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. Recently I met former senator Jim D’Arcy, the Taoiseach’s newly appointed adviser 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

Among the poetic and pugnacious people of South Armagh

Last summer, during my Belfast to Dublin walk, I spent two days walking through south Armagh: over the Cooley mountains into Ravensdale, then across Slieve Gullion to Mullaghbane and Forkhill and over the border into Dundalk.

It was the most interesting and eye-opening part of my journey. The Ring of Gullion area is one of the most beautiful, geologically important, culturally rich, historically strategic and yet least visited places in the east of Ireland. The reason is obvious: for at least five centuries this has been an area of conflict and banditry, one in which some of the most bloodily contested events in Irish history have taken place. But it is also a place of warm-hearted people and wonderful mythology, folklore, poetry and music.

A local  historian I met in Forkhill talked about the Slighe Mhidhluachra, the great north-south highway that passed through south Armagh from early Christian times, and which was “the channel for all movement from one part of Ireland to the other – every army had to to pass up and down it, from Cuchulainn fighting Queen Maeve to William heading for the Battle of the Boyne. It was a particularly important battleground in the first decade of the 17th century which marked one of the key turning points in Irish history: in 1600 Hugh O’Neill drove back Mountjoy from the Gap of the North; in 1601 Mountjoy returned and built Moyry Castle; in 1607 came the flight of the earls, O’Neill and O’Donnell; and in 1609 was the first Plantation of Ulster”.

In 1989, nearly four centuries later, Chief Superintendent Harry Breen, the most senior police officer to be killed during the modern ‘troubles’, and Superintendent Bob Buchanan, a worshipper in my grandfather’s old Reformed Presbyterian congregation in County Antrim, were killed in the same Gap of the North near Moyry Castle, shot dead in an ambush by the IRA, whom the RUC believed had been tipped off by a ‘mole’ in Dundalk garda station.

South Armagh is much loved by geologists and archaeologists for the richness of its geological formations and prehistoric monuments. Geologists believe Slieve Gullion, the 1,900 foot mountain at its heart, is the centre of what remains of a large extinct volcano, with the peak being the magma (the hardened core of formerly molten rock) and the surrounding hills, forming almost a complete circle, being the remains of the volcanic crater. “The circular motif was very strong in megathic art and rituals, “ says Gabriel Cooney, professor of archaeology at UCD (who joined me on this part of the walk). “Today, when you’re driving up on the motorway from Dublin, it is noticeable that Slieve Gullion appears like a triangular shape, a pyramid – sometimes with a band of mist around its base – and that must been very striking to people in prehistoric times.”

We also visited one of those magnificent, almost completely neglected ancient monuments which Ireland – and particularly the border region – seems to specialise in. In the townland of Edenappa, we walked across a field full of cowpats and through a muddy gap into an overgrown meadow in the middle of which was the Kilnasaggart Stone. This eight foot sculpted granite pillar, probably put up around 700 and marked with one large and ten smaller crosses, is the oldest dateable inscribed Christian monument in Ireland. The south-east face of the pillar bears an inscription in Irish that Ternoc, a Christian hermit who was related to the great Magenis and Macartan families, put this place under the protection of Peter the Apostle.

I experienced a feeling of peace while contemplating this ancient stone in the July morning sunshine that I can only explain by a sense of this place having been a centre of prayer and spiritual contemplation for many centuries. But it is shamefully neglected by both the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and the Historic Monuments Council of Northern Ireland, probably because it is so close to the border. How many people speeding along the main Dublin-Belfast motorway two miles away know that this marvellous and unique Christian site is only a few minutes away by car? How many visitors does a site which in continental Europe would be a major tourist attraction receive every year? The Tourist Board has no way of measuring the number of visitors to this forgotten monument in a muddy field.

