Progressive Belfast shows the quarrelsome North a way forward

Depression over the latest failure by the DUP and Sinn Fein to agree a formula for the return of power sharing in the North has been my dominant emotion over the past fortnight. However I was not at all surprised, having been told by a leading unionist commentator and several former loyalist paramilitary leaders on the day after Theresa May and Leo Varadkar’s pointless visit to Belfast on 12th February that the negotiations were about to fail, largely over the proposed Irish Language Act – they duly collapsed a few hours later.  How on earth the Irish government was “taken completely by surprise” (the Irish Times quoting”senior sources”) by the DUP’s decision to pull out of those talks baffles me. As an ordinary, if well-informed citizen, I knew about this 24 hours before my government.

This month, for a change, I am going to tell a rare political good news story from the North: how Belfast City Council has learned to run its affairs through the kind of relatively harmonious inter-party relationships that appear to be almost completely absent from the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly’s mistrust-fuelled proceedings.

In the 1980s, when I was an Irish Times reporter in the city, Belfast City Council’s meetings were notorious for sectarian squabbling and hate-mongering: for endless DUP calls to ban Sinn Fein; Sinn Fein descriptions of the Union flag as the ‘butcher’s apron’; proceedings sometimes having to be suspended for fear of physical violence; and even one DUP councillor, George Seawright (afterwards expelled from the party and later killed by a fringe republican group), calling for the ‘incineration’ of Catholics who objected to the British national anthem. At one meeting in 1985 I listened to that arch-Brexiteer and climate change denier Sammy Wilson, soon to become the DUP’s first Lord Mayor (and, astonishingly, now also a member of the Queen’s Privy Council), condemning the council’s project to build a concert hall (which turned out to be its most inspired public investment of the past 30 years) as “a fraud, a white elephant, with no prospect of enriching this city.”

As late as 1993 the SDLP were saying in their local election manifesto that “Belfast has become a by-word for sectarian, obstructionist politics of a kind that most of us, of whatever political persuasion, hoped we had seen the last of 20 years ago.”

Fast forward a quarter of a century to Belfast City Council today. What a transformation!  No single party – or, more important, coalition of unionist or nationalist parties – has a majority. Sinn Fein holds 19 of the 60 seats, the DUP 13 and Alliance 8. Smaller numbers are held by the Ulster Unionist Party, the SDLP, the left-of-centre Progressive Unionist Party, the Greens and People Before Profit.

This multiplicity of parties has put deal-making at the heart of the council’s business, a process which as often as not involves the more centrist parties, and is reflected in the compromise decisions which are the stuff of the city’s politics. At its two most powerful committees – the Strategic Policy and Resources Committee and the City Growth and Regeneration Committee – officials work hard to persuade the councillors to reach agreement by consensus. 80% of the time they succeed and decisions do not have to go to a vote of the full council.

One senior official says that some time in the past 15-20 years most councillors, including those from the DUP and Sinn Fein, realised that the best way to provide efficient public services to Belfast’s citizens was by agreement. They use a Party Leaders Forum and other informal working groups, where the politicians and city officials have preliminary discussions and try to iron out any difficult issues.  “They realise they will get nothing done if they vote on purely tribal lines,” says this man. He says Belfast has been blessed with very effective chief executives over the past two decades, notably Peter McNaney and the current chief executive Suzanne Wylie, backed up by excellent staff. He pays tribute to the councillors, most of whom live in the communities they represent, for a common “willingness to compromise to get things done for those communities”.

Unlike in the past, committee memberships, committee chairs and other post of responsibility, and council appointments to outside public bodies, are decided by extremely complex and ultra-fair European voting systems like D’Hondt and Sainte-Lague. The days of the Ulster Unionist monolith automatically handing out jobs to their cronies are a bad and distant memory. Unlike in the Northern Ireland Assembly, no councillor is required to define herself or himself in sectarian terms as ‘unionist’, ‘nationalist’ or ‘other’. There are no petitions of concern to stymie decision making. For most of the time councillors’ minds are focused on practical services to their constituents, rather than divisive national or tribal issues like flags and language and legacies of the past. The wave of loyalist violence following the council’s 2012 decision to fly the Union flag on only 17 days a year – in line with practice elsewhere in the UK – gave the council an entirely unfair image of continued deep division over such issues.

What seems to have happened rather is that the overall politics of Belfast City Council have become more progressive and less conservative in the past decade or so. There is a greater degree of agreement – sometimes in united opposition to the DUP – among the majority of the parties: whether they’re republican or social democratic or progressive (e.g. Alliance and the small Progressive Unionist Party). For example in 2015 the council voted in support of marriage equality. Another crucial change is that the council now has more women (over a third compared to under 10% 20 years ago) and more younger members.

The council has set up the Shared City Partnership to involve business, trade union, church, voluntary sector, social care and housing groups in advising it on taking forward its Good Relations (i.e. relations between Protestant, Catholic and other communities) policies for Belfast. It has worked hard – if not always entirely successfully – to keep the problem of 11th July bonfires in loyalist areas under control. It has persuaded loyalist groups, in particular, to replace intimidating paramilitary murals with more muted representations of that culture and community.

In all this, the Alliance Party, as the third largest on the council (with eight out of 60 seats, compared with eight out of 90 in the Northern Ireland Assembly) has played a key role. One of its younger councillors, Emmet McDonough-Brown, puts it like this:

“Our view is that the broader the consensus between the parties, and the wider the civic conversation among the people of Belfast, the more stable any agreement, and the more effective and long-lasting any outcome, will be.

“No party has overall control of the council so Sinn Fein and the DUP can achieve nothing on their own: they have to engage with the other parties. Alliance often finds it is holding the balance of power: a strong and privileged position. We will work with both the DUP and Sinn Fein depending on the issue. That gives us a chance to advance our core aim: to build a shared and reconciled city.”

“Sinn Fein and the DUP are still the largest parties, but there are lots of people in the city – young people, women, minority ethnic groups in particular – who fall outside that duopoly.  We are committed to giving those people a voice. In our view anybody who chooses to make Belfast their home is an equal citizen. It’s a good position to be in – that there are people coming in from outside who want to make Belfast their home. It’s not so long ago that large numbers of people just wanted to get out of it. We are now perceived as being more generous and attractive than we would have thought.”

