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So what could a United Ireland look like?

by Frank Schnittger Thu May 4th, 2017 at 10:33:23 PM EST

Newton Emerson has long been one of the few articulate Northern Ireland unionist commentators on Irish politics, North and south. His latest screed, in the Irish Times, seeks to pour cold water on the increased discussion of the prospects for a United Ireland in Irish political discourse in the wake of the EU declaration of the "Kenny Text," which states that Northern Ireland can rejoin the EU post Brexit if it becomes part of a United Ireland in accordance with the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

His main point appears to be that the "Kenny Text" might actually make the prospect of a United Ireland more distant by clarifying what it would actually entail: a takeover of the North by the south.

My view, which I have articulated in a comment on his article, is that it does no such thing. I reproduce that comment below together with some further commentary:


My comment on Newton Emerson: Brexit is killing a `new Ireland'

There is a central fallacy in this article in that it appears to assume that a United Ireland would mean the north and south coming together into one political structure more or less as is. Firstly, I do not see a United Ireland coming about for at least 10 years after which time Brexit will have completely decimated the Northern economy. The current £10 Billion [Westminster] subvention will have grown to much more if current living standards there are to be maintained.

Secondly, anyone, North or south, would be mad to vote for a United Ireland without the British & Irish Governments (and EU) having agreed beforehand a very detailed blue print for how the putative United Ireland would be governed, funded, defended, and how minority rights would be guaranteed. It cannot be like the Brexit referendum, where no one quite knew what they were voting for or against. Thus the issue of "generous concessions" after the event, as mooted by Newton, can be dealt with before any vote and written into the United Ireland Constitution.

Thirdly, people in the south need to be very clear that a United Ireland would transform the south as well, and not in the way many people might imagine. Far from there being a divide between Roman Catholics and Protestants, the real divide is likely to be between a conservative religious mind-set and a liberal secularist one. I could see religious conservatives, Protestant and Catholic, North and south, making common cause against abortion, gay rights, immigrant minorities, and the welfare state. Do we want to reinforce a conservative majority on this island?

Finally, there is no reason why the North could not maintain considerable autonomy post re-unification, either as a transitional measure or indefinitely. The Republic might simply take over responsibility for finance, defence and foreign affairs from the UK, with the Northern Ireland [devolved] institutions remaining more or less as is. Those functions taken over are increasingly part of EU competencies in any case, so any takeover would be as much by Brussels as by Dublin.

The big question remains who would pay for all of this, and would it be worth the hassle and social upheaval that might result? The choice for Unionists might become one between economic ruin and Irish unity, as an increasingly distant and impoverished UK withdraws into a little Englander mentality. The choice for southern voters of all persuasions might be between a very prosperous status quo, and a very uncertain future.

I remain of the view that a United Ireland could become a very dynamic and prosperous place, with the loss of the Westminster subvention eventually being replaced by increased tax revenues from a growing economy. But that requires everyone, North and south, to embrace the project and working very hard together to make it a success. Even Germany has taken a long time to recover from the costs of re-unification, and much inequality and regional tensions remain. So it would be an enormous act of faith for people, North and south, to take on the project.

Do we really care that much for and about each other?

To answer my own final question, I doubt many Unionists would be convinced of the merits of a united Ireland, even if the alternative were to remain within an increasingly impoverished UK (minus Scotland) and dominated by a little Englander mentality, with scarcely a thought for the North. Theresa May has shown no interest to date in ensuring that the distinct concerns of Northern Ireland (and Scotland) are included in her Brexit negotiating brief.

Equally, many in the south would be concerned that the Republics' relative economic success would be undermined by civil unrest by Northern Unionists, or the costs of replacing the c. €10 Billion Westminster subvention to the Northern Ireland state.  (At the time of Irish independence, in 1922, the average GDP per capita of the south was half that of the North - with all of Ireland's industry concentrated around Belfast in the ship building and linen industries. Now that situation is virtually reversed, with the south's GDP per capita gradually rising to twice that of the North).

