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Getting Real about Northern Ireland

by Frank Schnittger Thu Apr 18th, 2024 at 09:20:19 PM EST

On several occasions now I have written an OP in response to one by Andy Pollak. I hope he takes it as a sort of back-handed compliment: no one better espouses what I call the conventional approach to reconciliation than he. According to this view, reconciliation must happen before, during, and after any border poll and is to be arrived at by nationalists and unionists talking to each other, and arriving at some sort of compromise down the middle, with Ireland becoming more British to make unionists feel more comfortable and unionists coming to accept that their might just be a little smidgeon of Irishness in their background and traditions, which can be incorporated, to some degree, in some sort of woolly, as yet undefined, complex consociational set of structures in a very blurry new Ireland that they can just about live with.

So far so good. Consociationalism is a political ideology invented in the 1960's relating to or denoting a political system formed by the cooperation of different social groups on the basis of shared power. It arose out of a recognition by political theorists that not all societies are based on homogenous communities and that sometimes the differences are stark enough to require formal recognition in the structures of a state. It is certainly preferable to violent conflict between differing ethnic, religious, or cultural groupings within a society. It is about the partial recognition and institutionalisation of those differences in order to achieve a more manageable and sustainable whole. It also represents a rather static view of societies as unable to evolve in an organic way to achieve "an ever closer union" as stated as an objective in the opening lines of the EU's founding Treaty of Rome.

I very much support the concept when it comes to bringing together nation states who have, historically, often been in profound and almost unending conflict with each other. It is also an important tool for keeping competing national elites in line, preventing them, to some degree, from exploiting international rivalries in order to consolidate their power bases in the often fractious domestic politics of their home countries. Countries that are very divided internally are rarely stable partners for countries abroad. Internal rivalries get played out on the international stage, often to devastating effect. (In my view Brexit was, in part, a consequence of the unstable class structure in British society).

Consociationalism was the basis of power sharing in the Good Friday Agreement and an attempt to end the historic enmity between Ireland and Britain within the context of the EU drive towards "an ever closer union". Of course Brexit put the kibosh on much of that, and British Irish relations have yet to recover, as witnessed by the recent British government command paper "Safeguarding the Union", which sought to safeguard the Northern Ireland and British union at the expense of the "misguided and divisive concept of an all-Ireland economy". But I digress.

My point of difference with Andy is that he regards some sort of political reconciliation between political nationalism and unionism as a pre-requisite not only for a border poll, but any sort of closer relationships on the island. He has recently taken "Ireland's Future" (with whom I have no association whatsoever) to task for claiming that such political reconciliation is not necessary prior to a border poll.

This, in my view, is to confuse formal political reconciliation with informal social reconciliation, which is happening all the time, and it is an insult to the many who practice it to deny that it is taking place on an ongoing basis. Every time people from a nationalist or unionist background have a neighbourly chat at the local supermarket, they are engaging in social reconciliation. Every time they work together at work or to solve some local shared problem, they are engaging in social reconciliation.

Northern Ireland now is not the Northern Ireland of 25 years ago. The Good Friday Agreement put an end to the Troubles, but at the cost of freezing some of those political divisions in aspic. As a result, very little progress has been made in terms of political reconciliation: Nationalism and Unionism still espouse their Irish and British nationalisms much as before, as is their right under that Agreement.

And neither would I expect that to change if a border poll resulted in a transfer of sovereignty from London to Dublin. The GFA does not simply vanish after a border poll is carried, and neither need nationalist or unionist parties, with the former advocating closer north south integration, and the latter continuing to espouse closer ties to Britain. There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of this and it need not cause problems in a mature polity. In a functioning democracy, different parties advocate for different constitutional or policy options all the time.

But all of this is to ignore the elephant in the room, which is what is happening in England. I came to Andy's latest OP late and after much of the substantive discussion was over. I wrote the following late night "stream of consciousness" comment which is ok as a comment but needs greater elucidation in an OP.