There is a lesson here for the British and Irish governments. Instead of relying on the two old enemies, the DUP and Sinn Fein, to settle their probably irreconcilable differences, they should learn from Belfast’s experience and more fully include the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Alliance – and maybe even the Greens and People Before Profit – in future Stormont talks.

Posted in General, Northern Ireland | Leave a comment

Why demography is no way to solve the Northern Ireland problem

We need to talk about demography. In an Irish Times article last month the economist David McWilliams reminded us of some basic facts.¹ As we all know, the Protestant population of Northern Ireland is falling while the Catholic population is rising. But as McWilliams pointed out, it’s a bit more dramatic than that. He compared the oldest and the youngest cohorts in the 2011 census and found that in the over-90s category Protestants outnumbered Catholics by 70% to 28%, while in the under-fives the proportions were starkly reversed, with 49% Catholic and just over 36% Protestant. Extrapolating from the census figures, he calculated that Catholics will become the absolute majority in Northern Ireland around 2036: that is, just 18 years away.

There are other official figures which confirm these data. In 2015, according to the NI Labour Force Survey Religion report, 46% of the working age population was Catholic, 40% Protestant. The Protestant proportion of the 16-24 age group had declined between 1990 and 2015 from 49% to 36%, while the Catholic proportion had risen from 44% to 51% (with ‘others’ growing from 7% to 13%).²

All this has drastically different implications for the two groups in the North. For nationalists and republicans, it means that the long dreamed of united Ireland may now be within reach – although interestingly in the 2011 census only 25% of the population identified as Irish when asked about their national identity (45% said they were Catholic), compared to 40% British and a surprising 21% Northern Irish. For unionists – or at least the more reflective among them who try to imagine what the future might hold – it means they must urgently begin thinking about one of two things: either how to reach a compromise (while they still have a narrow majority) with their Catholic and nationalist fellow-citizens which is generous enough to persuade a significant number of them that it is worth their while remaining in the United Kingdom for the foreseeable future; or how to begin planning for the advent of their ultimate nightmare – fight or flight?

Because let me make one thing clear to my nationalist and republican friends (those who don’t know it already). If what Sinn Fein wants comes to pass, and sometime in the next 20 years there is a Border Poll that results in a wafer thin majority for Irish unity, we will see a return to large-scale violence. In a response to an edited version of my December blog which appeared in the Irish Times³, a Belfast reader (who should know better) said my prophesy of “a bloody maelstrom” in the event of a narrow Border Poll vote in favour of unity was “a unionist trope which is traceable to 19th century Home Rule politics.”

He could not be more wrong. The unionists are a martial people, fiercely proud of their service to the British Army and the British Empire: when their backs are against the wall against the ancient Irish enemy, they will fight. Has he forgotten the mass unionist mobilisation of the 1912 Ulster Covenant and the original Ulster Volunteer Force; the bloody anti-Catholic pogroms in Belfast and elsewhere in the early 1920s; the burning of Bombay Street in 1969; the Ulster Workers Council strike against the 1974 power-sharing Executive and Council of Ireland (described by political scientist Tom Nairn as “without doubt the most successful political action carried out by any European working class since the Second World War”) ; the Glenanne gang of loyalist paramilitaries, RUC and UDR men in County Armagh, which bombed Dublin and Monaghan in the same year; the loyalist assassination campaign against Catholics from the 1970s to the 1990s? Some middle class unionists may reluctantly come around to the inevitability of Irish unity, but working class and rural loyalists, led by the UDA and the UVF, will quickly and bloodily adopt their favourite role as Protestant Ulster’s defenders.

The violence may be relatively short-lived, largely because the paramilitary groups leading it, reflecting the rapid decline of the industrial working class from which they draw their membership, are only a shadow of their 20th century predecessors in terms of organisation and ferocity, and probably won’t have the stomach or capacity for a long drawn out campaign. And they won’t have the British security forces to fall back on this time. But major violence there will be: of that there is no doubt. And what a bitter, hate-filled place Ireland will be after that renewed bloodletting.

Because there will also be a violent response from the other side. Anybody who has looked at the North’s republican commemoration websites (I recommend the County Down Republican Commemoration Committee’s site in what is often regarded as the ‘softest’ nationalist county in the North) will find there an utterly unrepentant glorifying of the young IRA members who died in the squalid internecine violence of the 30 years of the ‘troubles’, revering them as noble martyrs in the tradition of the rebels of 1916 and the War of Independence. A new generation of young republicans brought up on such a diet of uncritical hero worship will be only too eager to fight to defend their newly won unity. They will certainly not heed the warning of the distinguished public servant, Maurice Hayes, whose recent death robbed Northern Ireland of a wise, moderate nationalist voice: “One thing that should not be allowed is the glorification in song or story of what was mean and nasty and dirty.”

So if we don’t want a return to bloody mayhem in the North, what is the alternative? It is what is once again happening – with excruciating difficulty – in Belfast at the moment: an attempt to put back together the power-sharing Executive, in the most inauspicious post Brexit circumstances, as part of the complex three-stranded architecture of the Good Friday Agreement. It doesn’t help that the DUP and Sinn Fein are so poorly led by Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill: the former the personification of anti-Irish unionist arrogance (and probably not in control of her own party), the latter a kind of party line quoting republican automaton (and certainly not in control of her own party).

Maybe that is too unkind. Foster was trying in her limited way to adopt a conciliatory tone at the Killarney economic conference last month, with her friendly rhetoric about the two parts  of Ireland being “tied together and part of the same neighbourhood and what happens on one side of the fence inevitably has an impact on the  other”. And maybe O’Neill will have learned something from the damaging fiasco of the Barry McElduff affair.

