Invisibility and inertia: the disappointing story of North-South cooperation

Whatever has happened to North-South cooperation in recent years? As somebody who was intimately involved in it for 14 years, it seems to me to have become almost invisible. The North South Ministerial Council, set up by the Good Friday Agreement to oversee it, is suspended. I hear occasional radio adverts from InterTradeIreland offering small grants to help businesses get ready for Brexit. Tourism Ireland is the only one of the seven North-South bodies that is clearly a success story. When I read about 156 North-South cooperation programmes listed in a recent British government report, I count the 40 or so I have come across and wonder how significant the others are. One thing is certain: in the words of Seamus Mallon, one of their great champions in the late 1990s, they are “grossly underdeveloped.”

Where, for example, is the evidence of progress in those areas where it just plain common sense to have greater practical cooperation on this small island: in agriculture, health, energy, tourism, and education? The potential both for major economies of scale and greater mutual understanding here are immense. What I can see in these areas is mainly missed opportunities.Let us take them one by one.

Agriculture, with its huge importance to the economies of both North and South, is an obvious area for greater cooperation. There was a high level of cooperation between the two Departments of Agriculture during the 2001 foot and mouth disease crisis. Back then there was a lot of discussion between Belfast and Dublin about an all-island animal health policy which would help Irish farmers, north and south, to trade internationally from a disease-free island; bring localised outbreaks of animal disease quickly under control; and react jointly to common animal health problems in the farming industry. So what has happened to that eminently sensible proposal?

Joint marketing is another area that makes great sense. Northern farmers and food processors could benefit enormously if their produce was sold as Irish-made in expanding markets in Europe and Asia. Nobody in most of those countries has the slightest idea about the existence of the border; what they know about is the clean, ‘green’ image of Irish food, which has contributed to a spectacular growth in its export performance in recent decades. And a lot of Irish food is produced on a cross-border basis.

Take the example of poultry, an important sector in the border region. Here eggs might be laid in the North, hatched in the Republic, and then the birds sent back across the border for ‘rearing’. Yet the Department of Agriculture in Dublin and Bord Bia, the state’s food marketing body, do not recognise any duck, turkey or chicken with any part of its processing based in Northern Ireland as Irish for export purposes. Would it not make sense for the two Departments of Agriculture to work together to maximise the export potential of farmers in the whole island by selling such produce as Irish in the big food fairs around the world? The same goes for beef, lamb, milk and all their highly valuable processed by-products.

It is no coincidence that the past 20 years has seen most of the big food processing companies in the South expanding their operations into Northern Ireland, so that most supply chains in the industry in both jurisdictions are now cross-border. They recognise that this is now effectively an all-island industry. The government departments in Dublin and Belfast should have followed suit long ago, although such a joint approach will become extremely difficult after Brexit.

Health is a key issue in a society, north and south, which by European standards is both rural and ill-served by public transport (making hospital access often very difficult). The most successful North-South network here is Cooperation and Working Together (CAWT), the partnership of health boards and trusts set up in 1992 to serve the whole border region between Derry and Dundalk. It has used EU funding to undertake and provide a range of cross-border projects and services in acute care, primary care, family and child care, learning disabilities, health promotion, public health and mental health in that peripheral region. More than 50,000 people have benefited from the cross-border services it has pioneered in areas like radiotherapy, cardiology, ENT and paediatric heart surgery. It has been singled out by the European Commission as a model for cross-border health cooperation in Europe.

However CAWT’s successful example has not been followed elsewhere. This is a major missed opportunity for North-South health cooperation. As one senior Northern Ireland official of my acquaintance put it recently: “Neither health system is in good shape, but some rationalisation could have been done together. The cross-border justification could have been used: ‘this has to happen on a cross-border basis – otherwise it won’t happen’. 60% of people on the island live in the Dublin-Belfast corridor, yet there is no sense of any coordinated services or activities there.”

Another key sector is energy, which ironically was not designated as an area for cooperation under the Good Friday Agreement, but where the electricity companies have acted as a major commercial driver. This saw the extension of the South’s natural gas pipeline network to the North in 2005; the establishment of an all-island (wholesale) electricity market in 2007 and an all-island electricity grid in 2008; and finally, the Republic’s state-owned electricity company, the Electricity Supply Board, buying the North’s largest supplier, Northern Ireland Electricity, in 2010. These highly complex linked operations were accomplished successfully with little publicity and little opposition from unionist politicians impressed by the strong economic arguments for them.

As we move from oil and coal-fired electricity to renewable energy from a wide variety of natural sources, there must be huge potential for further cooperation – and exporting to international markets – in this island of high winds and big waves and strong tides. At a time when the need to combat catastrophic climate change by switching to sustainable energy is becoming more and more urgent, this is an example where cooperation on the island could help in a small way to protect the planet!

Tourism Ireland, which markets tourism on the whole island overseas, is an outstanding example of how a successful all-Ireland service industry can be sold abroad. The World Economic Forum has put Ireland third in the world when it comes to overseas tourism marketing. Northern Ireland has benefited spectacularly from its work. Over a million people visited the Giant’s Causeway in 2018 compared to just over 100,000 in the mid-1980s. Belfast’s Titanic Centre had 850,000 visitors. In 2017 there were 2.2 million tourists to Northern Ireland, up 70% over the previous eight years.

In this sector the border simply does not make sense. Few if any overseas tourists care or even know about it. Yet the hugely successful Wild Atlantic Way initiative to promote the beautiful south and west coasts has to stop in Donegal: the overwhelming logic is that it should continue along the Causeway Coast in County Antrim. Similarly, the Ireland’s Ancient East campaign, to promote 5,000 years of history and archaeology, has to exclude the rich ancient sites of Armagh and Down. The new Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands programme, in the Shannon basin, cannot include Fermanagh. What possible reason can there be for not replicating our impressive overseas marketing of Ireland abroad, by putting in place the efficiencies and economies of scale that would result from the establishment of one tourist board for the whole island at home? As the head of Tourism Ireland, Niall Gibbons says: “Peace brings tourism and tourism brings peace; they go hand in hand.”

Education can play a vital role in ensuring that the barriers of mutual ignorance and misunderstanding – between North and South, unionists and nationalists – which my generation and previous generations suffered from, do not endure. In the 25 years from the late 1980s onwards, North-South cooperation in education and training saw thousands of mainly short-term individual projects funded by the EU and other foreign donors, but which suffered seriously from a lack of the kind of coordinating structure which should have been provided by the Departments of Education in Dublin and the North.

