Northern Irish Futures pt 1 (The Current State)


As of a few days ago (28/08/18) Northern Ireland surpassed Belgium as the country/region which has been without a functioning government for the longest period of time. How well is Northern Ireland doing? Is this a major worry?

The present deadlock seems unbreakable. There was a deal in February generally considered a 5:1 win for the DUP over Sinn Féin, but widely believed to have been vetoed by the Orange Order (OO) and the UDA. The one aspect Sinn Féin got a concession on was an agreement on the Irish language, which had been kicked down the road since the St Andrews Agreement (2006). This however was supposedly too much for the OO and the UDA whose support is crucial for the DUP. For the Nationalist community this is also non negotiable and there is little understanding of the depth of Nationalist feeling towards the Irish language  in Britain, even in normally sensible publications such as the Guardian. There is also a belief that the DUP are thoroughly enjoying themselves in Westminster having almost unprecedented influence on Government policy, in particular the hard line attitude taken by UKGov on the NI backstop. More generally there is a belief that strict neutrality by UKGov between the communities, which is a core aspect of the GFA is not being respected.

There is perception that NI is doing economically badly despite a subvention from the UK exchequer of c £10bn pa – about 25% of the entire NI GDP. Both sides accuse each other for the poor state of the economy. The Nationalist are accused of believing that NI is a  failed state,  should not legitimately exist, and therefore have a vested interest in ensuring NI does not succeed. The Unionists are accused of trying to make NI unpalatable for the Republic – the you can’t afford us argument. Ceartainly £10bn is a very large figure, even in UK terms – greater than the UK’s net contribution to the EU, and would be a far greater proportion of the Irish economy (which is about 8 times smaller to that of the UK).

In this article I hope to give a flavour of the current position of Northern Ireland in the context of the wider fortunes of these islands. Of course NI has special difficulties and a unique history, but is it very much different from Ireland and the rest of the UK? Leaving politics aside is it that much under-performing?

A Broad Brush Statistic

Fig. 1 2015 GDP per capita of EU countries ans UK Nations and Regions.


Fig. 1 shows the 2015 figure for the GDP per capita for the EU and the UK nations and regions. The data is used here for comparison purposes for Ireland and the UK regions. The comparison is quite flattering towards Ireland and it is generally acknowledged that GNP is a better measure of the Irish economy, which has a major multinational footprint,  which is about 20% lower than GDP. However it is probably not far off the true comparative  picture in 2018 as the Irish economy has grown about 20% in the past 3 years and the UK only 5%. Also for Purchasing Power Parity, PPP, the comparative inflation rate has to be taken into account, and again this works in Ireland favour – cumulative inflation over 2016-2018 is about 5% lower than the UK. These two effects by coincidence therefore approximately cancel the c 20% distortion of Irish GDP – hence Fig.1 can be used as a rough guide for inter-comparison between Ireland and the UK nations and regions.There is however a difference between income and wealth, and I suspect the wealth income ratio is very much higher in the UK. The UK figure was 8.6 in 2014, which Prof Charles Adams argues is the highest ever for any developed economy ever (and extremely unhealthy).


On the income figures Ireland is similar to the richest part of the UK – London, whilst Northern Ireland is more similar to Eastern Europe. Northern Ireland of course is not out of line with some other UK nations and regions, being very similar to the NE of England (where I currently live) and a bit ahead of Wales. Sadly the UK is one of the most regionally unequal countries in Europe. One of the most depressing factors of Brexit is that this inequality is more likely to increase rather than decrease.

Observations from Recent Travels in These Islands.

Broad statistics are all very well, but I had the opportunity to visit the South of England, NI, Ireland and Scotland this August. I live in Northumberland. I had the opportunity to take my Motorhome to Ireland for two weeks in August. As usual I took the Cairnryan – Belfast ferry and hence visited both Scotland and NI.


Northumberland is of course part of the NE and one of the poorer regions of the UK. It is however roughly split into two, with the rural regions and towns doing reasonably well and the former industrial parts doing badly. Towns in the rural area, such as Hexham, Morpeth and Alnwick appear prosperous and attractive places to live and visit. The former industrial area, built largely on coal mining and some manufacturing has never really recovered from the Thatcher revolution and towns such as Blyth, Bedlington and Ashington are full of charity shops and boarded up premises with a general feeling of decay and disrepair. This is a pattern sadly repeated in many other formerly industrial areas of the UK and was a major reason for the Brexit vote.