One thing that Foster did say in Killarney is worth noting. She praised the progress of cross-border interaction since her childhood and the “unimaginably positive relations between our two states.” I am like a cracked record saying it, but I believe this is the way forward: careful, painstaking, mutually beneficial cross-border cooperation until the barriers of history start slowly to come down – not any reckless and premature movement towards a fear-inducing Border Poll. Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen had it right on this: Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney should take note. For those of us who would like to see the unity of the Irish people one far-off day, this is the priority: to work courageously and unceasingly to soften what Yeats called the “fanatic heart” by dispelling the “great hatred, little room” that has maimed our beloved island for centuries.




Posted in Cross-border cooperation, General, Northern Ireland, Protestantism, unionism and loyalism | Leave a comment

Could an all-island economy be part of the Brexit deal?

Perhaps the most interesting phrase in the 8 December agreement between the UK and EU was that, in the absence of agreed solutions, not only would the UK maintain full alignment with the rules of the Single Market and the Customs Union which support North-South cooperation in Ireland and protect the 1998 [Belfast] Agreement, but also which support “the all-island economy”.

This was expanded upon by EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier’s senior advisor, Stefaan De Rynck, in a speech to Chatham House in London on 18 December. He said if a UK-EU conversation on “specific solutions” for Ireland’s “unique circumstances” did not solve the issue of the 8 December commitment to have “no hard Border, no physical infrastructure, no Border checks”,  we have the solution” (my emphasis added).

That solution, he said, is “full alignment of current and future rules for the Single Market and the Customs Union” so as to “support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement”. He repeated “that is basically the design of the Irish solution for the future”, adding that what is in the  December deal, including this commitment to support an all-island economy, would become part of a legally-binding international agreement.

This is most intriguing. Leaving aside for the moment all the ambiguities and contradictions in the 8 December wording, I was struck by that one surprising phrase, never seen before in any British-Irish agreement (to my knowledge), that full UK-EU regulatory alignment would support “the all-island economy.”

What is the all-island economy? The Irish business confederation Ibec has documented the dramatic expansion of trade and business between the Republic and Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement 20 years ago. It points out that this process was greatly aided by shared EU membership, which removed many of the regulatory and border barriers between the two jurisdictions, and provided a broad, supportive political and administrative context – and often an all-island approach – for investment growth and job creation.¹

Prior to the establishment of the Single Market in the early 1990s, the Republic and the North had “a dysfunctional economic relationship”, says Ibec. Today, however, cross-border economic activity has risen to EU norms: for example, 56% of Northern Ireland goods exported to the EU in 2016 went to the Republic of Ireland. In many cases this is driven by SMEs as well as large firms (like Diageo and BT) operating an all island business model. Tens of thousands of people now cross the border in both directions to work each day.

Ibec and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) in Northern Ireland have set out detailed investment proposals to underpin the path towards “a peaceful, connected, prosperous island of 10 million people by the middle of this century.”² Realising this ambition, they say, requires ongoing close cooperation and collaboration, a stable political and economic backdrop, and major investment.

In my humble opinion, this is the way forward rather than any mad, deeply destabilising, demography-driven agenda aiming at a hair’s breadth vote for Irish unity in some future Border Poll (and damn the consequences). To the extent that I have ever met Northern unionists willing to contemplate some eventual all-Ireland political rapprochement, it has been among business people impressed by the Republic’s spectacular economic advances (with occasional spectacular reverses) in recent decades.

The economy of the Republic of Ireland is now booming again. It has been the best performing economy in the EU for the past four years. Economic growth of over 4% is projected for 2018, as is full employment. In a 2016 EU Quality of Life survey, the Irish ranked fifth behind the Austrians, Danes, Finns and Luxembourgers as the most contented people in Europe. And people from all over the world are flocking to the Republic to work in its dynamic IT, pharmaceutical and other industries. Given their deep and fearful attachment to their British identity, I am not saying that such facts and figures will lead to significant numbers of Ulster unionists becoming attracted to Irish unity.  But they’re a better hope for the future than fear-inducing Sinn Fein rhetoric about unity after a 50% + 1 referendum vote .

The originator of the ‘island of Ireland’ economy idea back in the 1990s, the late Sir George Quigley, used to talk frequently about how the North-South economic relationship had been transformed over the short period of 20 years so that it came to seem absolutely normal and acceptable to all but the most hard-line unionists. And how that economic relationship had in turn helped to transform human relationships across the border – far more so than the continuing deep inter-communal mistrust had done within Northern Ireland.

Some beyond ingenious UK-EU arrangement to keep an effectively borderless ‘island of Ireland’ economy flourishing while the UK leaves the Single Market and Customs Union has still to emerge. The clause which the DUP insisted on having inserted into the 8 December agreement – that in all circumstances, Northern Ireland’s businesses would have “the same unfettered access” to “the whole of the UK internal market” – almost certainly rules out any kind of economic border in the Irish Sea. In any case, the leading Irish economist, John Fitzgerald, has pointed out that such an outcome would not be desirable from Dublin’s viewpoint, because in that event the North’s huge reliance on British imports would lead to major damage to its economy, more political instability and thus threats to the peace process.³

So the conundrum remains. But also the fascinating possibility that far better brains than mine in Dublin, Belfast, London and Brussels are currently trying to work out how an ‘island of Ireland’ economic union can sit alongside a UK political union outside the European Union but with some continuing close relationship with it. It’s at times like this that senior politicians and civil servants earn their excellent salaries.

¹ The quotes in this and the following paragraph are from Brexit: Challenges and Solutions (Priority 4: Ireland’s all-island economy)

² Connected: A prosperous island of 10 million people. Ibec and CBI (2016)

³ ‘Leaving single market and customs union is incompatible with ensuring no borders’, Irish Times, 8 December 2017



Posted in British-Irish relations, Cross-border cooperation, General, Ireland, Europe and the world, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | 1 Comment

Northern institutions crumbling as Leo rides high in Europe

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is understandably cock-a-hoop in the run-up to Christmas. There is widespread recognition that it was his and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney’s steely steering of Irish diplomatic efforts that resulted in the masterful sleight of hand which was the EU-UK agreement earlier this month allowing the Brexit talks to move to the second stage. Sleight of hand because the essential problem of the post-Brexit Irish border has still to be tackled. The conundrum remains: Will EU-UK “full regulatory alignment” mean a soft border on the island of Ireland (in which case the economic border will be the Irish Sea and the DUP will be up in arms) or between the whole of the UK and Europe (in which case the hard-line Tory Brexiteers will cry treason)? The 8 December deal has bought Theresa May and those in favour of a soft Brexit some time to resolve this and that is an achievement in itself.