However some of these projects were significant. In 2010, wearing my hat as director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies, I did a report for the two departments which estimated the large numbers of students and young people involved in them: 70,000 in the European Studies programme, involving nearly 200 Irish secondary schools; 30,000 in the Dissolving Boundaries project, which brought primary, secondary and special schools together through IT and face-to-face contact; 17,000 in the Wider Horizons youth training and employability project; 14,000 in the Education for Reconciliation secondary schools project run by City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee; and so on. I estimated the amount of EU and other overseas funding (along with some from the two governments on the island) that went into these and other educational projects in the first decade of the century at more than €133 million; this is now reduced to a trickle. 

I concluded that report as follows: “This must be the largest cross-border movement of young people for the purposes of education and mutual understanding anywhere in the world in recent memory. This movement affects not only the students themselves, but their teachers, their families and their communities. There is a great opportunity here for consolidating the present peace and future reconciliation of Ireland by continuing to work with the more open minds of children and young people. This must not be lost by lack of foresight on the part of the leaders and planners of the island’s educational systems. If the gains of the extraordinary explosion in North- South educational cooperation of the past 10-15 years are allowed to peter out, what will the people of Ireland say in 10 or 20 or 50 years?” Nine years on, I can only say with great sadness that this is precisely what has happened.

The level of North-South cooperation nearly 21 years after the Good Friday Agreement is frankly disappointing (and this is before Brexit). When there was significant EU Peace and INTERREG money for such cooperation up to around 2014, there was some important work going on. That continues in parts of the private sector such as agri-food and energy. But two unimaginative and largely inert governments and their public services in Belfast and Dublin have failed utterly to build on the high hopes of the years after 1998. I only hope that Brexit is not the final, knock-out blow to this vital element in both the peace process and the longer-term prospect of reconciliation through practical cooperation on the island.

Posted in Cross-border cooperation, General | 3 Comments

Do we need a bit of Chinese ingenuity to solve our Irish puzzle (or could Chris Patten be the man to unite Ireland)?

Christmas 2018 sees an anxious Ireland starting seriously to prepare for Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal. It finds the United Kingdom in a state of constitutional agitation and division not seen since the Suez crisis in 1956; the unpredictability of British politics is unprecedented in modern times. It occurs to me that it may even lead to a situation where after the next general election a Border Poll in Ireland could get onto the agenda of an incoming government in London. For example, if Scotland, with its strong majority for staying in the EU, obtains a second independence referendum and votes to go it alone, the pressure for a unity referendum (led by Sinn Fein) on a left-wing Labour government may prove irresistible.

The Irish government and political establishment are, of course, not thinking that far ahead: the extremely smart people at the top of the Departments of the Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs are entirely taken up with the witches’ brew that is Brexit.  That generation of brilliant diplomats and senior civil servants who won their spurs  in the negotiations that led to the internationally admired 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement and 1998 Good Friday Agreement are long gone. The level of knowledge and debate about the North in Leinster House is woeful.

I believe that if we don’t want to leave the running to the ideologues and fantasists of Sinn Fein, the establishment parties in Dublin – notably Fine Gael and Fianna Fail – will soon have to start doing some serious thinking about the medium-term future of this island. Regular readers of this column know I am the last person to urge any rapid movement towards unity because my knowledge of the unionist community makes me fear the dire consequences of such a strategy. The best thing the governments in London and Dublin could do in the short term is to heap the pressure on the DUP and Sinn Fein to get back to power-sharing at Stormont as soon as possible and put the unity issue back on the long finger.

But the stars are shifting. The relationship between Britain and Ireland, and between north and south, has changed for the worse over the past two and a half years. If a miracle happens and Theresa May gets her withdrawal package through Westminster, it may leave Northern Ireland politically part of the UK, but economically under the growing influence of the EU and therefore with closer links to the Republic. Demographic changes within a few years will almost certainly see a Catholic (although not for the immediate future a nationalist) majority in the North. I believe the DUP will find that their temporary Tory friends in Westminster are deeply unreliable. We in Dublin may need to find a mechanism – perhaps a new kind of forum – to start discussing the major economic, political and constitutional issues coming across the sea from London and down the road from Belfast in the medium term.

Here’s one exotic idea. Perhaps we might to look to the Far East for a possible example to follow. Could Northern Ireland’s new special relationship with the EU and the Republic lead over the longer term to an Irish version of China’s ‘one country, two systems’ 1997 takeover of that last jewel in the British colonial crown, Hong Kong? Some of us believe that a loose form of confederation, with the North remaining a culturally half-British autonomous province, but with Dublin taking over powers such as foreign and security policy from London, might be an eventual way forward.

There are scores of good reasons why Northern Ireland and Hong Kong’s utter dissimilarity would make this comparison not worth considering. But given that I am always open to ideas that are more innovative and intelligent than the blunt and potentially calamitous instrument of a 50% + 1 vote for unity, let’s give it an airing.

The bulk of the land on which Hong Kong is built was held on a 19th century lease from China to imperial Britain which was due to expire in 1997. When negotiations over its future status began in 1982 London made it clear to Beijing that it wanted capitalism and political freedom to continue after the handover. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping responded  with an extraordinarily flexible and imaginative offer: in return for an unambiguous transfer of sovereignty to China, he said, there would be one country but two systems, China’s and Hong Kong’s.

Just two years later, to the world’s great surprise, the two governments signed a Joint Declaration. Hong Kong’s free enterprise way of life would survive for 50 years after the Chinese takeover. China promised to retain not only Hong Kong’s capitalist system and its autonomy to run its own affairs, but also its Western-style rule of law, and the freedoms associated with it – of speech, assembly, religious practice and belief. There would even be elections to a legislature, although their democratic nature would be very limited, even more limited than under the colonial rule of the British.

Then in 1989 came the massacre of students in Tiananmen Square by the People’s Liberation Army. The future of Hong Kong was still deeply uncertain, with dire predictions of everything from mass emigration and economic collapse to blood on the streets. Before the last British governor, former Conservative cabinet minister Chris Patten, flew out in 1992, he was told by one newspaper editor that the odds were evenly balanced as to whether he would leave the colony for the last time on the royal yacht or by Air Force helicopter from the roof of Government House.¹

According to Patten, one of the reasons for the eventually successful transition was that Britain gave “a sort of tacit blessing” to China’s post-1997 arrangements, even when they had a distinctly questionable relationship with the promises given in the 1984 Joint Declaration.To his credit, Patten managed to introduce an element of genuine democracy into Legislative Council elections for the first time in 1995, and a third of those democratically elected members carried on into the Chinese era.