So the outcome of any referendum under the Good Friday agreement, North or south, is anything but a forgone conclusion, whatever the more romantic republicans might say.

In order to maximise the prospects for success, any referendum for a United Ireland would have to spell out in very great detail any transitional mechanisms, including funding, which would be put in place, and exactly how the North would be governed in the future. This could prove to be as convoluted an exercise as the Brexit negotiations themselves, as the rump UK sought to off-load a non-performing asset (despite ostentatious proclamations of belief in the Union), and the Republic of Ireland sought assurances that it wouldn't be dumped entirely with the ensuing costs and social upheaval (despite Nationalist pretensions that all will be well if only Ireland were re-united).

The EU27's agreement to the "Kenny text" is important because there was no formal international agreement regarding Northern Ireland re-entering the EU if it became part of a United Ireland. East Germany is a precedent, nothing more. The declaration provides clarity, which is important because UK unionists have claimed that an independent Scotland would have difficulty re-joining the EU, despite the fact that Spanish foreign ministers have always said that Spain would have no difficulty with Scotland re-joining the EU provided it had achieved independence by legal means.

The British press have always insisted that Spain would object to an independent Scotland re-joining the EU because of fears of encouraging Catalonian separatism when in fact that was always a blatant falsehood. Providing clarity as to what options are available to the people of Northern Ireland is therefore important, even if they choose to ignore that option for the foreseeable future. And despite what Newton Emerson implies in his article, the "Kenny Text" does not preclude a united Ireland from taking a form very different from a simple takeover of the North by the south.

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Can Belfast be a world city or is the North doomed to be part of Dublin's hinterland? I've never worked that one out.

Can we build the infrastructure for a Dublin-Belfast integration? Recent improvements to roads and train have made the trips much shorter, but honestly Dublin feels closer linked to London than Belfast (this is maybe Ireland's biggest Brexit problem - London is the next link to us in the World City network - how do we replace that?).

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Fri May 5th, 2017 at 08:47:50 AM EST
I suppose it all depends on how the concept of a "world city" evolves. On the one hand the internet makes location less important, and some relatively peripheral cities - like (say) Seattle - have been able to host world class industries or industrial clusters. Size isn't everything, and a lot depends on the culture and environment those cities can provide. Frankfurt, too, isn't particularly big.  Belfast was a leading centre in the industrial revolution rivalling Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester as centres for ship building, engineering, and other early industries like linen.

On the other hand, as economies become more and more complex and differentiated, the level and range of specialised skills a business needs to succeed increases. London has succeeded because it has an almost unrivalled mix of banking, financial, marketing, legal, creative and corporate governance skills. Companies locate there for those skills even when they know it is much more expensive to operate from there.

That does not, however, prevent them from outsourcing all sorts of subsidiary skills like customer relations, back office administration, and IT to lower cost locations.  This creates a disconnect between corporate decision making and the real economy that most people live and work in, and so London has become, increasingly, a city for a global elite divorced from the rest of the UK.

Dublin is probably a marginal case, having established critical mass in financial services and IT, and now struggling to get a share of the Brexit fall-out despite infrastructural limitations and a lack of services for the elite. (Castleknock may soon be filled with snobby bankers...)

Lower wage and living costs in Belfast make it an attractive location for more price sensitive activities lower down the corporate food chain but it has to become a leader in some sphere to gain recognition as a "world City". Building the Titanic centre tourist attraction can only get you so far...

If it can overcome its internal sectarian divisions, the intermingling of Protestant and Catholic and British and Irish cultures could lead to an explosion of creative endeavours, but it has to be in a future knowledge based industrial sector rather than in harping back to the past. It could develop a niche as "little Britain within the EU" where cultural similarities would make it very easy for British businesses to re-locate the EU facing parts of their businesses.

But if it takes more than 10 years for re-unification to happen and sectarian tensions to subside, they will miss the boat on that.  The big opportunities will come in the next five years and companies won't locate in Belfast if it still has an uncertain future in/out of the EU, difficult community relations, and an unsafe environment for corporate executives to relocate to.