So morale in Dublin is high. The opposition parties and the media lined up behind the government in one of those ‘wrap the green flag round me/aren’t we Irish great’ moments which are all too rare in politics. Like most Irish people, I felt a surge of pride to see our government punching so far above its weight for the good of the country and the good of Europe.

However maybe somebody should puncture the self-congratulatory mood a little by pointing out that there is a downside to this diplomatic coup. Relations between the Irish government and the DUP, which took long and agonising years to build in the early 2000s, have broken down. Despite their previously friendly relationship – helped by Varadkar’s regular trips to Enniskillen and Belfast to attend First World War remembrance events – Arlene Foster is not taking his phone calls. Simon Coveney  – the clever, sensible Cork man who was the first Southern politician ever to address a DUP conference meeting – is now anathema to that party’s leaders.

Last week I heard a former senior DUP politician expressing his disappointment and frustration at the breakdown in relations between his party and the Irish government. He said he feared the institutions set up so painstakingly by the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements were now “crumbling”.

He was pessimistic about the chances of getting devolution restored in the North. “The parties would have to want it,” he said, noting that it was now all too easy for the DUP to focus on propping up the Conservative government in Westminster and Sinn Fein to concentrate on increasing its support in the Republic with an election likely in the near future. He regretted that the North South Ministerial Council, as the best place for  Northern and Southern Ministers to meet and talk, was not functioning. He worried that part of the problem was that in the past couple of years new, younger leaders – with no experience of the long, excruciatingly difficult years of negotiating peace in Northern Ireland – had taken over in Belfast, Dublin and London. I met a Fine Gael politician recently who I was told was the Taoiseach’s advisor on the North – I was not impressed.

Varadkar’s relationship with Theresa May is now frosty. The last time they met face to face to discuss Brexit, in Gothenburg in Sweden in mid-November, the Financial Times quoted one senior official saying the mood was “the opposite of personal chemistry”. Yet for nearly a quarter of a century a relationship of mutual trust and understanding between successive leaders of Britain and Ireland has been the crucial pre-requisite for progress in the Northern peace process. That appears to have gone for the moment.

For his part Simon Coveney dropped one particularly awful clanger. How did such a normally skilled and highly intelligent politician make the huge unforced error of telling an Oireachtas committee last month that he would “like to see a united Ireland in my lifetime. If possible, within my political lifetime”? If there was one thing guaranteed to terrify every unionist, it was for the Irish deputy prime minister to be announcing in the middle of highly sensitive negotiations about the border that he wanted to see Irish unity within 20-25 years. Coveney is 45, so that’s exactly the kind of period he was talking about.

You would never have seen such a blunder in Bertie Ahern or Brian Cowen’s time. Contrast Coveney’s blunt expectation about the onward march of nationalism with Cowen’s carefully nuanced words in 2010:  “The genius of these agreements [Good Friday and St Andrews] is that we are all on a common journey together where we have not decided on the destination. The problem with our ideologies in the past was that we had this idea about where we were going, but we had no idea how anyone was going to come with us on the journey. We have now all decided: let’s go on a journey and forget about the destination – the destination isn’t really important in that respect. We can all work for what it is we would like ideally to see, but this is not something that can be forced or imposed upon people on either side of the island. This is about people of different traditions who live on this island who have common interests.”

Here’s Cowen again in the same interview: “The ultimate destination of any political project is a matter of time working itself out. Therefore the destination – where we end up eventually – is not the thing to be talking about. That will be for other people to decide in another time maybe. We have to make the here and now a better place, and we have to do it on the basis that we have devised a political culture that is less suspicious and less fearful than ever before, that is more open to recognise the common interests that we have whilst respecting that we are in separate jurisdictions. We should be concerned about what it is we can do together.”¹

Maybe the cautious, even-handed way forward espoused by every Taoiseach since Jack Lynch is the wrong way. Maybe the underlying assumption of the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements – that the Northern parties, with the support of the two governments, could jointly run Northern Ireland in the short-term and leave longer-term solutions to the next generation – has broken down. Maybe unionism is so paralysed by the fear and loathing that has characterised its anti-Irish  politics for 130 years that some new and high risk policy in Dublin is needed to break the deadlock. Maybe because demographic factors (Catholics soon to become a majority in the North) and external factors (Brexit) are moving us towards British withdrawal and Irish unity anyway, people in government in Dublin need to start thinking deeply about what that unity will look like in order to make it as acceptable as possible to the difficult, unchanging, fearful people who make up the unionist community. Maybe a Fine Gael-led government needs to start sending the clear message that its version of unity, with all sorts of federalist or confederalist safeguards built into it, will look very different to the triumphant, utterly unrepentant, ‘tooth and claw’ Sinn Fein version. Without some really deep thinking in Dublin about the shape of Ireland in a generation or so, I fear we are going to be facing into a bloody maelstrom somewhere down the road. So far I haven’t seen the slightest evidence of that deep new thinking.

¹ ‘Making the here and now a better place’, The Journal of Cross Border Studies in Ireland, spring 2010

Posted in General, Ireland, Europe and the world, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | 1 Comment

Home thoughts on a journey through India

India has been a place I have wanted to visit ever since as a teenager I read my father’s account of being interned by the British (for being a communist) in the Himalayan foothills in the 1940s.¹ My wish was finally granted earlier this month when my wife Doireann and I spent several weeks travelling through that mighty nation of 1.3 billion people, with all its brilliant ancient civilisations, spectacular economic advances and savage social divisions.

In this limited space I can only essay a few highlights. On the first day in Delhi, wandering through the lively market quarter of Chandni Chowk, we were fortunate to come across the local Sikh community’s noisy and colourful festival to mark the martyrdom of one of its great saints, Guru Tegh Bahadur, who was beheaded by a Moghul emperor in 1675 for refusing to convert to Islam. The turbaned Sikhs are a proud and martial people, warriors who have provided fighters for the British and Indian armies for a century and a half. They love marching bands and music and mock battles, and orange (the colour of welcome) is everywhere in their parades.  In 1947 they were abandoned to a cruel fate by the British empire they had faithfully served – but more of that (and other possible parallels with Northern Ireland) later.