In terms of realpolitik the handover seems to have worked rather well.  Which other region of a unitary state – let alone a totalitarian unitary state – has its own constitution, central bank, tax system and civil service structure? In China you cannot move about legally without a permit, let alone travel abroad; in Hong Kong you can go to the airport and fly wherever you like. In China, the currency is not convertible; in Hong Kong the currency’s link to the US dollar means that monetary policy is made by the Federal Reserve in Washington. In China corruption is a way of life to boost low official salaries; Hong Kong civil servants are among the highest paid on earth. In China freedom of expression and the press is severely limited; in Hong Kong you can say and write what you want.  In China official music choices are ‘The East is Red’ and the ‘Internationale’; in Hong Kong you are as likely to hear ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’.²

Divided and undynamic little Northern Ireland, of course, is not Hong Kong. The latter is the great international entrepôt centre for the huge Chinese market. Its businesses are among the top wealth creators in Asia, with interests stretching across the globe. Its money and property traders are legendary. There is unbelievable wealth, but also income disparity that is among the greatest on earth.

So the comparisons with Northern Ireland may be limited. But is there not something to be learned from what 40 years ago looked like the impossible prospect of a peaceful Chinese communist takeover of the colony? In the event it all happened unbelievably smoothly and harmoniously before the eyes of an awe-struck world. So what can we glean from it?

25 years ago I ran an independent ‘citizens inquiry’ into ways forward for Northern Ireland which was headed by an international commission under the chairmanship of an eminent Norwegian human rights lawyer, Torkel Opsahl. We asked 3,000 people all over the North for new ideas to get it out of its horrible, violent deadlock. It was rubbished by local politicians, but wiser heads said it made a small but significant contribution to the dawning of the Northern Irish peace process. A few years later Chris Patten came to Belfast fresh from his triumph in Hong Kong to head another ‘mission impossible’, a commission to make recommendations for the replacement of the RUC by a radically reformed police service in Northern Ireland, which turned out to be probably the single biggest and longest-lasting success of the peace process. Why don’t the British and Irish governments (once they’ve got over the small headache of Brexit) invite him to head a new commission or forum to explore future options for running the North (including possible paths to unity), given that the parties there seem utterly incapable of doing it and, as a consequence, the Good Friday Agreement appears to be on dangerously weak legs?

¹ Chris Patten, East and West: the last governor of Hong Kong on power, freedom and the future (1998)

² Material about Hong Kong from Jonathan Fenby, Dealing with the Dragon: a year in the new Hong Kong (2000)

Posted in General, Ireland, Europe and the world, Views from abroad | 2 Comments

Could a four-party pro-EU Executive govern Northern Ireland?

In a letter to the Irish Times earlier this month Martin Mansergh, one of the principal architects of the Good Friday Agreement, issued a plea to nationalists and republicans to recognise some positive aspects of Northern Ireland’s past, ranging from the contribution of the North to the victory over Nazi Germany to the inspiration of the peace process for people seeking conflict resolution around the world. He concluded his letter with the following words: “It would be good if we could abandon the old and futile habit of beating the drum for a united Ireland in search of votes, and devoted our time to all the intermediary steps required to improve relationships, before expecting such a big step to be agreed and taken.”

Ironically, the disaster of Brexit may push us towards taking such steps. A poll carried out for RTE and BBC this month showed 62% of people in Northern Ireland believing that the UK pulling out of the EU would make a united Ireland more likely (the usual health warning applies: Northern Ireland opinion polls are all over the place on the unity issue). But there is no doubt that in the middle of the deep political crisis that the UK is currently experiencing in the wake of Theresa May’s withdrawal proposals (and the DUP’s ferocious reaction to them), many Northerners – including some thinking unionists – are having to look again at their position as part of that now unstable union.

As one Irish Times reader from Bangor, Co Down, wrote in response to Mansergh: “My grandfather voted for partition because he knew his grandchildren would be better off within the UK. After 100 years marked by conflict and bitterness, it is my responsibility to consider the matter again in the interests of my grandchildren.”

The alternative is not necessarily outright Irish unity, but some of the “intermediate steps” that Dr Mansergh suggests could pave the way for an improvement of relationships before such a massive move could even be contemplated. In a thoughtful essay on the Irish Humanities website¹, NUI Galway political scientist, Niall Ó Dochartaigh (an unusual Southern academic who has a deep knowledge of the North) has pointed to the constructive role that cross-border cooperation could play in strengthening North-South relations towards some place short of unity.

Ó Dochartaigh stresses that the Good Friday Agreement is  future-oriented and “radical in its open-endedness”. This is most evident in its provision for a Border Poll on reunification. But it also mandates the North/South Ministerial Council to “use best endeavours to reach agreement on the adoption of common policies in areas where there is a mutual cross-border and all-island benefit, and which are within the competence of both administrations, North and South.”

Of course the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly have been suspended for nearly two years now, and there is little or no prospect in the immediate future of any DUP-Sinn Fein agreement to bring them back. But Ó Dochartaigh believes that if it ever does get up and running again, the Executive would have “huge latitude” to “transform the relationship and connections between the two parts of Ireland within the Agreement without taking that step of reunification.”

He points out that this would maintain the spirit of the original Government of Ireland Act of 1920, which envisaged partition as a temporary expedient to avoid civil war and provided for a Council of Ireland to draw the two jurisdictions together again. “But what does this matter if the main unionist parties still seek to minimise links? The difference is that unionists now form a minority in the Northern Ireland Assembly as well as a minority of voters for the first time since Northern Ireland was established in 1921. The non-unionist parties who now form a majority in the Assembly, including both nationalists and centre-ground parties such as Alliance and the Greens, have built an increasingly robust alliance on a range of issues in recent years, most prominently on same-sex marriage and (in a slightly less united way) on abortion reform. They are particularly strongly of one voice in supporting strong and close relations with the EU.” In particular there is a majority for “a kind of special status” for Northern Ireland in relation to the EU, and this is solidly backed by the North’s business, retail and farming organisations. In this Theresa May is more in tune with Northern opinion than the DUP, much to the latter’s annoyance.

Ó Dochartaigh believes that with majorities in both the Assembly and the wider population “supporting a reordering of relationships between Britain, Ireland and Northern Ireland in the light of Brexit, that large grey area between the status quo and reunification has become a much more charged and important political space.”

He says that the unionists may take comfort from polls that continue to show only minority support for Irish unity. “But a much more immediate and serious challenge to the unionist political position is evident in the answers to other questions in these polls. The 2017 Northern Ireland Life and Times survey showed robust majority support for staying in the UK, but also found a very strong majority saying they were “in favour of Northern Ireland entering a political and economic alliance with the Republic of Ireland if it would help jobs and the economy.” Only 16% disagreed with this.²

Watching a pro-remain group from Sinn Fein, the SDLP, Alliance and the Greens go into Leinster House to discuss Brexit with Southern politicians earlier this month made me think that this alliance might even provide an alternative government for the North. Of course, the Good Friday Agreement would have to be amended to remove both the requirement for parties to ‘designate’ as unionist or nationalist and the ultra-complex d’Hondt voting mechanism.But some would say these are its most unattractive and unworkable elements anyway.