However I wouldn't underestimate its potential. There is a long tradition of northern young people relocating to Dublin, London and beyond where they develop huge entrepreneurial and other skills. If the Northern diaspora were to return, post a stable constitutional settlement, a very rapid renaissance could bring Belfast to the cutting edge of developing world cities.

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Fri May 5th, 2017 at 10:01:05 AM EST
[ Parent ]
(Castleknock may soon be filled with snobby bankers...)

Castleknock has long been filled with snobby ... oh, I misread that last word.

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Fri May 5th, 2017 at 10:04:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I was also expecting you to object to IT being listed as a "subsidiary skill"...

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Fri May 5th, 2017 at 10:14:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Most IT is plumbing. (If you want a real rant, get me started on the demands of Middle Class Ireland that their darling children had to have a degree from a Real University so that they could go and do plumbing jobs. Ruined the whole bloody sector.)
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Fri May 5th, 2017 at 10:18:08 AM EST
[ Parent ]
And most of them had zero aptitude for IT.  I lost count of the number of job applicants for development jobs I processed from people with IT degrees who had managed to get their degrees without ever actually having done any programming...

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Fri May 5th, 2017 at 10:35:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
They're busily building horrible houses for them in Castleknock, or at least on the furthest edges of what can possibly be claimed as Castleknock.

(Which is, for the non-IE, what passes for a posh bit of the Northside of Dublin, two stops down the commuter train line from me. When we were buying our first house, a little further out than the current one, the developer's directions carefully routed prospective purchasers through Castleknock and into a green belt and away from the less salubrious areas on the more sensible route.)

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Fri May 5th, 2017 at 10:35:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
No, I didn't mean "a world city" I meant "the world city". I've come to the view that we might be better viewing the economy as a close network of cities rather than as anachronistic nation states that form the hinterlands for those cities. What matters is how closely networked into the world city you are.

As far as I can see, in Ireland, only Dublin is tolerably closely networked into the global city network, and the closest nodes are, worryingly, London and US west coast cities. I get the impression that Belfast's connection to the network is pretty bad. We could really do with it being a peer to Dublin rather than a leaf node beyond Dublin.

(One of these days I will make sense of exactly what I mean here.)

by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Fri May 5th, 2017 at 10:13:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That begs the question as to whether the Irish economy is big enough to host two World cities.  Certainly a successful Belfast could boost the whole Irish economy and lesson our dependence on London. 40 years of EU membership have reduced our exports to the UK from c. 70% of the total to c. 15%, and Brexit will exacerbate that trend.  There are now vibrant Irish communities in many European cities, so those connections are growing as well.

However we must not underestimate the importance of regulatory, tax and customs unions in facilitating the development of seamless links between cities and these are still determined at both national and EU level. Most cities have very limited powers of self-governance as the "Sanctuary City" concept in the US is beginning to find out.

Belfast is very much a back water at the moment, in almost every sense, and that is likely to be exacerbated by Brexit turning it into a neglected and forgotten provincial out-post of a declining UK. Historical Karma is a bitch, but the very logic that determined it should stay within the UK in 1922 now dictates it should join the Republic/EU post Brexit.

However it can take a very long time for changed historical realities to manifest themselves in public opinion, and so I am afraid that Belfast will probably miss the post Brexit boat. It has experienced something of an artistic and cultural revival post the Troubles, but persisting community divisions will always limit its potential.  It has grown distant from almost everywhere, including the Republic, and really needs a helping hand, if they could only swallow their pride and accept it if offered.