In Agra we utterly smitten, as countless thousands before us, by the shining, white marble magnificence of one of the world’s most famous buildings, the 17th century Taj Mahal, built by the Moghul emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal. The poet Rabindranath Tagore described this magnum opus of Mughal architecture as “a teardrop on the face of eternity”. It is the sort of celestial building that makes small European tourists feel very insignificant indeed.

In Udaipur in Rajasthan, we sat on the terrace of an elegant 18th century haveli (townhouse) and watched the sun set across Lake Pichola, surely one of South Asia’s most magical waterscapes. In nearby Ranokpur we were moved by the ancient spirituality of a marvellous Jain temple, the centre of a worship system based on ahimsa or non-violence to all living beings. Further south, in the Western Ghat hills of Kerala,  we walked through tea plantations and tropical forests full of every spice and herb and exotic fruit under the sun. In Varkala in the deep south we bathed on Papanasam beach, beside devout Hindus who for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, have been coming to this place to pray and scatter the ashes of their deceased family members.

Kerala is a particularly fascinating and beautiful place. ‘God’s Own Country’, its inhabitants call it, and they’re not far wrong. In 1957 it became the first place in the world to democratically elect a communist government and coalitions of left-wing parties have been in power off and on ever since. The result is a unique kind of Indian consumer communism. On the one hand, high levels of literacy, education and health care, land reform and family planning; on the other a construction boom of skyscraping office blocks and giant billboards (interspersed with red Marxist flags) advertising everything from gold and jewellery to smart apartments and elegant women’s clothes. Many of the endemic Indian problems of poverty (although in less extreme form), corruption and pollution remain, and the economy is greatly buttressed by emigrants’ remittances, particularly from health, construction and IT workers in the Persian Gulf, North America and Europe (including Keralan nurses in Ireland). But there are clearly lessons here for how an under-developed society can begin to succeed.

And what about the poverty? As the celebrated BBC India correspondent, Mark Tully, wrote when he watched families and children bedding down for the night on the streets during a trip to the poor northern state of Bihar in the early 1990s: “When faced with the poverty of India, the temptation is to despair. I have always tried to guard against that: it is futile and does not help the poor. Despair is also frightening when you love the person or country you despair of. Nevertheless, I did despair that night. I despaired of those children, I despaired of Bihar and I despaired of India. I thought then that there did not seem to be any hope for the system, and that must mean bloodshed. But post-colonial history has shown that bloodshed is no answer to a nation’s problems. The strength of India lies in the resilience of the poor.That night I, like so many outsiders, had forgotten that the pavement-dwellers of Patna do manage to make lives for themselves, they have families and friends, they have their hopes and their fears. They are to be admired, not pitied. The poor may be fatalists, but that does not mean they have despaired.”²

The history of India over the past 160 years is littered with associations with Ireland, not least in the (British) Indian Army and the Indian Civil Service (ICS). General John Nicholson, the bloodthirsty evangelical Protestant who suppressed the 1857 Indian Mutiny – effectively the first Indian uprising against British rule – was Dublin-born and Ulster-raised (there is still a statue to him in Lisburn, Co. Antrim). The distinguished writer on India, William Dalrymple, calls him “this great imperial psychopath.” Sir Michael O’Dwyer, a Catholic from Tipperary, was the hard-line Governor of  Punjab in 1919 whose harsh measures against social unrest and declaration of martial law set the scene for the notorious Amritsar massacre, in which 379 unarmed Indian protesters were shot dead. There were, of course, also many excellent Irish administrators in the ICS, personified by Louis Dane, from an Anglo-Irish family in Fermanagh, who was O’Dwyer’s popular, democratically-minded and Urdu-speaking predecessor in Punjab (and the man who in 1912 handed over the Delhi district to the British government in India to become its new capital).

In the 1930s and 1940s, as India approached independence, the Irish echoes continued. An extraordinary London-Irishwoman, Annie Besant (friend of Michael Davitt, George Bernard Shaw and W.B Yeats), had set up the Indian Home Rule League as early as 1914 and served as president of the Indian National Congress in 1917. Contacts between Irish and Indian nationalist revolutionaries went back to the 1916 Rising. Eamon de Valera, in his inimitable manner, did his relations with the wartime Churchill government no favours by sending a congratulatory telegram to Subhas Chandra Bose, the militant (and pro-Nazi) nationalist who had raised an ‘Indian National Army’ to fight alongside the Japanese as they marched through Malaya and Burma with the aim of invading British India. In the spring of 1947 Indian National Congress leader (and later prime minister) Jawaharlal Nehru vehemently turned down a farcical early ‘independence’ proposal by the new Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, that each of the 11 Indian provinces should be allowed to decide its own fate, warning that it would create ‘Ulsters’ all over the sub-continent.

It is often forgotten that far from being an example of a benevolent great power withdrawing peacefully from the ‘jewel in the crown’ of its empire, the British withdrawal from India was a chaotic, last gasp – and in the end horrifically violent – affair. Winston Churchill, an old-fashioned imperialist who believed passionately that Britain’s status as a world power rested on retaining its colonies, used to become unbalanced when the subject of Indian independence was even mentioned. During the Second World War he did precisely nothing to plan for a post-British India. This was despite repeated pleas from his senior officials that the growing strength of the the Indian National Congress and the rapid drift of the country towards civil war between Indian nationalists and followers of the Muslim League, who were demanding a separate Pakistan, urgently required a clear plan and timetable for independence. His Labour successor as prime minister, Clement Attlee, was paralysed by indecision. In the end it took a deep UK economic crisis in the spring and summer of 1947 – largely caused by the massive postwar sterling debt to the US – to force him into action, and to send Mountbatten to extricate Britain from this extremely expensive colony in as short a time as possible. That withdrawal plan was drawn up in barely three hours and implemented in an almost unbelievable three months. And the British knew it would lead to civil war.