I walked on towards Mullaghbane, the home of my friend Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin, sean-nós singer, composer and author of the acclaimed book A Hidden Ulster: People, songs and traditions of Oriel, about the rare songs in Irish from Armagh and Louth, with their historical background, biographies of the poets who composed them, the collectors who collected them and the scribes who wrote them down. Many of the songs were written by fine – although now largely forgotten – 17th and 18th century poets like Peadar O Doirnin, Seamus Dall Mac Cuarta, Art Mac Cumhaigh and Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna (who wrote ‘The Yellow Bittern’).

South Armagh and north Louth were culturally rich Irish-speaking areas up to the mid-19th century but a hundred years later the language had all but disappeared there. There was a long tradition of educated local people called scribes writing down stories, legends, poems and songs on parchment and paper to preserve the wealth of the culture they loved. Much of this work would have been paid for by members of the genty – many of them Protestants, men like Robert McAdam in Belfast, Arthur Brownlow in Lurgan and Samuel Coulter in Dundalk – who would have collected and preserved the manuscripts in their own houses.

Ní Uallacháin went on to tell me about the little-known period in the early 19th century when the Catholic Church opposed the Irish language. The (Protestant) Irish Society was teaching the Bible through Irish to the people of the area at that time, and employing educated and literate Catholics to do it. “The scribes did not see their work as proselytising in any sense but simply teaching people to read. However it caused consternation among the Catholic clergy and their way of handling it was to instil fear in the people about the language – it was now a threat to their souls. It also affected later generations of song and folklore collectors whom people assumed were proselytisers as well. Local people became afraid to speak Irish and this was extremely detrimental to the language in this area, and scribal activity all but ceased. So the reasons for the sharp decline in Irish in this area from the mid-19th century onwards were, along with the Famine and the identification of the language with poverty, the system of National Schools and the influence of the Church.”

Ní Uallacháin finds “a tremendous enthusiasm and high regard for the language here now. In many ways it was easier to bring up my children speaking Irish than in places across the border. There is a love for it even though it is not taught in the schools except spasmodically here and there. When I came here I was the only mother speaking Irish to my children – there are at least a dozen families doing that now. I can’t ever see it coming back as a community language, but it’s certainly not going away and it’s undergoing something of a resurgence.”

I spent that night camping out on the site of the former British army base in Forkhill. Before I retired for the night I met a group of local people interested in the area’s history in the local pub. To say they are proud of south Armagh and its history is to understate the obvious: they are passionately, even fiercely, energised by it, nursing its many trials and exclusions with a huge sense of grievance.

One local historian in the group voiced the widely-held belief that there had been a conspiracy since the 17th century to portray south Armagh as an outlandish place of outlaws and murderers, with a one-sided version of history that emphasised the violence of the native people, and made little or no mention of the theft of their land and centuries of oppression by colonist ‘planters.’ This kind of rewriting of history had been constantly reinforced until the most recent ‘troubles’ period, when Merlyn Rees – Northern Ireland Secretary in the mid-1970s – dubbed south Armagh the “bandit country”.

However Rees was only the latest in a long line of politicians, clerics, historians and others to characterise the south-east Ulster borderlands, and south Armagh in particular, in this way. The Maynooth historian Raymond Gillespie writes that by the late 17th century “the tory (i.e. bandit) problem” survived in the Ulster borderlands after it disappeared from most of the rest of Ireland because “the tories could count on local support in areas with no alternative leadership and because the traditions of these areas gave sanction to their actions.”¹ This poor, underdeveloped area of marginal land was caught between the newly colonised territories further north with their improving landlords, better estate management and industrial beginnings, and the historically well-developed Pale to the south. “Similarly the spread of authority of central government, intimately associated with colonisation, left the borderland isolated and apparently more violent than the surrounding area.”

The group in the pub agreed that there was a “siege mentality” in south Armagh and a “Free State mentality” south of the border. One woman explained the former very cogently: “With the creation of the border and the Northern state in the early 1920s, in an area like south Armagh you never felt part of that Northern state and there was nothing in the North to attract you to it. There was also a sense of having been abandoned by the South. You were like an island stuck between two states: one which you had no affinity with and one which had said ‘cheerio’ to you. So there is within south Armagh the mentality of an island people. When I was growing up, the older people may not have been very educated, but they were free thinking people, who didn’t take direction from either north or south.”