What about a pro-EU coalition around Theresa May’s proposals – what Leo Varadkar has called the “best of British, best of Irish” – for the North? Cliff Taylor, probably Ireland’s most acute business journalist, called the package negotiated by May “an extraordinary win-win” for Northern Ireland. Under it, Northern companies would be able to export freely into both the UK and the EU. There would be some checks and controls on goods coming from Britain, but it is clear that the EU is prepared to bend to minimise these. It means, for example, that the North could market itself as a unique destination for foreign direct investment, allowing a free flow of goods into both the UK and EU. This could also be of huge benefit to indigenous Northern firms, and avoid much of the disruption of Brexit. The North – unlike Britain – could continue to benefit from other trade deals which the EU has in place with third countries. And we could have lots and lots of mutually beneficial cross-border cooperation.

Could Sinn Fein, the SDLP, Alliance and the Greens sink their differences and form a temporary voluntary coalition to ensure that Northern Ireland gets the best deal out of the Brexit mess?  Could Sinn Fein, as the largest party, put its relentless drive towards Irish unity on hold for a few years, knowing that demography is on its side in the medium term? I suggest its wise former leader Martin McGuinness would have been open to such an idea. Can the other parties trust Sinn Fein enough to go into government with them on this basis? This will be difficult, given the behind-the-scenes cabal – including former senior IRA men – who may still make the final decisions in that party, and its history of bad faith in the past (most notably, ignoring David Trimble’s plea in 1999-2000 for a start to decommissioning as they went into government together, in the full knowledge that he was doomed without one). If it can be done, perhaps (although I admit this is extremely unlikely) pragmatic, anti-Brexit politicians from the Ulster Unionist Party like Steve Aiken and Mike Nesbitt might even persuade their party to join in.

Maybe such a dramatic move to the centre in the North might parallel what the prominent commentator David McWilliams calls in his latest book³ the rise of the  ‘Radical Centre’ in the Republic, a development which he argues has been behind the Republic’s extraordinary economic success in recent decades. I will come back to that in a future blog.

ENDNOTE: If you want to hear the most marvellous rendition of ‘Ireland’s Call’ – the anthem of the best rugby team in the world and (I hope) of an eventually united Irish people – watch and listen to this golden-voiced four year old girl singing it on https://t.co/vz7wUTu2vl?ssr=true

¹ https://www.irishhumanities.com/blog/the-good-friday-agreement-and-brexit-reflections-on-the-future-in-a-year-of-commemoration/

2 http://www.ark.av.uk/nilt/2017/Political_Attitudes/NIROIALL.html

³ Renaissance Nation: How the Pope’s Children rewrote the rules for Ireland.

Posted in Cross-border cooperation, General, Ireland, Europe and the world, Northern Ireland | Leave a comment

I am a disillusioned disciple of the Good Friday Agreement

Disillusionment. That’s the feeling these days among many people like myself who have been the most passionate advocates of the Good Friday Agreement. When I hear Arlene Foster’s extraordinary choice of words (‘the red line is blood red’) in talking about the DUP resisting even the most common sense extra checks down the Irish Sea to keep Northern Ireland in regulatory and customs alignment with the EU, I wonder what has changed in unionism over the past 20 years.When I hear Sinn Fein describing the British government as the “main conflict protagonist” in the Northern Troubles, despite the IRA having killed nearly five times more people than the British Army, the RUC and the UDR combined, I wonder what has changed in republicanism over the past 20 years. When I hear that Catholic police officers – those who came into the PSNI as part of the 1998 Agreement’s most successful element, policing reform – are once again not being posted to their home communities because of the dissident republican threat to them, I am close to despair.

Brexit, of course, is the main culprit. The voters of Britain barely spared a thought for the effect of their seismic 2016 vote on the sister island. Shockingly, a recent opinion poll appeared to show that the great majority of British Leave voters (along with their Northern unionist counterparts) even now believe that collapsing the Irish peace process is a price worth paying for leaving the EU. The result of that vote has been that the two Ulster tribes have returned to their traditional trenches with a vengeance.

In particular, Brexit has allowed the most fear-filled and eurosceptic elements in the DUP – led by its Westminster MPs – to take a hard-line anti-EU stance that is, while intrinsic to their psychological DNA, entirely at odds with the interests of the economically exposed province they purport to represent. In the longer-term, if a pro-EU Scotland eventually breaks away from the UK, it may also be seen to be at odds with their political interests. And do they not recognise that a hard Irish border following the UK crashing out of the EU is just the kind of development that will force moderate nationalists into the arms of Sinn Fein, and make the dissidents more attractive to disadvantaged young nationalists? It is very hard not to conclude that this is a classic example of ‘stupid unionism.’

For its part, Sinn Fein, in true Pavlovian fashion, has seized the opportunity to push for “accelerated reunification post-Brexit”. Just as the unionists are paranoid about the maintenance of the union, so republicans are obsessed with the holy grail of a politically united Ireland. The well-being of the people of Northern Ireland rarely comes into the reckoning for either side.

For me the major miracle of the 1998 Agreement was the effective removal of the Irish border, while Northern Ireland stayed constitutionally part of the United Kingdom (alongside the Single European Act which removed most of the EU’s trade borders). In my 14 years heading the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh (1999-2013)  I was conscious of being part of an extraordinary experiment in bringing people together through practical cooperation projects, many of them funded by the EU, in business, agriculture, transport, health, education, local government, planning, the environment, tourism, inland waterways, the marine and a dozen other areas. For a decade and a half there was a benign window of opportunity that might, just might, have begun the process of taking the poison out of centuries of bad relationships on this island simply through helping the people of the two jurisdictions to get to know each other by working, learning and enjoying common pursuits together.

It might have not have been big or fast enough for some of us, but it was an important step towards a genuinely reconciled Ireland. As that wise man Sir George Quigley said just before his death in 2013: “The North-South relationship has been transformed. Someone, indeed, has referred to its unprecedented ordinariness and normality today. We seem to have been able to resolve North-South tensions in a way which still too often escapes us as far as the traditional divisions within the Northern Ireland community itself are concerned.” Is all that good work now coming to an end?