The partition of India (drawn up by an utterly ignorant English lawyer) pitched the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh inhabitants of the two new countries, India and Pakistan, into a catastrophic ‘communalist’ conflict, with up to a million people killed and 14-17 million people uprooted from their homes in what was one of the largest forced migrations in human history.³

Which brings me back to the Sikhs and the lessons of India for the tiny part of the former British empire that I know best, Northern Ireland. For there had been a significant unionist current in Punjab, the Sikh heartland, until the death of its powerful Unionist Party Chief Minister, Sir Sikander Hayat Kahn, in 1942. Hayat Kahn had forecast that the establishment of Pakistan would lead to a massacre of Hindus by Muslims in his strategically and economically important, but deeply divided, province. Five years later, when it was partitioned by an ill-thought out border line, that is what happened, except that both communities massacred each other – and the Sikhs.

Britain’s partition plan effectively left the Sikhs to their fate. They were so inextricably intertwined in the new Pakistani territory that nothing short of a giant population transfer – rejected by the British as impractical and alarmist – would keep them in India where they wanted to be. In the event, that population transfer was forced anyway by a massive outbreak of violence. The Governor of Punjab, Sir Evan Jenkins, told Mountbatten that the British were now abandoning the community that had so loyally provided them with troops for decades.

There is a lesson here for Northern Ireland’s Protestants (although, of course, no parallel between faraway countries in very different times can be exact). Until 17 months ago I believed that I would not see Irish unity in my lifetime, trusting that the finely-tuned balancing mechanism of the Good Friday Agreement would allow the two Northern communities to share power into the medium future and the two Irish jurisdictions to find new and creative ways to live together short of a united Ireland.

However Brexit has changed everything. I believe that post-Brexit Britain will be a politically and economically unstable entity, dominated by English nationalism and out on its own as a third-rate power in an increasingly uncertain world. The country’s leadership is shaping up to be the weakest and most incoherent for at least 60 years, and I foresee that leadership being forced to tackle major economic problems in the not too distant future.

In these circumstances, the temporary alliance between the Conservatives and the DUP looks like a paltry thing. I believe that sometime in the next 10 or 20 or 30 years, a political or economic crisis in Britain – which by that time may consist of England, Wales and Northern Ireland only – will result in cold eyes in London being cast at its expensive, troublesome Irish province, which may by then have a narrow nationalist majority. Such a crisis, along with the deep lack of fellow-feeling of the vast majority of English politicians and people for Northern Ireland, may well result in a British decision, legitimised by a Border Poll, to finally withdraw from the island of Ireland. (I will come back to the role of the Irish Government in such an eventuality in a future blog.)

I don’t expect the small, fearful men and women leading the DUP to take heed of this warning. But more thoughtful Northern Protestants should. Never underestimate the ruthless self-interest of an imperial power when the chips are down and its economic survival is at stake.

¹ Strange Land Behind Me by Stephen Pollak (1951)

² No Full Stops in India (1991), p.305

³ Recommended further reading: two superb books by Patrick French – India: A Portrait (2011) and Liberty or Death: India’s Journey to Independence and Division (1997); The Last Moghul: The Fall of Delhi 1857, by William Dalrymple (2006); and Servants of the Empire: The Irish in Punjab 1881-1921 by my friend Patrick (Paddy) O’Leary (2011), mountaineer and Indian scholar.



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

Brexit: a novel agricultural opportunity as the nightmare approaches?

As October ends all is confusion and uncertainty over Brexit:  the first round of UK-EU talks on the exit bill, citizens rights and Ireland are stalled; Brussels is worried that Britain’s weak prime minister and feuding Conservative leadership will mean an increasingly unreliable negotiating partner; Theresa May has announced that her government is starting to prepare for Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal; and the British are still talking vacuously about a “frictionless” Irish border without specifying what this means other than an unconvincing dependence on technological wizardry.

In this atmosphere of growing crisis, a powerful cross-party group has come together in the House of Commons to submit numerous amendments to the EU withdrawal bill. They include one from Dominic Grieve (a former attorney general and a rare Tory friend of Ireland) that any final deal must be approved by a separate act of parliament, thus giving the Commons majority in favour of a soft Brexit the binding vote they have been seeking and therefore the ability to reject any ‘cliff-edge’ option.

As in most crises, there are opportunities here. Because it is in Ireland that the nightmare of a hard Brexit and therefore a hard  border is looming largest. I have been reading RTE European editor Tony Connelly’s superbly researched book Brexit and Ireland (published earlier this month), which paints in graphic detail the kind of extreme difficulties this country will face if anything like the bad old border goes up again.

Connelly is no alarmist, but his descriptions of Brexit’s impact on a wide range of vital economic and administrative aspects of life in this country – and on the border – are frankly terrifying. There was “horror” in the Revenue Commissioners at the realisation that a typical lorry coming in from the UK might have “split consignments” of different goods that could represent 500 transactions at widely varying customs rates.  A draft Revenue Commissioners report detailing the €63 billion in annual trade between the UK and Ireland had a stab at working out the “numbing layers of bureaucracy and compliance” required after Brexit, and the huge increase in resources needed both by the government and the private sector to deal with this. For example, there would be an “explosion” of Temporary Importation Procedures required for goods brought into Ireland and out again in a short period of time, many of these via the 30 million annual vehicle crossings between Northern Ireland and the Republic. “Existing physical infrastructures and traffic streaming are likely to be stretched, if not overwhelmed, by the increased demand for customs controls,” says the report. It cites the logistical challenge of putting permanent customs controls at Ravensdale in County Louth, where over 730,000 vehicles crossed the border in a typical month in 2016.

And what about technology like security cameras to track cross-border movements? At a meeting between Whitehall and Stormont officials and haulage companies in Belfast last January, one NIO official did not mince his words: “We’re not even contemplating hardware like that along the border. Because the day it goes up, it will be down that night. There will be guys out with an angle grinder. The PSNI have already said they will not be policing any customs infrastructure along the border because it will make them sitting ducks.”