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Fri May 5th, 2017 at 10:33:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The two World cites would be the Irish economy.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Fri May 5th, 2017 at 10:35:32 AM EST
[ Parent ]
That matches my understanding of where Belfast is: even my Fermanagh family seems to have  more economic links into Dublin than Belfast.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Fri May 5th, 2017 at 10:37:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I thought that maintaining Northern Ireland's devolved institutions, up to and including the Assembly, would be obviously the easiest way to implement Irish reunification. As well as solving (or at least putting off) countless legal and administrative difficulties, it would help to reassure  the Unionist community that they would not be disenfranchised by a tyranny of the majority.
by Gag Halfrunt on Fri May 5th, 2017 at 10:43:06 AM EST
Possibly, but I don't see how we can avoid adding NI TDs to the Dáil and reorganising Senate panels to ensure NI community representation in the Senate if IE is going to be handling external affairs.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Fri May 5th, 2017 at 10:46:43 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Lets face it - most people don't know much or care about the sort of issues that National departments of Foreign Affairs, Finance and Defence do until or unless it effects them personally in their safety, standard of living, or ability to travel or work abroad.  Transferring those functions from London to Dublin/Brussels need not have much of an impact on the average Joe provided control of policing, education, health, social welfare, housing, transport etc. remains devolved within Northern Ireland.  

People would need a lot of reassurance that Dublin/Brussels/London or whatever transitional funding sources are agreed could actually afford to maintain those services post unification without impacting them unduly.  Paradoxically that could become much easier if funding for them post Brexit were to be much reduced within the UK in any case and re-unification could actually be presented as halting a downward spiral.

Living standards in Northern Ireland - already much below the Republic - are also likely to remain below those in the Republic for a long time post re-unification, and so having devolved structures in the North could actually protect the southern exchequer from immediate and unaffordable demands for parity.

The big problem is an emotional one - protecting Unionist demands to maintain their "British Identity" - which is hard to define but can include seemingly silly things like flags, emblems, commemorations and the colour of post boxes.  Frankly I think most Irish people would be happy to have a loyalist parade down their street every day of the week if it acted as a tourist attraction and didn't represent a real exercise of sectarian power.

So I don't think that Irish unity represents the insurmountable problems many people expect provided there is a bit of imagination, generosity, and leadership on all sides. Mandela transformed a potentially very violent situation in S.A. through the power of his charismatic and generous personality alone. Unfortunately, I don't see an Irish Mandela on the horizon. The last potential candidate we had was John Hume, and he is now in his dotage. The Unionist side seems utterly bereft of even minimal leadership ability. I wouldn't put DUP leader, Arlene Foster, in charge of a County Council, never mind a troubled polity.

So the most likely post Brexit scenario for Northern Ireland is still a slow decline into ever greater poverty and marginalisation...

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Fri May 5th, 2017 at 11:14:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I've never looked to see how the migration statistics for the North look. I have noticed a slow drift of my cousins into the South though - and my Northern family aren't roamers: my father was the only one from a family of seven that left, most of my very numerous cousins still live within a fifteen minute drive of his birthplace.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Fri May 5th, 2017 at 11:29:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Here's another thing: in real life, most people in the South don't give one thought to the North on a daily basis. Don't give a crap once they've stopped blowing things up and embarrassing us by association.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Fri May 5th, 2017 at 11:46:23 AM EST
[ Parent ]
In my anecdotal experience young northern Prods tend to drift towards the UK while Northern nationalists look to the south for employment and cultural reference points.

I knew quite a few northern prod students in my Trinity College days, but most seem to wander off to the UK or further afield once they qualified.  Few seemed to even consider staying in N. Ireland or Dublin, but then the 1980's were a tough time for the Irish economy. Of course that was also during the Troubles when the North was something of a dead end for anyone.

In more recent times I suspect many northern prods ended up going to Scottish or English Universities and built their careers from there. I wonder what effect a constant "brain drain" of young students from the North has had on Northern society. It could explain some of it's "backwater" qualities. It feels  bit like the south in the 1980's.

Index of Frank's Diaries

by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Fri May 5th, 2017 at 05:50:27 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't think the Republic could afford the cost of reunification while it remains inside the euro as currently constituted.

With a eurozone fiscal capacity and an expanded cohesion fund, it could be afforded.

Of Ireland could regain monetary sovereignty with a soft currency.

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri May 5th, 2017 at 05:23:41 PM EST
No, with the ersatz gold standard we'd be screwed, but we're all in trouble if that doesn't get fixed.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Fri May 5th, 2017 at 05:49:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]


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