I had a family wedding in the Guildford region of Surrey near the start of August. The wedding was in the village of Shere – picture postcard stuff, and definitely a place one might visit for a tranquil weekend afternoon. On the surface at least, Surrey seemed far more prosperous than Northumberland. Very clean, colourful, bustling and doing very well. There was also time to visit RHS Wisley – arguably the best garden in England and it did not disappoint. Two other things were evident, the very high density of population and the comparative surface unfriendliness of the people.

Tyrone (Northern Ireland).

There are four major towns in Tyrone: Dungannon, Cookstown, Omagh and Strabane. Tyrone is a county I had passed through on a number of occasions, but had never stayed in. It is largely a rural county and I had hopes that the towns would resemble the rural Northumberland towns. My first stop was Dungannon which started well. I had booked a place for my Motorhome in Dungannon Park, my first stop after crossing the ferry from Scotland, which I would thoroughly recommend, clean, well run, in beautiful grounds, and peaceful.

I was very interested to walk into Dungannon to look around. On asking directions from a few people there seemed some mystification as to why we would want to do so. Sadly it became clear when we walked into the town. The town seemed practically dead, though it was clear considerable money had been spent in trying to clean it up, but far more resembled the Northumberland industrial towns, with boarded up shops and feeling of decay. We did find a decent Italian restaurant Canos, though despite buying the most expensive red wine on the menu, my wife pronounced it nearly undrinkable.

Cookstown was next on the itinerary. By coincidence two of my close friends from UCD Physics had come from Cookstown and one, Mary, still lives there. We had a guided tour of sorts. Cookstown is perhaps most famous for being the home of Cookstown “sizzle” sausages and has a major pork factory, which takes pigs from all over the island of Ireland. Indeed Tommy Brady’s farm in Ballyjamesduff exports 100% of its pigs to Cookstown – in a fascinating recent episode of the Paddy Wants to Know Brexit Podcast. Cookstown seemed marginally better than Dungannon but was overpowered by the “Flegs” as Mary called them. “Flegs” is a Northern Irish word for flags. Indeed there is the NI term of “flegger” for someone who mindlessly waves flags, to indicate extreme patriotism; some UKIP types display the same tendencies.

There were flags everywhere, mainly Union Jacks, NI flags and some Israeli flags on the main street. There was a welcoming and departing archway at opposite ends of the length of the main street for an Orange Parade celebrating the Battle of the Boyne. In some more suburban areas there were tricolours, Palestinian and other symbols of Nationalist identity. I have no objection to flags per-se. Over the past year I have noticed a superabundance of flags in a few places. Last year  Grav Insel – a campsite near the Rhur region of Germany was full of football flags of various German football teams such as Borussia Dortmund. These seemed a positive rather than a negative and added to the general fun and friendliness of the camp site. Earlier in the summer, when the English football team was doing well, there were a large number of flags of St. George around. The effect was rather joyous and coincided with a welcome upswing in mood. These were nothing to compare with the flags in Limerick -which I will discuss later. In both the English and Limerick case again these were jolly and happy. To me the flags in Cookstown were not – these seemed at best infantile, like a dog marking out his territory, by crapping and peeing, and at worst highly intimidating.

Omagh seemed marginally better and we went to see a small private museum, The Abingdon Collection which was advertised as an auto museum, but also had a second world war museum specialising in German memorabilia of the time. It thoroughly deserved its near perfect 5* rating with the owner opening it for us at short notice and giving us what seemed a two hour personal tour.

Onto Fermanagh. Tyrone, to be fair is possibly the least interesting county from a tourist point of view in NI, but Fermanagh has a number of beautiful lakes, most prominently Upper and Lower Lough Erne. I passed through Eniskillen but stayed at Belcoo – a village on the border. Eniskillen is between the two lakes and potentially could rival Killarney – the most developed tourist town in Ireland. Again a deep disappointment.

Overall my wife commented that it was like going back to the 1950s – outside Belfast the place seemed to be running far under potential.

Then over the invisible Border (Fig. 2) into Ireland.

Fig. 2 The Invisible border between Belcoo and Blacklion – for looking North and South views click links.

