in law. There is also as far as I can tell a strong belief that Scotland will leave the UK within the next few years, which would make a union between Ireland and England even more unlikely. One attractive option however might be a United Federal Republic between Ireland and Scotland floated by Fintan O’Toole amongst others. His version, SCINI, has Northern Ireland remaining a separate state within the federation. As Scotland and Ireland are very similar in terms of size, population and economic strength this could be a true partnership. Unlike the UK where England is so dominant in terms of population and economic strength as compared to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Germany has worked well with the Prussia, Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg and the Rheinland/Westphalia regions all for example being very strong.
Whereas is is tempting to use the analogy of East (more Protestant, smaller and poorer) and West Germany (more Catholic, larger and richer) to the Irish situation (with East Germany being Northern Ireland and West Germany being the South), it breaks down on closer examination. In Germany the vast majority of the East’s population was very keen to join with the West. The West German system was also set up to think strategically on a 20-25 year horizon and there was the political will to take the short term (5-10 year) loss to the West. Neither of these conditions apply to Ireland. Irish (and indeed UK) politicians often think short term and even if the South was willing to take on the economic burden of the North (and of course the Good Friday Agreement says there is simply no choice) there is likely to be about 40% of the North’s population (even if the performance of the NI economy is dire over the next decade) who will fight a United Ireland at any cost.
The Brexit vote breakdown in Northern Ireland is very revealing. Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU by a significant margin(56-44%) and similar to the rest of the UK the way people voted in that it had a very strong correlation to educational achievement. (The more educated you were the more likely you were to vote remain -indeed this correlation was even higher in NI than the UK as a whole). Unlike the UK however there was a dramatic division on Catholic/Protestant (85%/40% stay) and Nationalist/Unionist (88%/34% stay) lines. The Good Friday Agreement with an open border, both parts of Ireland within the EU and any person born in NI having the same rights as those in the South to an Irish Passport has been a workable compromise. The overall Brexit vote in the UK and the apparent determination of the May Government to push through a hard Brexit; out of the Single Market and Custom’s Union has alienated large parts of the Catholic/Nationalist community. If a hard border with the Republic is reintroduced, which if the current trajectory is followed, seems inevitable, the possibilities of the Troubles or some variant returning is very real. There are strong indicators that the Catholic/Nationalist section of the population are no longer content with the post-Brexit settlement. Interestingly Jim Dowson, A far-right millionaire with Ulster loyalist connections, based in Northern Ireland, whose Patriotic News Agency spread anti-Clinton and pro-Trump propaganda during the US elections, says: ‘England is finished’ and is not only supporting Scottish independence but believes the long-term future of Northern Ireland may lie in a “federal Ireland”. Brexit has had many unintended consequences which I’m sure the average English pro-Brexit voter did not appreciate on the 23rd June. I firmly hope the crossing of the Irish border from say Donegal to Derry will be more seamless and frictionless than that of my grandparents generation between Limerick and Tipperary.