All this playing around with various governance models cannot obscure one essential reality. Northern Ireland, as is, is a loss making entity, and the scale of those losses has been increasing for many decades now. The verdict of economic history is in: Partition doesn't work for anyone, north or south, and especially not for the people of England.

So long as England is happy to bear those losses, no problem. The status quo can continue, with an ever-growing economic and political dependency on Westminster. The elites in both parts of Ireland can rest easy in the knowledge that it doesn't matter how dysfunctional NI gets, England will foot the bill.

But what happens if England, one day, wakes up to the reality that the costs are getting increasingly unsustainable for a beleaguered UK? What happens if England says NO More?

NI will then be faced with a catastrophic fall in living standards and the collapse of public services. In desperation northerners will look to the south for their economic salvation.

But they might be surprised at the response: NOT ON YOUR NELLY will southerners accept a massive reduction in living standards to bail out a northern population, a large part of which has spent the last 100 years insulting and blackguarding them at every opportunity. Put your own house it order first, and then we may consider it, could well be the response.

Reconciliation is often presented as something nationalists must do to assuage unionists fears. But the reality may turn out to be quite different: one hundred years of hatred will not be forgotten. What efforts have unionists made to be supportive of the south - to aid its development in times of trouble and when it was the poorer party? The answer is of course NEVER, NEVER, NEVER. They just stood by and mocked and laughed at the lazy and incompetent Irish.

And so, it will come to pass that the reconciliation that may be required around the time of a border poll will be of unionists seeking to make peace with their southern brethren and asking them to come to their aid. That aid might then be forthcoming, but only if Unionists agree to do the hard work of creating a new polity and economy with similar levels of equality, productivity and civil rights as the south. That will require transformative thinking, transcending the petty and not so petty discriminations of the past.

So, Andy is asking entirely the wrong questions. There is no way the south will take on the burdens that England has been suckered into taking on. Fiddling around with complex consociational models which are horrendously expensive to operate and merely perpetuate current inefficiencies will not be on the menu.

What have you got to offer us that will make Ireland as a whole a more peaceful and prosperous state will be the question southerners will want answered before they agree to vote for a united Ireland in a referendum. And if unionism doesn't have a good answer, a UI referendum will be defeated in the south. NI will then be in a position where no one, neither Ireland nor England, will want the hassle of running and funding the place, and it will simply be let go downhill into a giant sink hole.

You may think things are bad in NI now, but you ain't seen nothing yet. Just pray that England will keep footing the bills, because no one else will underwrite a sectarian state.


My point is that the continuing dysfunctionality of Northern Ireland politics comes at a price, and that price is lower investment, productivity, economic dynamism, and tax takes resulting in a need for ever greater subventions under the Barnett formula. And that is on top of London making decisions that may or may not be in Britain's interest but are certainly not in Northern Ireland's.

I belong to what may broadly be described as the "realist" school of political international relations thought, although I hate to pigeon hole myself in any way. This school holds that, generally speaking, and over the long term, nation states act in their own economic self-interest. It is a form of economic determinism (with different forms also held my Marxists and neo-conservatives) which holds that, ultimately, politics is determined by economics, although that does not prevent states from occasionally acting against their own self-interest for prolonged periods of time for reasons of cultural/ideological hangovers or poor leadership.

I wrote my thesis for my Masters in Peace Studies in the late1980's on Apartheid well before Nelson Mandela was released and indeed just as De Klerk was elected President as the choice of the hard-line wing of the ruling Nationalist party. In it I predicted the imminent collapse of Apartheid not for any moral, idealistic, or religious reasons, but because it no longer served the economic interests of the white ruling class. Apartheid was a horrendously expensive system to administer, which benefited mainly the farming, mining, public administration and security sectors of the South African economy.

But the South African economy was changing rapidly. Western sanctions and dis-investment had resulted in vast swathes of the (relatively advanced) South African economy being bought up by the Afrikaner elite at knock-down prices, but they needed access to international markets and skilled labour to make those businesses profitable on an ongoing basis.

