A cautionary tale: could this be the next phase in our island’s history?

Just over a century ago there was a northern province of a small western island off the coast of Europe which threatened to cause mayhem for the powerful and far-flung empire of which it was an insignificant (although then economically important) part. It armed its young men and brought the province to the brink of civil war to prevent its incorporation into an independent state run by its ancient enemies in the rest of the island and dominated by an authoritarian Catholic church. In this it was supported by significant elements of the empire’s political establishment.

For over 50 years this northern province’s majority ran a one-party regime which discriminated against and repressed the Catholic minority who continued to hope and agitate (occasionally using violent means) for unity with the new ‘rest of the island’ state. That minority eventually mobilised behind a peaceful civil rights movement, modelled on the civil rights movement in the US. This was attacked by right-wing elements in the majority population who remained fiercely attached to their imperial motherland and Protestant religion. In response a ferocious and highly effective terrorist force emerged from the minority community which for nearly 30 years shot and bombed the hated local police, the imperial army and civilians whose loyalty was to the motherland. Pro-empire paramilitary groups, occasionally illicitly backed by the imperial army, hit back with equal terror methods.

In the end, with all sides weary of the squalid little conflict, and with the help of the United States and the European Union, a peace and political agreement was reached. This was an extraordinary outcome, bringing into government together the political party most fiercely attached to the imperial union and the political party of the former terrorist force, equally tigerishly attached to the notion of a united island. It helped greatly that the ‘rest of the island’ nation and the old imperial nation were now equal members of the European Union, had collaborated closely on drawing up the agreement, and that the border between the unsettled northern province and the ‘rest of the island’ state (now two regions of the EU) was becoming less and less economically important. There then followed 10 years of reluctant cooperation – based on the two parties sharing power to run the province – and relative peace and prosperity. Although the deep divisions remained, most people regarded this outcome as something of a miracle, and a miracle to be cherished and slowly built upon.

Then out of the blue, the people of the old imperial nation (despite the fact that there was little left of the empire) decided that they were sick of being told what to do by the European Union and being forced to allow foreigners to come and live in their country. They voted to leave the European Union, utterly indifferent to the opinion of people in their western island province, most of whom wanted to stay in the benign embrace of the EU, which had contributed generous funding to its farmers and to its peace process.

To the dismay of most sensible people, the border between the province and the ‘rest of the island’ state was then fully reinstated, although it was a high-tech version without obvious customs posts. The consequences for the northern province were disastrous, with unemployment soaring as its uncompetitive small economy was buffeted by the cold winds of unprotected international trade, and the imperial government cut back on its historically generous subsidies.

Meanwhile across the sea the northern part of the old imperial nation  – which had close ancestral links with the unsettled western island province – was now insisting that it too was a separate nation, and, after several referenda, declared its independence from the imperial motherland. The political party of the former terrorist force – pointing out that, because of population change, it now represented half the people of the western island province – also demanded a referendum on re-unifying the island. Again it took several referenda, but eventually the people of the province voted by the narrowest of margins to leave the motherland and join the ‘rest of the island’ state.

Unfortunately that state was neither particularly wealthy nor very well-organised, and its people had no notion that they were about to be lumbered with the warring and impecunious people of the unsettled northern province. The authorities there were utterly unprepared for this surprise re-unification (foreign ministry officials from the former imperial nation and the re-united island nation made several joint trips to Paris to find out how the French had managed their sudden exit from Algeria in 1962, including the chaotic return of 900,000 angry and frightened former colonists).

The ‘rest of the island’ state’s tiny army and ill-equipped police force first had to deal with a short campaign of terrorist violence from unhappy right-wing northerners who still hankered after the old link with the motherland. Most of these were poor and ill-educated, since large numbers of middle class people in that pro-empire community had upped and fled to the motherland after the unity referendum. In the event, the violence was relatively short-lived – a few hundred people killed compared to the more than three and a half thousand in the 30 years of conflict in the last century – largely because the paramilitary groups leading it, reflecting the rapid decline of the industrial working class from which they drew their membership, were only a shadow of their 20th century predecessors in terms of organisation and ferocity. On their own, without the old imperial army behind them, they had neither the stomach nor the capacity for a lengthy fight.

In the ‘rest of the island’ state, there was an entirely unrealistic belief that the former imperial nation would continue to subsidise the province for up to 30 years at a cost of 10 billion pounds a year. But with the motherland struggling with a range of dire economic problems caused by withdrawal from the European Union, this turned out to be for only five. The EU did its best to fill the gap, but it was faced with its own multiple problems of financial austerity and currency weakness, mass immigration from poorer countries, terrorist attacks, extreme nationalism and the threat of Russia. In the minds of the central European powerhouse nations, notably Germany, which increasingly ran the show, the small western island’s challenges did not loom large.

The result was a permanently sullen and alienated minority in the former imperial province, with occasional outbursts of renewed violence. There was a drastic increase in taxation in the new, unified island state (particularly affecting its southern part), and a small but significant reduction in its living standards, as budgets were cut to provide the higher quality health and education standards demanded by the former citizens of the northern province (which they had become used to in the old days of empire).  Multinational companies shied away from investing in the province, which continued to need major subsidies, although now from Dublin instead of London. There was a knock-on effect on the fragile, foreign investment dependent economy of the rest of the island. An appeal for volunteers from the rest of the island to go to the northern province to help revive and re-energise it – along the lines of the German volunteers who went east after reunification in the 1990s – fell largely on deaf ears. Nearly a century of living apart in a cosy, self-regarding ‘rest of the island’ state meant there was little feeling of solidarity there with the troublesome northerners.

But the island was now politically united after over 100 years of being partitioned. That was the important thing. The northern province remained bitterly divided, divisions not helped by the fact that the party of the former terrorist force was now largely in charge there as part of a new if flimsy power-sharing arrangement. The economy of both parts of the island was stagnant because foreign investment had fallen off due to significant instability during the reunification period. Living standards fell in both parts of the island. As usual, it was the poorer people who suffered most, and the welfare state that had existed in the northern province for the best part of 80 years was increasingly run down. But apart from these minor matters, the people of the island lived more or less happily ever after. But did they?  I leave you, discerning readers, to make up your own minds.

This entry was posted in General, Irish reunification, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A cautionary tale: could this be the next phase in our island’s history?

  1. hegemonic says:

    Well done, Andy. So maddening when anyone in London who had a clue about how the Brexit vote would play out in Scotland and across the Irish Sea would have said ‘Let’s not go there’. Obviously neither Cameron nor any of his patrician, home-counties cronies knew or cared.

    Kind regards


    Robin Wilson





    josephrobinsonwilson (Skype)


  2. Andy, I do not recognise this dark, irrational, dystopian world that you conjure up! While I accept that BREXIT is economic madness, perhaps on this island it is a welcome political wake-up call. For the first time since the Belfast Agreement, economic welfare in Northern Ireland has moved closer towards centre stage. A benign resolution of the of the challenges posed by BREXIT for the Irish border question is one of the three major issues in the EU negotiations to which all sides are committed to find acceptable solutions. I fail to understand why nationalists in Northern Ireland would ever vote for a unification that threatened their previous standard of living. And in light of the massive transformations forced on and achieved by the Irish economy since independence, I reject the notion that we would be a helpless pawn in the re-adjustments to the global economy that BREXIT and Trump are contemplating. Have a little faith in our ability to reach better outcomes!

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