And of course Brexit has poisoned the two relationships that were crucial to the drawing up of the Good Friday Agreement and to its relative success for many years. The decades of painstaking work to build good relations between the Irish and British governments, and between the former and the political representatives of unionism, appear to have come to naught. Relations between Dublin, London and Belfast are now frosty at best, toxic at worst. 20 years ago Ireland was led towards peace by genuinely courageous and visionary leaders (however flawed in other areas) such as Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern, John Major, Albert Reynolds, Mo Mowlam, David Trimble, John Hume, Seamus Mallon, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness,  David Ervine and from the US, George Mitchell and Bill Clinton. Later they were joined, after ‘road to Damascus’ conversions, by Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson. If you think leadership doesn’t matter, compare these major figures with their picayune equivalents today.

But if one looks more closely, is it only Brexit? I have recently been reading the Belfast-based political analyst Robin Wilson’s 2010 book on the Good Friday Agreement and its implementation¹. Even given that Wilson was always a sceptic when it came to the Agreement, part of the school that thought it would institutionalise sectarianism, this provides some disturbing evidence for re-evaluation.

Wilson points out that the rot set in early, on the morning the Good Friday Agreement was signed, when Tony Blair gave David Trimble a side letter promising to review the exclusion of Sinn Fein from the Executive six months after the Northern Ireland Assembly was set up if the IRA did not begin to decommission its arms. This was a promise Blair was unable or unwilling to fulfil, and it planted the seeds for the eventual implosion (and electoral collapse) of the Ulster Unionist Party because of the IRA’s failure to decommission, and its replacement by the DUP.

Even more importantly, there was a huge absence of trust there from the beginning: in the first few months of the new Executive the Ulster Unionists could not bring themselves even to speak to their Sinn Fein  colleagues. By the time the first UUP-SDLP led government collapsed in October 2002, the atmosphere around the cabinet table was described by one civil servant as “poisonous.” There was an almost complete absence of collective responsibility or joint decision making. Sustainable power-sharing government just can’t work like that.

As the late David Stevens of the Corrymeela Community  pointed out, there was a “deep paradox in this: you have a deeply distrustful society and for government to work people have to trust each other.” Yet MLAs being required to ‘designate’ themselves as unionist or nationalist, allied to the ultra-complex D’Hondt voting system, effectively institutionalised this distrust.

Thirdly there was little sense of collective loyalty to the common institutions and the common place the four sectarian parties were governing: Northern Ireland. As former Taoiseach John Bruton said: “The Agreement itself, and the institutions it creates, must become the focus of a new loyalty. The Agreement is not the means to some other end. It must be seen as an end in itself. Unless that happens, every ordinary proposal from one side will be seen by the other through a prism of suspicion.”  In their very different ways, David Trimble, Seamus Mallon, Martin McGuinness – and latterly Peter Robinson – tried their best to forge a fragile loyalty to a new shared dispensation. But once we got to Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill that noble aim had been all but abandoned.

A senior Dublin official summed it up for Wilson in 2008, at a time when there was considerable optimism in the air after the resumption of power-sharing a year earlier. “I doubt if the current model is in the long term democratically desirable or a particularly good idea from an administrative point of view either. In other words, I would like to see the possibility in due course of evolution towards some form of voluntary coalition arrangement, with some sort of cross-community threshold of support. That would seem to me to make more sense in terms of accountability, the possibility of change, and avoidance of entrenchment of interests and corruption.” 10 years on what we have is a blatant lack of accountability shown by the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal; the Assembly in suspension and thus deadlocked; sectarian ‘sharing out’ between DUP and Sinn Fein interests rather than genuine power-sharing as the main characteristic of the latter years of the Executive; and numerous examples of corruption, particularly on the DUP side of the house. It was little wonder that the Executive was so unloved by the people of the North at the end: at one meeting in West Belfast of broad nationalist opinion a year ago Sinn Fein could find only two people out of a crowd of over 150 to support them going back into that Executive.

Maybe the whole experiment was doomed once the reactionaries of the DUP became involved. The governments had decided to turn their backs on the middle ground sometime in the early 2000s, principally in order to get Sinn Fein and the IRA on board. After the St Andrews Agreement in 2006 this huge gamble appeared to have paid off. But as in Lebanon and other places where erstwhile bitter enemies go into government together, history has shown that it rarely lasts long. And the distinct impression now is that few people outside the two governments really want the North’s institutions to be restored. Certainly nobody in the British or Irish political establishments is prepared for the ferocious horse trading and painfully negotiated compromises that this will once again require.

The moral and political core of the Good Friday Agreement as an instrument for peace and reconciliation has been hollowed out. Nobody seems ready for the extremely hard graft needed to make a reconciled Northern Ireland work as the essential pre-requisite to what might happen next (in some medium-term future), whether it is a strengthening of the union with Britain (highly unlikely) or a move towards some kind of agreed Ireland. We are back again to the brutal binary choices that have blighted the North for the past century.

My personal hope (unrealistic as it may be) is that the non-unionist and non-nationalist ‘others’ whom the Belfast researcher Paul Nolan recently identified as by far the fastest growing social group in the region, might keep growing until they offer a significant centrist/leftist alternative in Northern society and politics. Bring them all on: atheists and agnostics, Alliance supporters, greens and socialists and People before Profit, foreign immigrants, hippies and gays and transgender people, sensible women of all persuasions, the alienated and marginalised and disabled and ‘plague on both your houses’ people.  Let Northern Ireland be taken over by oddballs and weirdos of every stripe. Nothing they could propose could be as stultifying and perilous as the drift towards the Border Poll that Sinn Fein are constantly demanding. For I believe that a 50% plus one vote for a (dis)united Ireland in such a poll will be just the thing to re-ignite the the ancient, bloody conflict.

ENDNOTE: I highly recommend Fintan O’Toole’s article in the Irish Times of 20th October on possible consequences of a worst case scenario after Brexit. Some of it is fanciful, some of is not. Be warned: we are entering dangerous times.

https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/fintan-o-toole-here-s-how-post-brexit-ireland-could-turn-out-1.3667967

¹ The Northern Ireland Experience of Conflict and Agreement: a Model for Export?

 

Posted in General, Ireland, Europe and the world, Northern Ireland | 3 Comments

A bloody Finnish cautionary tale for Irish Republicans

The independent presidential candidate Sean Gallagher has recently joined Tánaiste Simon Coveney and Sinn Fein among the growing list of people who have said they expect to see a united Ireland in their lifetime. The two new factors behind their confidence are, of course, the demographic trends which show that in the next few years Catholics will probably become the largest socio-religious group in Northern Ireland, and the cataclysm of Brexit.