Why pay a poorly qualified white man several times the going rate for a hardworking and well-motivated black? Why lose access to vital international input goods and markets for exports when these are essential for modern businesses to operate profitably and at scale? Some way had to be found to end the sanctions regime Apartheid had belated engendered. The war in Angola against well trained Cuban troops had also been extremely costly in blood and treasure.

Ending Apartheid required that these new Afrikaner business elites could overcome the opposition of traditional farming, mining, public administration, and security elites who were the chief beneficiaries of Apartheid. Everybody else was losing. And as a proportion of GNP and in terms of tax revenues, farming and mining were becoming less and less important in the economy as a whole. Even in those industries, mechanisation was making access to the cheap unskilled black labour Apartheid provided less and less necessary.

Eventually the interests of the new white economic elite won out. Provided the security of the white community could be guaranteed, Afrikaners could continue to control a growing economy even if concessions had to be made on the political front to end sanctions. Of course, no one (or very few) predicted the seismic effect that releasing Mandela ended up having on world opinion and domestic politics in South Africa. It turned out that he was not going to be quite the black puppet whose strings could be pulled by his white masters.

But he succeeded in reassuring whites that their lives and property were safe in his hands, and the South African economy remains largely owned by Afrikaners to this day. Sanctions ended, and wars in southern Africa receded. Apartheid had served its purpose but had had its day. Straight forward international capitalism was much more lucrative.

Sadly, South Africa is still the most unequal major country in the world. A political revolution was not followed by an economic revolution. Afrikaner economic interests still rule the land with a largely complicit and growing Black middle class sharing the spoils. The vast majority in the former Bantustans and black townships remain almost as impoverished as ever. Many of the inefficiencies of gross inequality, crime, and under-education remain, but will have to be addressed some day. Perhaps another political revolution will be required.

I relate this story to illustrate my point that it tends to be the economic interests of ruling elites that determine the course of history in the long term. Yes, there may be sentimental attachments to long held views and traditions, but these things are subject to the changing economic interests of ruling elites. Old systems and structures can persist until long after they serve any useful economic function, but usually serve as window dressing rather than as substantive policy. There will be many more Commanders of the British Empire awarded in Royal Honours lists, long after the term has lost all practical meaning.

I have previously published an OP on changing popular attitudes to a United Ireland in Britain, but it is the changing economic interests of the ruling elite which are crucial in determining political action. A British Irish defence treaty could provide reassurances that any residual strategic defence role Northern Ireland plays in British military thinking can be provided for my other means. What value is Northern Ireland then to the British economic elite?

I present this OP not to advocate for a United Ireland, but to warn that events can move very fast and leave everyone totally unprepared - as was the case for many white South Africans when Mandela came to power. Many whites sold up at rock bottom prices and came to live in Britain and Ireland only to find their qualifications, if any, were not recognised and they qualified only for unskilled jobs.

Neither were European managements overawed by the command and control methods common in a South African management culture used to a more authoritarian system. When they realised that a post-Apartheid South Africa would be stable and successful after all, many sought to return, only to find the property market had recovered and they could no longer afford the big house and servants with swimming pool they had previously taken as their birthright.

A United Ireland may come to be in the British elite's economic interest long before any majority in Ireland is prepared for it. It does not depend on political reconciliation within Northern Ireland or anything that is happening in Ireland, north or south, right now. Reconciliation would, at best, be a desirable optional extra from a British elite point of view. Good for the optics, perhaps. But if all the problems of funding, governance, and public relations could be neatly transferred from London for Dublin to solve, it would be absolutely ideal. This is a problem the Dublin elite desperately wants to avoid.

The Irish government recently lost two referenda which had the overwhelming, if luke-warm, support of all the major political parties and independent civil society groups. If the Irish electorate isn't convinced that a proposal is in their interests, they are not slow to give it a short shrift. Almost everyone was agreed that the "women in the home" provisions of the Constitution were hopelessly outdated. However, they were less convinced that the proposed anodyne non sexist language was a huge improvement.