Connolly goes on: “Everyone is proclaiming no return to a hard border. But everything about the reality, from the EU’s non-negotiable Union Customs Code, to Britain’s determination to do trade deals around the world, to the phyto-sanitary requirements [regulations governing the processing and transport of livestock], all scream ‘hard border’. There may be room for tweaks here and there through technology, but the Revenue Commissioners’ own professional research suggests controls will happen on or near the border.”

That’s the nightmare scenario. But if the UK Parliament gets its way, we may still get a less terrifying ‘soft’ Brexit. So what about the opportunities in the event of this more benign outcome? We all know about the possibility (not yet completely realised) of companies moving from the City of London to Dublin. But I believe there are possibilities for the North-South relationship too, if the Irish government plays its cards right.

The EU’s negotiators have shown themselves extremely sympathetic to Ireland’s predicament. In a ‘guiding principles’ paper on the EU’s position on Ireland last month, the phrase ‘unique circumstances’ or ‘unique solution’ was used five times in the six introductory paragraphs. “In view of the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, and in order to protect the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts, flexible and imaginative solutions will be required, including the aim of avoiding a hard border, while respecting the integrity of the Union legal order,” it stated. The leader of the EU team, Michel Barnier, has stressed that such an imaginative solution for Ireland will stand alone, providing no precedent for any other part of the Union.  Connelly reports one EU agriculture directorate official telling an Irish diplomat: “At the end of the day, we can be astonishingly creative.”

It is in the key sector of agriculture where I believe the most creative and fruitful cross-border solution might be found. A group of academics at Queen’s University Belfast, led by political scientist Professor David Phinnemore and sociologist Dr Katy Hayward, have come up with a novel idea here.

They argue that an ‘island of Ireland’ zone of common EU regulatory standards could allow agricultural products from both jurisdictions to continue to be exported tariff-free to both the EU and Britain. Of course, if Britain were to do deals to import food and other agricultural produce from lower standard countries like Brazil and Argentina, this would have to be a one-way traffic from west to east. If this meant additional customs checks for food products crossing from Britain to Northern Ireland, Hayward believes the DUP would have to accept it as the price for safeguarding the North’s important agricultural sector (although it would lead to major headaches for the Irish retail sector on both sides of the border).

Martin Sandbu pointed out in his Financial Times column earlier this month that imposing a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea is much easier than on the Irish land border. “Goods trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain already involves the disruptions of sea (or air) travel: loading, unloading, the crossing and all the associated logistics. That means the hard and soft infrastructure for an economic border is already present. Customs and regulatory filings can be pre-processed and checked in conjunction with loading and unloading; inspections can take place on board during the crossing. The additional disruption to Northern Ireland-Great Britain trade from an economic border would be much smaller than that of a land border on the island of Ireland.”¹

A British government which was determined to reach a favourable ‘soft’ Brexit deal could pressure the DUP to accept this seemingly unpalatable customs arrangement using four arguments. Firstly Sandbu’s contention that it would be far less disruptive than an Irish land border; secondly, it would be good for Northern Ireland’s struggling rural economy (beef farmers, many of them DUP supporters, are already calling for a five year post-Brexit transition); thirdly it would be in the overall British national interest if it could be used as a bargaining chip for something Britain really wanted in its horse-trading with the EU; and lastly there is a precedent for it in the Second World War restrictions on movement between the island of Ireland and Britain. For good political (getting the DUP onside) and commercial (excluding additives from third countries) reasons – this arrangement would have to be restricted to a limited, if valuable, range of fresh products, e.g. meat and dairy.

This initiative would be much less drastic, and thus easier for the DUP to accept, than the controversial and impractical proposal that the island of Ireland should become a single customs entity, with no land border, which would require the North to remain in the EU customs union while the rest of the UK departed. As the economist John Fitzgerald has pointed out, this fails to take into account the extremely close integration of the North with the British market, with, for example, three quarters of its imported goods coming from Britain.

This more limited proposal would not concern itself with tariffs or customs: it would mean rather that Northern Ireland would agree to abide by the EU’s rigorous agricultural and food safety standards in order to continue to have full tariff-free access to Irish and European (and of course British) markets. It would have zero impact on the constitutional link between Britain and Northern Ireland, but would soften the impact of Brexit on the weak, exposed Northern economy significantly.  As always in Northern Ireland, the language of any agreement would be key to its acceptance by unionists.

There would be other beneficial spin-offs. Irish food from both jurisdictions could for the first time be marketed jointly overseas as high quality ‘island of Ireland’  produce. I believe this would be as, if not more, successful than the cross-border agency Tourism Ireland’s campaigns to market the island of Ireland to overseas visitors. And it would recognise how integrated the Irish and Northern Irish food industries have become in recent years, with most of the Republic’s principal food companies having taken over or merged with Northern counterparts, or in other ways having become involved in integrated cross-border supply chains. It might even require the establishment of a new North-South body in agriculture (thus pleasing Northern nationalists).

This proposal could be the central element in an innovative package of EU-supported North-South cooperation projects,  between them amounting to a “flexible and imaginative solution”aimed at minimising the deleterious effect of a newly reinstated border. There would be other elements, based on maintaining and developing existing cross-border institutions and structures with EU support.

In health, there would be a continuation of EU funding for significant North-South projects – largely pioneered by the highly successful Cooperation and Working Together health authorities network – in radiotherapy, cardiology, ENT and paediatric heart surgery.

Health is one of 12 areas laid down for particular North-South cooperation under the Good Friday Agreement. Under a special deal for Northern Ireland as part of a wider EU-UK agreement, existing cooperation – including EU funding – would also continue (and even expand) in the 11 other areas: agriculture, education, transport, environment, waterways, social welfare, tourism, EU programmes, inland fisheries, acquaculture and marine matters, and urban and rural development. The successful Single Electricity Market on the island and cooperation on justice and security issues would also be continued and funded.

During his last visit to Ireland in May, Michel Barnier asked his hosts for some good ideas about how to minimise the impact of the post-Brexit border. I submit this as one modest proposal worthy of consideration.