Irish unity is an absolutely legitimate aspiration – I share it myself. However what these politicians never talk about, along with ordinary people in the Republic one hears voicing the same opinion in pubs and at parties, is how this unity is going to come about. The Good Friday Agreement says that once a bare 50% plus one majority for unity in a Border Poll (and it is unlikely to be much larger) is reached, the Westminster Parliament will legislate for British withdrawal and a united Ireland will result. But what will follow this seismic decision? What will be the governmental,  public finance and security arrangements in the fraught transitional period that it will set in motion? How will violence and disorder be dealt with? In the 45 years I have lived off and on in the Republic of Ireland, I have never heard or engaged in a single conversation about this fundamental issue. There seems to be an unspoken and utterly unthinking assumption that everything will turn out for the best.

However there remains the small issue of what to do about the something over 800,000 Unionists who want nothing to do with Irish unity. These difficult people are either  fiercely and proudly British; or, in the words of the distinguished political scientist and peacemaker Padraig O’Malley, what is ultimately important to them is “not their Protestantism nor their Britishness, but their unrelenting opposition to any form of association with the rest of Ireland, an opposition that transcends in its intensity and durability any possibility of accommodation.”

My belief, based on 23 years of living and working in the North, and regular conversations with unionist friends and relations, is that unless a very long drawn out transition to some form of unity is handled with enormous sensitivity and generosity, a small but significant proportion of those Unionists (and particularly the urban working class and rural Unionists who call themselves loyalists) will resist it by force.

Recently I have been reading the proceedings of the New Ireland Forum, the gathering of constitutional nationalist parties which came together in Dublin in 1983-1984 to discuss the question of unity. I was struck in particular by the contributions  of two thoughtful, moderate witnesses, one from a Catholic and one from a Protestant background. Bernard Cullen grew up as a Catholic in a Protestant working class area of Belfast and would go on to become professor of philosophy at Queen’s University. Asked about what would happen in the North if some day in the future there was ever the threat of a demographic nationalist majority for unity, he said the probability – given that there were loyalists willing to kill in order to resist what they saw as rampant Irish nationalism – was that there would be “a most terrible and horrific outcome, much greater in carnage and loss of life than anything we have seen so far.”

Similarly Robin Glendinning, a playwright and Alliance Party member from a liberal Protestant background, said that if a combination of the British government, the Irish government and the Northern Nationalist community were ever to tell the Unionists “your right to consent is now over, you would be in a very dangerous situation. I believe under those circumstances the Unionists would fight.”

I believe, despite Sinn Fein’s claims to the contrary, that little has changed in most Unionists’ attitudes since the 1980s. What will happen after Brexit is another matter, extremely difficult to predict. But I agree with Cullen and Glendinning that if there is a hair’s breadth majority for unity in a Border Poll in the foreseeable future, this island will be on the brink of renewed conflict. Loyalist paramilitary organisations, which have never gone away, will do what they do best: defend their areas against nationalist encroachment, which will involve killing Catholics. With so many Unionists having a knowledge of handling arms and military tactics through service in the RUC, the UDR and the paramilitary groups themselves, there will be plenty of murderous expertise to go around. The likelihood of attacks on Southern cities and towns would be considerable.

I foresee loyalists adopting two overlapping military strategies in such a situation. There are those who would attempt to create ‘facts on the ground’, securing unionist strongholds in largely Protestant areas like east Belfast, north Down, south and east Antrim and north Armagh. Others would proclaim a ‘backs to the wall’ resistance, appealing to Ulster’s long martial tradition of beating back the Southern hordes, from Cuchulainn to the Ulster Volunteers. Famous battles like the Boyne, Derry’s Walls, the Somme and Ulster-American hero Davy Crockett’s last stand at the Alamo would be invoked.

If you think this is far-fetched and alarmist, consider the experience of a peaceful EU member state on the far side of Europe. Who in Ireland has ever heard of the Finnish Civil War? This year the people of that highly civilised country are commemorating the centenary of that terrible conflict, in which 36,000 people were killed in just six months in 1918 (compare this with the 2,100 people who died in the 1916-1923 Irish War of Independence and Civil War).

This was a conflict between socialist and communist ‘Reds’ and right-wing ‘Whites’. Interestingly, most of the ‘Reds’ aimed to create nothing more revolutionary than a constitutional democratic nation-state on the Swiss model. Only a minority wanted a Finnish Soviet republic copied from Lenin’s Russia next door (Finland had been an autonomous region of the Russian empire until it declared effective independence in July 1917 after the fall of the Tsar four months earlier).But that was not how the Finnish right saw it: they saw a Bolshevik state in the making and brought in German troops to help put it down. The result was a civil was in which wide-scale terror was used by both sides.

Two key elements of this conflict are worth noting. Compared to Russia’s other autonomous regions, Finland was a relatively egalitarian society with equal political rights, a comparatively high level of education and opportunities for upward social mobility. And one of the tragic failures of the newly independent country’s rapid slide into civil war was that it had no working government, military or police force to maintain public order as parliamentary politics were replaced by warring paramilitary groups.

The result was a maelstrom. “The paramilitary nature of the conflict helps to explain the peculiar nature of its violence, which was unrestrained by international norms of warfare,” conclude two Finnish historians, Pertti Haapala and Marko Tikka, in a recent book chapter.¹ “What made violence possible was the gradual process of state collapse in 1917 and the government’s loss of control over the monopoly of force, a process that soon began to affect civil society, the economy and everyday life, and which eroded the belief in common values and norms. In that situation the step to violence was surprisingly short: the same young people who a year previously had been enthusiastically founding reading clubs, choirs and dance groups, were now organising small armed groups willing to annihilate the enemy.” It is striking that some of the worst atrocities were carried out by paramilitary units made up of very young volunteers, sometimes even 12-15 year old schoolboys and their teachers.

Paramilitaries? High levels of education? Political vacuum? Breakdown of law and order? It all sounds depressingly familiar. Parts of Northern Ireland were close to civil war several times between the 1970s and 1990s. If we blunder unthinkingly into a Border Poll without lengthy negotiations and meticulous consultation and preparation lasting (I would suggest) at least a generation, this kind of bloody madness could easily convulse our lovely island again.

¹ Pertti Haapala and Marko Tikka, ‘Revolution, Civil War and Terror in Finland in 1918’ in War in Peace: Paramilitary Violence in Europe after the Great War (Robert Gerwarth and John Horne, editors), Oxford University Press 2012

Posted in General, Ireland, Europe and the world, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | 4 Comments

Are parts of Europe coming to resemble Northern Ireland?