Similarly, a large majority in the south will, if asked, say they are in favour of a United Ireland in principle. But that majority quickly shrinks to a minority if they are told that this will involve a significant reduction in living standards, public services, higher taxes or the "Britishification" of Irish society to make unionists feel more comfortable in a United Ireland. If anything, Brexit has exacerbated a divergence between the political cultures of Britain and Ireland, with Ireland taking a decisively pro-EU stance in opposition to all things Brexit.

This should not be confused with an anti-British stance, but rather an anti-British elite and Brexiteer stance. Relations between the ordinary folk of both islands have never been better, but the actions of the British elite, post Brexit have been greeted with a mixture of outright disgust, distain, and not a little pity. Any notion that the Irish people would want to be more closely related to the British state superstructure and the ruling ideology of the ruling elite is for the birds and would destroy the chances of a southern referendum on a united Ireland being carried. And Starmer isn't seen as a significant change from all of that.

So, the bottom line of this OP is a warning. Changes can happen very quickly and very drastically if the ruling elite of a country decide it is in their interests to pursue a radical change of policy. The strong tradition of direct democracy in Ireland means that the people's agreement to "compromise proposals" in the name of reconciliation in return for the chance of a change of sovereignty is not to be taken for granted, as most nationalists seem to assume.

Of course, all of this is supposed to hinge on a 50%+1 majority for a change of sovereignty. Be assured that governments have a way of ensuring that electorates feel they have little choice. The Barnett subvention funds the entire Northern Ireland health and education budgets and then some, and both have already been drastically cut in real terms.

I will put my cards on the table here. I would not be in favour of a united Ireland which involved a simple transfer of sovereignty and funding obligations from London to Dublin for Northern Ireland to be governed more or less as is. A Northern Ireland dysfunctional under British sovereignty does not suddenly become more functional under Irish sovereignty, and, indeed, in some ways might become less so if subjected to loyalist non-cooperation and violence.

I am absolutely open to the idea that Northern Ireland could, in time, become as successful and self-sustaining as the south if developed under similar policies and rules of governance provided the vast majority in Northern Ireland buy into the transfer of sovereignty, and work hard to make a success of it. I remain to be convinced that that is likely to happen under current political leaderships, north or south.

South Africa had a change of governing elites once Apartheid ended, but very little changed on the ground for the vast majority of black Africans. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission did excellent work in fostering reconciliation, but extreme economic inequality, poverty, and violent crime remain rife 34 years after Mandela's release. Sure, a significant black middle class has developed benefitting from state largesse, but the efficiency of the economy and the welfare of the people as a whole have hardly progressed. Replacing one elite with another is great for the optics, less so for the people who need good governance the most.

Partition has been very detrimental to the development of the economies and political cultures of Ireland north and south and it has taken a long time for the south to recover from inauspicious beginnings. A lot of hard work by very many able and principled people was required to bring us to a point where we can hold our heads up high in the community of independent nations. Some may now view this as hubris, but it was hard earned, and cannot be taken for granted. I do not want this to be put at risk by the incorporation of a large number of people who simply do not want to be part of it, and who will do anything to destroy its prospects for future success.

Andy Pollak is right. Reconciliation is required, but it is a two way process, and to date I have heard no one in political unionism advocate credibly for better relations at every level between the peoples in Ireland. It has always been a zero sum game, with closer all Ireland relations being seen as inimical to a closer union with Britain. Have at it, if that is what you want. Play your party political games, but I will have none of it. And you will have a lot of convincing to do if the British economic elite decide to dump you into the middle of the Atlantic as surplus to their requirements and you have nowhere else to go.

The Irish people are a generous people, but they are not fools. If you think you will get a free ride off the Irish taxpayer as you have with the English think again. Nothing but a transformation of the Irish economy and polity, north and south, to incorporate best world practice at every level will suffice. Education and productivity levels will have to improve appreciably. Be prepared to enter the real world where no one else owes you a living.

Northern Ireland may not be East Germany but in some ways it seems even worse. Many in political unionism do not seem to realise how far they have fallen behind best practice elsewhere in advanced economies. Worse still, they do not seem to care, always believing that England will pick up the tab. That has worked brilliantly for them, and perhaps will continue to do so for some years to come. Until it doesn't.





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