Of course I’m a Dubliner and get back a few times a year. Normally just to Dublin. Dublin is doing amazingly well but, just as it would not be sensible to judge England or the wider UK by London, the same is true of Dublin and Ireland.

I have however visited Ireland more generally over the past few years, being in Donegal and Tipperary (Glen of Aherlow) last year. This year a more substantial affair taking in Sligo, Mayo, Galway, Clare, Kerry and Limerick. I won’t bore the reader with a derailed travelogue and much of the trip was on the Wild Atlantic Way, looking at scenery and tourist highlights. The roads were in general better than that of the UK, particularly as the population density in Ireland is much lower.

Nearly all the time was spent in the countryside but I dropped into a few towns, mainly for supermarket shopping. I was very keen to look around as there were many I had not visited for decades. I failed to find parking in Sligo,  a 7.5m motorhome needs an extra large space, but was able to visit Ballina (co Mayo), with a population of c10.5k  it is supposedly smaller than Dungannon with a population of c16k. The contrast was extraordinary. Ballina was vibrant, buzzing, colourful and oozed of prosperity. I asked my 13 year old son which he thought was bigger Dungannon or Ballina? My son looked at me if I were mad but said that Ballina must be ten times bigger. Other towns we visited – Westport (Mayo) and Dingle (Kerry) were even more vibrant, but those are far more dependent on tourism so may be untypical. Ennis, the county town of Clare might be a better comparator. It had a vibrancy similar to Ballina and was again buzzing.

One thing about Ireland was flags. These were in superabundance, but nowhere more so than Limerick. Outsiders might be forgiven for thinking that Rugby is the most popular sport in Ireland, but it pales into insignificance as compared to the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). Every town and many villages have a GAA club (see Irish Passport podcast on GAA for more information). The most prominent events are the two All Ireland finals. One in Hurling and the other in Gaelic Football. Limerick was in the Hurling final and indeed won it for the fist time since 1973. (I was at that match – both my parents are from Limerick and my uncle, from Galbally county Limerick,  “tidy towns Tim” was heavily involved in the GAA and always a source of tickets at finals). My wife asked is it like the Superbowl in the US?  There were flags apparently everywhere in Limerick, with a density exceeding anything I have ever seen. An image from 1971 might be of interest with some. It is the GAA football cup (Sam Maguire) in 1971 where my Kerry Special Branch neighbour was entrusted with its keeping overnight. I am in the middle holding thee cup!


I visit Scotland regularly, both Edinburgh and Glasgow and also the Highlands and Islands. Though I have driven through Dumfries and Galloway on numerous occasions – the A75 seems between Stranraer and Gretna seems endless, I have never stopped. Normally we spend a night in NI on the way back to Northumberland and drive straight through. This time we decided to stop and visit Wigtown  – Scotland’s book town. My wife was very keen to visit the famous second hand bookshop based in Wigtown. We arrived around 7:00pm and there was a bowling match going on in the bowling green at the centre of the town. The town looked prosperous, clean  but truthfully a bit dead. This is not surprising as its population is only about 1000, which seemed far too small given the size of the town centre.

We visited the book shop the next day – well worth visiting. Again the overall impression was a lack of people. This may explain in miniature as to why the Scots, like the Irish are very much more relaxed about immigration than the English.

Regional Inequality in Ireland and Britain

Of course I travel regularly within these islands. My first trip outside the Island of Ireland was to Wales with a day school trip around 1967. This involved taking the ferry from Dun Laoghaire to Hollyhead and a trip around Snowdonia  and Caernarfon Castle. What was striking in retrospect was how prosperous Hollyhead and West Wales seemed. I have passed through Holyhead many times since and the  decline in fortunes of both the town and West Wales generally is truly depressing. Many of the former prosperous and smart seaside towns are now best described as “dole on sea”. West Wales (and the Valleys) is now the poorest region in the UK.

Regional inequality within the UK is well known and has been discussed frequently on this blog and has amongst the worst regional inequality in the EU. The gap between Inner London west at 580% of the EU average GDP per capita and West Wales and the Valleys at 68% is both staggering and shameful. There is no suggestion however that this is deliberate policy,  but is an unintended consequence of the neoliberal policies pursued by the UK since Thatcher.