I imagine that few people outside Northern Ireland would disagree with the statement that the North is one of the most politically backward regions in Western Europe. The reasons are numerous and well-known: 30 years of destabilising and for a long time seemingly insoluble civil conflict; a politics largely determined by 19th century anti-Catholic bigotry and empire loyalism on one side, early 20th century irredentist nationalism on the other; the archaic militarism of Orange marches and republican hunger strike commemorations; little or no strategy for the social and economic improvement of its people, with high unemployment, low productivity and heavy dependence on subsidies from central government; and now the longest period without a coherent system of government of any European nation or region this century. Future historians will surely be dumbfounded at the failure to secure a working government over issues as marginal and eminently soluble as the Irish language and marriage equality.

My wife and I have just returned from a holiday in Catalonia, one of Europe’s most prosperous, progressive and sophisticated regions, with a capital, Barcelona, which is one of the world’s great cities and a proud record of defending democracy against fascism during the Spanish Civil War. But I saw some worrying signs in that ancient civilised region (a rich province of the Roman empire 2000 years ago) of a society facing the danger of deepening divisions between nationalists and unionists: nationalists who want Catalan independence and unionists who want to remain part of Spain.

In our small Costa Brava seaside resort there were Catalan flags, posters demanding the release of political prisoners and yellow ribbons protesting their imprisonment on every surface: on balconies, park and seafront railings, beaches and in people’s lapels. The mayor, chairman of a group of pro-independence town mayors, had even proposed putting yellow crosses on the town’s beaches.

This pattern was repeated in the region’s major cities, Barcelona and Girona. While we were there, a woman whose children were removing yellow ribbons from railings in a Barcelona park was hit in the face and had her nose broken. In Girona people associated with the largest party in the Catalan parliament, the unionist Ciudadanos (‘Citizens’), wore hoods to do the removing. This will not end well.

Catalan nationalism, unlike its Basque equivalent, has always prided itself on being completely peaceful, and in the past being more concerned with the independence of its culture and language rather than political independence. But the fierceness of the separatist language and the ubiquity of the pro-independence symbols were striking to the visitor this year (we have been holidaying in the same seaside resort for the past six years and like journalists on holiday everywhere, closely peruse the local papers).

The difference is what happened on 1st October last year. Then an outlawed and chaotic independence referendum was held with a 43% turn-out, in which over 90% of those voting opted for independence. The poll was marred by violent attacks on voters by the Spanish police, who blocked polling stations to try to prevent people voting. Earlier the Catalan parliament had stated that independence would be binding with a simple majority, without requiring a minimum turnout. However this was clearly illegal under Catalonia’s Statute of Autonomy, which requires a two thirds majority in that parliament for any change to the region’s status. It was also declared illegal by Spain’s Constitutional Court following a request by the Spanish government. After an abortive declaration of independence, nine independence leaders were jailed to await trial on a range of charges, while five more, including then regional president Carles Puigdemont, fled into exile.

Since then there has been a regional election, which saw the pro-nationalist coalition returned with an increased 70 to 65 seat majority; a change of government in Madrid, with the more conciliatory socialists, led by Pedro Sanchez, re-opening a long stalled dialogue with the Catalan nationalists, but a new, even more hard-line anti-Spanish separatist leader, Quim Torra, in Barcelona. While the new government has offered a new referendum on improving Catalonia’s self-governing powers, Torra has insisted that only “a referendum on self-determination will resolve the conflict.”

In a recent article the new Spanish foreign minister, Josep Borrell, a former European Parliament president, warned that the drive for independence was dividing Catalan society into two halves with the increasing risk of a highly damaging confrontation. The pluralism of a society that was bilingual, culturally diverse and with multiple identities was in danger. He said a fundamentalist nationalism with undertones of xenophobia, which preached that Catalonia was an an oppressed colony of Spain, could lead to a ‘Kosovo solution’ in the region.¹

Kosovo is a disputed, corrupt and mainly Albanian state, which declared independence from the former Yugoslavia in 2008, but still contains large pockets of Serbs who angrily proclaim their loyalty to Serbia. There re-partition is back on the negotiating table. While we were in Catalonia, there was a proposal from the presidents of Kosovo and Serbia that mostly Serb northern Kosovo would be returned to Belgrade’s rule but other Serb enclaves would remain part of Kosovo, while a mainly Albanian area of southern Serbia would be transferred to Albania. This is apparently aimed at helping the two countries establish normal relations after a bitter little war in 1998-1999 (complete with massacres of civilians by both sides), which is what they have to do if they are to have any chance of joining the European Union. However other senior Albanian politicians have reacted with horrified astonishment, warning that such a re-partition would risk triggering the kind of terrible ethnic and border conflicts that convulsed the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

To Irish observers, all this is depressingly familiar. We too have a society in the North divided down the middle between unionists and nationalists, with changing an international border – if necessary by a hair’s breadth 50% + 1 vote – being proposed by one party as the deeply destabilising ‘solution’ to that division. “Accelerated reunification post-Brexit” is how I heard Sinn Fein’s Declan Kearney describing it earlier this month. And of course the dreadful Brexit is driving a new wedge between the two communities there so that 20 years of hard toil to build a multiple identity and culturally diverse society is now in jeopardy.

Similar divisions based on fearful national identity and suspicion of the immigrant and the outsider are growing in countries as different as Italy and Sweden, Germany and Hungary. Is it too simplistic to see all this as akin to the ‘Ulsterisation’ of Europe?

ENDNOTE (1)  My experience is that even moderate Irish nationalists in the Republic find it difficult to be objective when the word ‘unionist’ is used. Their default position is that unionist equals bad. Please bear in mind that I am using ‘unionist’ in the above article in its Spanish-Catalan context, so don’t instinctively take the side of separatist Catalans simply because they are nationalist. [God knows how we’re going to cope if upwards of 800,000 of those ‘bad’ people become citizens of a united Ireland in a few decades or so!]

ENDNOTE (2):  In contradiction to my opening paragraph, I have to say that at the British Irish Association conference in Oxford earlier this month, I was hugely impressed by some of the civil society speakers from Northern Ireland. The panel on the second day on ‘bridging the gaps’ in the divided North consisted of Monica McWilliams, former leader of the Women’s Coalition, in the chair; Roisin McDonough, Chief Executive of the Arts Council, talking about the role of story-telling and drama; Judith Thompson, Commissioner for Victims and Survivors (who is originally from England), on those people still suffering from the legacy of the conflict; Bob Collins, former Chief Commissioner of the Equality Commission (who is from the South) on the success so far of the 1916-1923 centenary commemorations; and Duncan Morrow, Director of Community Engagement at University of Ulster and former CEO of the Community Relations Council, who delivered a brilliant dissection of the failures of reconciliation and the shortcomings of the Good Friday Agreement. When a society has such leading citizens, there must still be real hope for its future. I wish the same could be said of the political speakers: the deeply unimpressive Secretary of State, Karen Bradley; the fervent Sinn Fein chairman, Declan Kearney (he must terrify the life out of unionists!) and the young stand-in for Arlene Foster (do DUP leaders ever turn up at events where people might disagree with them?), Christopher Stalford.