And what about the IRA? People in south Armagh don’t like to talk about the role of the Provisional IRA during the ‘troubles’, and this group was no exception. But in his superbly researched book, Bandit Country: The IRA & South Armagh, British journalist Toby Harnden traces the formidable force that was the IRA in south Armagh back to the local branch of the O’Neill family fighting the English in the early 1600s; the highwaymen or ‘rapparees’ haunting the roads in the late 1600s; the Defenders and Ribbonmen clashing with landlords and Orangemen in the 18th and 19th centuries; and to Frank Aiken’s 4th Northern Division of the IRA in 1919-1922, which on one occasion mobilised over 200 men to take over Newtownhamilton village and attack the local police barracks. The same IRA surnames appeared on British security force lists in the 1990s as on government files in the 1920s.

And the most recent version were as formidable as any of their predecessors. A British Army colonel talked with grudging admiration to Harnden about their careful planning and studying of army operating patterns, secure firing positions and well thought out escape routes. A member of the RUC’s specialist anti-terrorist squad in the area said they “stood up and fought and skirmished back in the same way the British Army did. And they’re very hard to overtake when they are doing that.” The double bombing in August 1979 which killed 16 soldiers from the Parachute Regiment at Narrow Water Castle outside Warrenpoint in south Down – the heaviest casualties suffered by the army’s elite regiment in a single attack since the Second World War – was planned by south Armagh IRA man, Tom ‘Slab’ Murphy, now a jailed tax avoider, but then a ruthless and brilliant military tactician who would later become its chief of staff.

By the mid-1990s the IRA in south Armagh had effectively fought the British Army to a standstill. The latter’s helicopters were forced to fly in formations of three to avoid attacks by IRA sniper units using machine guns and large calibre American and Russian sniping rifles. Harnden concludes: “As the August 1994 ceasefire approached, the contrast between the campaign being waged on all fronts in south Armagh and the IRA’s waning efforts elsewhere in Northern Ireland could hardly have been more acute.”

It was little wonder then that the fiercest opposition to the IRA’s ceasefire was in the area. And it was no coincidence that the massive bomb attack in Canary Wharf in London’s docklands, which in February 1996 ended that first ceasefire, was planned, engineered and delivered from south Armagh – like so many such attacks on the British ‘mainland’ in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

However this is not a one-dimensional place. Bernard Boyle, the local accountant who chairs the Forkhill Development Association, believes that there are “quite a few nationalist unionists” even in his locality. “If you had a border poll in the morning you’d find that quite a few of these people are comfortable with their UK status. They wouldn’t vote unionist, but if you drill down into what they believe, you realise they’re quite happy to be British”. Because of poverty and lack of employment local people had got used to depending on the British benefits system which – despite the fact that social benefits in recent years have been higher in the South – they felt might not be there in an all-Ireland state.

Boyle, clearly a man of moderate views, says it is “impossible to overstate the difference between Forkhill now and in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.” The British army presence in this tiny village was overwhelming. They chose an area between two housing estates to build their barracks and, despite only being able to move out in heavily armed patrols, had complete control over the village, including sending radio signals which blanked out television transmission and switching off street lights. A brave attempt to open a fish and chip shop in the 1980s was doomed because of constant army harassment of its customers. “If you didn’t have an errand in Forkhill you didn’t come here after dark because you were guaranteed to be stopped by the army no matter what road you came in, everybody told to get out of the car, everybody’s details taken, the stuff taken out of the boot, and people told bluntly to put it back themselves.”

Unsurprisingly, there was unanimity in the group that Britain leaving the EU – the Brexit vote had happened a fortnight earlier – was an unmitigated disaster and would have a particularly catastrophic impact on a village that was only a few hundred yards from a border which was now due to become Europe’s external frontier. Bernard Boyle pointed out that after many decades of no investment in Forkhill and its hinterland, EU money had come in during the past 20 years in the form of Single Farm Payments and capital grants for farmers, money to improve roads and IT connectivity, and funding for community development. The small business park created by the development association had brought 32 new jobs to a place which until then only had a tiny number of jobs in pubs and shops. 40% of the funding for the business park had come from the part-EU funded International Fund for Ireland.