My impression of both Ireland and Scotland is that they are both far more equal, getting their regional policy right and both my personal observations and the statistics bear this out. The Irish situation is somewhat complex as there is a high regional difference in GVA per capita at the NUTS2 level between the two NUTS regions, the South and East (S&E) and the Border Midlands and West (BMW). Indeed the S&E at 157% of the EU average is the richest region in these islands apart from Inner London West (though the Aberdeen region of Scotland is not far behind). The BMW region on the other hand is similar to many UK regions and only slightly ahead of NI at 80% of the EU average. There are however massive redistribution of resources from the rich to poor areas. In essence a highly progressive tax and benefits system. After transfers the Central Statistics Office estimates regional variations of around 20%  as illustrated in Fig. 3.

Fig 3. Regional variation at a county level 2014 (latest available data)


Far more worrying is the regional inequality within Northern Ireland. There is an east-west divide which coincides with the River Bann. NI people talk about East and West of the Bann, with the most striking visible aspect being the contrast in infrastructure, with nearly all the motorway and 48 of the 51 railway stations being East of the Bann.

What is most worrying is discussed in Steve Bradley’s article:

There is an even more concerning issue that our infrastructure imbalance also points towards. If you overlay NI’s current transport facilities onto a map of the province’s religious demography, it instantly becomes clear that our infrastructure provision is as much a problem of religion as it is economics or regional balance. Whilst any explanation of how this situation arose in the first place would doubtless be the subject of animated debate, it is indisputable that Northern Ireland’s infrastructure is currently polarised not just geographically, but also along sectarian lines.

As illustrated in Fig. 4 the correlation between the areas which have DUP and SF voting seats is extraordinary. There has been a long history of the west being starved of funds. One notable aspect is the lack of a university in Derry. Indeed when a second University was set up in NI in 60’s it went to the protestant town of Coleraine. This was one of the injustices which sparked the civil rights movement of 1968.

Fig. 4 NI infrastructure and the 2017 GE Results


The Effect of the Backstop on Northern Ireland and GFA

This has been discussed many times on this blog, but Brexit creates unique difficulties for NI. This was obvious to the vast majority  who live in Ireland and the prime reason I, for one, voted Remain. There is uncertainty about how the NI backstop will play out. There is evidence of a hardening of attitude on the British side and a feeling that the Irish and British are not getting a meeting of minds. This is a very interesting area of discussion and the British hardening of attitudes is seen by the Irish as bad faith, downright deception, trust draining and  the worst form of English Imperialist majoritarian bullying. There is an almost universal belief that this is being dictated by the DUP – in flagrant violation of the spirit of the GFA. The English are framing this as a sovereignty argument, a very simple popular emotive message, which seems to be gaining traction, but in my opinion is hyperbolic posturing based on ignorance.   I have had a few twitter “exchanges” with David Henig, amongst others, a person I admire tremendously, and definitely not one of the usual suspects, in which I and other Irish commentators seemed to be talking past each other rather than at each other. This deserves a much more detailed discussion which will appear in part 2.


My trip around Ireland was enjoyable and fascinating and informative. I had not been to a few areas for a long time, the last time I visited the Dingle Peninsula was in 1973, West Clare 1977 and Sligo and Mayo 1978. The transformation from one of the poorest to one of the wealthiest regions in Europe was evident. Its not surprising that Ireland is one of the most pro EU countries in the entire union. Other progressive changes in same sex marriage and abortion within the past few years enhance the feeling of a being a modern progressive country. There was, despite Brexit, an optimism about the future, and a belief that the best years were still to come. This was enhanced by the feeling that the Government was having a good Brexit, in terms of competence, coherence and maturity. The economy is possibly the best state it has ever been. There was a definite feeling that it was a good time to be Irish.

Northern Ireland sadly seemed stuck in the past with an almost 1950’s feel. I was reminded of the contrast between E and W Germany before unification. Indeed in GDP per capita terms the difference between NI and Ireland is greater than the former E and W Germany, and in contrast to south of the border where the economy is booming there is close to stagnation. There was a lot of apprehension over Brexit, a feeling that NI was being used as a pawn and a belief that the UK Gov was incompetent, incoherent and infantile.

In part II I will look at possible futures including that of a United Ireland which is looking even more likely given the recent Our Future Our Choice opinion poll, which in the event of the UK leaving the EU recorded 52% pro UI and 39% to remain in the UK. Another option is that proposed by Dr Charles Tannock MEP of a Hong Kong style solution.