¹ ‘Lo peor aun puede estar por llegar’, El Periodico, 2 September 2018

 

 

Posted in General, Ireland, Europe and the world, Northern Ireland, Views from abroad | 1 Comment

My dream is of an economically united Ireland

When it comes to Northern Ireland many years of journalism and cross-border cooperation have taught me to be a hard-headed, cold-eyed realist. Any suggestion of movement towards Irish unity, whether it be a post-Brexit agreement to put border checks down the Irish Sea or demographic increases in the Catholic population, will be fiercely resisted, or wilfully ignored, by the great majority of people in the unionist community.

But I do have one dream. It is that the two parts of Ireland will come together slowly, with an increasing number of Northern unionists realising that a much closer association with the Republic makes huge sense for reasons of economic self-interest. In short, it is that the benefits of an economically united Ireland will over time start persuading them of the merits of a politically united Ireland. I know that Brexit may put paid to such highly optimistic ideas – but this is a dream we’re talking about!

Because when one digs down into the economic performance of the two Irish jurisdictions in recent times, the differences are both dramatic and dramatically in the Republic’s favour. I have been reading a report published last month by the island’s two business confederations, IBEC and CBI Northern Ireland, called Business on a Connected Island. This shows startling differences between economic activity, income, consumption and education levels between North and South.

For example, Gross Domestic Product per capita in 2016 was more than twice as high in the Republic as in the North (€58,800 to €27,400). Even given factors such as the distortion of the Irish economy by profit outflows to the large number of  multinational companies here, this is an extraordinary discrepancy. 

The export performance of Northern companies is simply pathetic when compared to the Republic’s booming economy. In 2016 the Republic (with goods sold overseas to the value of €119 billion)  exported more in one month than Northern Ireland did in the whole year (€9.5 billion).

In that year average hourly wages were substantially higher (Stg£21.47 to £13.87) in the Republic, although again this comparison has to be treated with some caution because of poorer and more expensive public services like health and education. The average weekly expenditure on consumption in the South in 2015 (excluding housing) was €614 compared to €527 in Northern Ireland.

Higher education qualifications, so vital for employment these days, are far more prevalent in the Republic than the North: 53% of 30-35 year olds have such qualifications in the former, compared to 35.5% in the latter.

The report’s authors observe that if you put the North and South together into one all-island economy, that would make it the third largest regional economy in the British Isles, behind only London and the English south-east. If one takes Northern Ireland on its own, it is easily the weakest regional economy in the UK. They conclude: “The opportunities offered by an all-island economy have  been used by a wide range of firms in both jurisdictions to grow their businesses and create new jobs. As a result, what was once merely a concept is now an economic reality.”

In a study published in April the Derry-based financial journalist Paul Gosling confirmed this picture of Southern economic strength and Northern weakness.¹ He calculated that since partition the two economies have gone in opposite directions. In 1920 80% of Irish industrial output was in and around Belfast, then the island’s largest city. Just under a hundred years later the economy of the Republic is four times larger than that of Northern Ireland, with industrial output 10 times larger.

According to a recent Economic Eye study from the accountancy firm EY, economic growth in 2017 in the Republic was 4.9% compared to 1.4% in Northern Ireland. In January the Irish Central Bank forecast the creation of nearly 90,000 new jobs this year and next, and that unemployment would decline to just over 5%: effectively full employment. Young people are flocking from all over the world to Ireland to seek employment opportunities in its dynamic IT, pharmaceutical, financial services, aircraft leasing and other sectors.

At the same time, as I have pointed out before, the Republic has become one of the most liberal and open-minded countries in Europe, with same sex marriage and a liberal abortion regime passed by large majorities in referenda; over 90% of people polled saying they want to remain part of the European Union; a gay, half-Indian prime minister; and, despite the huge and recent increase of foreign-born people in the country (11.6% of the population in 2016), not the remotest sign of the emergence of any kind of right wing, anti-immigration party. A poor health service and a scandalous lack of social housing remain major problems. But in the Irish Times and Guardian commentator Fintan O’Toole’s words, Irish democracy has showed itself to be “a strong, vibrant plant” at a time when “a wave of reactionary identity politics is washing over the democratic world.”

What is there not to like in all this? Unfortunately for many unionists, the prospect of becoming part of an attractive and prosperous Irish society is always trumped by their deeply fearful brand of identity politics. For too many of them politics remains about one thing only: remaining British at all costs – even the hugely damaging cost of crashing out of the EU, seeing the break-up of the UK and becoming a second rate nation with a standard of living well below that of its former European partners.

The next part is pure fantasy on my part. Once the Brexit imbroglio is semi-resolved in the next few years, I would like to see Fine Gael and Fianna Fail coming together on a joint electoral platform of starting to get ready for an Irish unity based on economic performance and prosperity (they could add a comprehensive package to deal with the housing crisis). As part of this they would offer unionists a power-sharing regional Assembly in Belfast with all the safeguards enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement; Irish membership of the Commonwealth; an overhaul of the Constitution to remove any remaining elements influenced by 1930s nationalism and Catholicism, notably the preamble, and to recognise the British identity of Northern unionists; a new flag (I suggest St Patrick’s harp on a blue background as used in the presidential standard or the symbols of the four Irish provinces) and national anthem (perhaps Ireland’s Call); and new systems of state education (including an end to compulsory Irish) and healthcare without church involvement.

The Citizens Assembly could have a key role here. It was recently described by two distinguished UCD professors  as “a venue for calm, reflective deliberation that fed back into our representative system of politics [so that] Ireland is now seen (deservedly) as a world leader in the use of deliberative democracy.”² The Assembly could be convened in semi-permanent session over a number of years to discuss these proposals and how they might be implemented.

This dramatic démarche by the two largest Irish parties, working together, would have three impacts: it would marginalise Sinn Fein as the party of Irish unity; it would help moderate unionists (who would then, I believe, be facing into a post-Brexit economic meltdown) to begin to contemplate an Irish unity that would not be the creation of their arch-enemies in the republican movement (the political representatives of the organisation that spent 30 years killing and bombing them); and it would force Southern people to face for the first time the far reaching and socially disruptive implications of unity for their cosy little 26-county society.

Remember this is only my dream. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if it started coming true?

¹ The Economic Effects of an All-Island Economy 2018

² Bryan Fanning and David Farrell, ‘Ireland cannot ignore threat of populism’, Irish Times, 17 August

 

 

Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | 7 Comments