¹ ‘How to solve the Irish Brexit problem: Let Northern Ireland decide which customs union it want,’ Financial Times, 11 October

Posted in British-Irish relations, Cross-border cooperation, General, Ireland, Europe and the world, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland | 1 Comment

The anti-colonialist bullies versus the reconciliation persuaders

Gerry Adams is a majoritarian bully. He showed his true colours in a letter to the Irish Times last month when he wrote that the Good Friday Agreement “allows for Irish reunification in the context of a democratic vote: 50% + 1. I believe we can secure a greater margin, but ultimately that will be for the electorate. That’s what democracy is about.”

As Fintan O’Toole wrote in his column in the same paper a fortnight later, this is not what democracy should be about: “that kind of crude, tribal majoritarianism is precisely what the Belfast Agreement is meant to finish off.” He went on to quote the new Article 3 of the Constitution, with its emphasis on the desire of the Irish nation “in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions…” Instead of bullying 900,000 unionists into a united Ireland most of them want no part of, those of us who believe in eventual unity based on friendship and harmony, can serve that cause best “by working to create a Republic of equals that might be worth joining”.

O’Toole also points out that the enthusiasm of people in the Republic for unity (such as it is) is not unconditional. “To put it bluntly (as no one ever does), Southerners have no interest in inheriting a political wreck, or becoming direct participants in a gory sequel: Troubles III, the Orange strikes back. They will not vote for a form of unity that merely creates an angry and alienated Protestant minority within a bitterly contested new state.”¹

The new young SDLP deputy leader, Nichola Mallon, put it equally bluntly last week. She warned that getting a 50% + 1 vote for unity in a premature border poll would be “an absolute recipe for disaster” and would “erupt in violence”.²

Adams and Sinn Fein do not care how violently born or bitterly contested a ‘united’ Irish state is so long as they get it. What they want essentially is to turn the tables on the unionists. Adams is clever enough rarely to let the bully behind his emollient mask slip: the most famous recent occasion he did was his November 2014 speech in Enniskillen when he talked about having to “break these bastards” through demanding equality with unionists, and that this was the “Trojan horse of the entire republican strategy.”

Once there is the thinnest of thin majorities for unity, the unionists – top majoritarian bully dogs for so long- will just have to suck it and suffer. You only have to read the nascent triumphalism of many republican-minded blogs in the North to see what is coming: ‘the boot’s going to be on the other foot soon’ and Tiocfaidh ár lá amárach. In the bitterly divided North, the zero-sum game of winner takes all is still what it’s all about politically. Interestingly, the late Martin McGuinness sometimes did not share this view, telling BBC journalist Mark Carruthers in his 2013 book Alternative Ulsters, that he was “not one of those people who works on the basis that whenever there’s one more of us than there are of them, we’re going to have a united Ireland.” 

In the Republic I see the political class divided into two broad groups on this issue: what I call the ‘anti-colonialist bullies’, led by Sinn Fein with some old-fashioned Fianna Failers and one hard left party (People Before Profit), who believe that the Northern conflict is just the final phase of the age-old struggle against the British occupation of Ireland; and the ‘reconciliation persuaders’, who include Fine Gael, ‘new’ Fianna Fail, Labour, the Greens, and the other hard left party, Solidarity (since when did trotskyists agree on anything!), who believe the key is finding a way for people on this island to live in peace and harmony (or working class solidarity) together. As an old social democrat, it pains me to say that the British left, and notably the Corbynite wing now in charge of the British Labour Party, are firmly in the bullies camp.

At the British Irish Association conference earlier this month, Bob Collins, who as former RTE director general and chief executive of the NI Equality Authority is one of those very rare senior public figures who knows both Ireland and Northern Ireland intimately, spoke as follows: “For those nationalists in the Republic (and not everyone in the Republic is a 32 county nationalist) who desire a united Ireland, the first step on any road that may conceivably lead to the achievement of their goal is to get to know unionists, to come to understand their Britishness, to recognise and value their traditions and, gradually, to seek to persuade them, by their words and by their deeds, that they have in mind a future democracy that would respect and protect Britishness with the same fervour and commitment as they would respect and protect Irishness. That is not the work of a referendum campaign, nor of five years leading up to a referendum. It is the work of at least a generation. And that is only the beginning. Not to realise that is not to want a united Ireland that would be worth having.” That for me is a perfect description of what I would call ‘reconciliation persuasion.’

Coincidentally the Irish Times ran a story earlier this month about a bullying culture in Sinn Fein in the Republic, with 10 local councillors having resigned or being in dispute with the party amid claims of bullying, top-down diktats and whispering campaigns.³   Younger people joining Sinn Fein for idealistic reasons often find that this is no ordinary democratic party – it retains much of the ethos and behaviour of the old IRA Army Council-ruled party it was during the Northern ‘troubles’. This is one reason why so many politicians in the Republic – notably Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin – are so wary of talk of future coalition arrangements with the ‘Shinners’.

The Good Friday Agreement is barely beginning the huge task of bringing two fundamentally opposed political identities, unionism and nationalism, together – the excruciating business of inter-party talks to get the Northern institutions restored shows that only too clearly. However that was not the agreement’s immediate objective. Its primary aim was to remove violence from the equation. That to a large extent it has done, which is a huge achievement in itself.

Reconciliation between the historically divided communities (the agreement’s other aim) remains a utopian dream.  A wise non-unionist friend who has closely observed the peace process puts it this way:

“The impulse to victory remains present on both sides. Republicans and nationalists asking unionism for a conversation around a united Ireland at this time is a reflection of that impulse. It is not about reconciliation. The most clear-cut way to promote reconciliation is to continue the task of making the Good Friday Agreement institutions work for the benefit of all, including the institutions within Northern Ireland. The truth is that both sides regard Northern Ireland as their home place. What has not yet been achieved is a true recognition by either side that Northern Ireland is a shared home place for all the communities there.”

  1. Irish Times, Gerry Adams Letter to the Editor, 3 August; ‘United Ireland will not be based on 50 per cent plus one’ (Fintan O’Toole column), 15 August
  3. Irish Times, ‘Sinn Fein faces another claim of a toxic, bullying culture’, 8 September


Posted in General, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Sinn Fein | 2 Comments