South Armagh is a strange place for this Northern-born Protestant and Dublin resident, albeit one who was active in the Northern Ireland civil rights movement in the 1960s and is a proud Irish citizen. The fierceness of the republicanism expressed by people like the local historians I spoke to is unsettling. I believe I speak for the great majority of Irish people in that when I see a gunman in a balaclava carrying a high velocity rifle, what I feel is dread and fear, and certainly not admiration (our idea of an admirable Irish soldier is an Irish Army peacekeeper on the way to service with the UN). Yet in three hours of conversation, the violent campaign of the Provisional IRA against the British army, the RUC and the Protestant community – the Kingsmills massacre being the worst example in south Armagh – was not mentioned once. In this community the IRA were viewed by many people as heroes, not to be criticised in front of an outsider.

The Borderlands: Essays on the History of the Ulster-Leinster Border, Raymond Gillespie & Harold O’Sullivan (eds.)

Many thanks to Bernard Boyle and Raymond McCumiskey for gathering local people to meet me and letting me use the Forkhill Women’s Centre to wash and change after my night’s camping.

Posted in General, Northern Ireland | 2 Comments

Northern lessons from a pilgrimage walk in West Cork

Last month my wife Doireann and I went on a three-day walk across the lovely, little known hills of west Cork from Drimoleague (north of Skibbereen), through Kealkill (east of Bantry) to the unique and marvellous pilgrimage spot that is Gougane Barra. I then walked on alone over the heather deserts on the Cork-Kerry border to Kilgarvan near Killarney. In the summer sunlight – and even through the thick mist on the hilltops and the occasional Atlantic shower – this was Ireland at its most magnificent: remote, unspoilt, close to the other world in the intensity of its green stonewalled fields, white sheep, high bogs, cascading waterfalls, rocks and sky. The impression of being close to the spirit world is only strengthened by the multiplicity of standing stones, ring-forts and holy wells in the area.

Christianity came early to West Cork. In the Annals of Innisfallen we are told that Saint Ciarán returned to Cape Clear in 402 AD after studying in Rome and quickly spread the faith throughout the region. Thus the area around Skibbereen and Drimoleague was probably Christian before Patrick came to the north of Ireland 30 years later.

1,500 years ago Finbarr, the patron saint of Cork, walked this way and established a monastery on an island in the lake at Gougane Barra. The remoteness of its location meant it was much used during Penal Law times for people to hear Mass. The 19th century island oratory on the wonderfully eye-pleasing lake is now hugely popular as a wedding venue, particularly as it adjoins one of Ireland’s friendliest and most charming hotels, the Gougane Barra Hotel, presided over by the genial and knowledgeable Neil Lucey and his family.

Our departure point for the walk, the village of Drimoleague – often by-passed by tourists following the better known west Cork coastline – is the home of a remarkable initiative in community-led sustainable tourism. In 11 months in 2008-2009, a small group of farmers, through a mixture of voluntary labour and support from the West Cork Development Partnership, built 12 kilometres of walking paths across the beautiful landscapes between the Ilen River and Mullaghmesha Mountain. By the end of 2009, an unusual cooperative effort by four community groups in Drimoleague, Mealagh, Kealkill and Gougane Barra had led to the 37 kilometre St Finbarr’s Way being opened to pilgrims and other walkers. Each Easter and twice in August large groups of people take the two day ‘reflective walk’ from Drimoleague. Hundreds of others do it individually and in smaller groups, notably on the feast of St Finbarr on 25th September.

One of the key movers behind this explosion of walking routes has been David Ross, who farms 48 acres just north of Drimoleague village at Top of the Rock. Ross is an evangelical Christian, a description which is far more familiar north of the border than in west Cork. He was brought up a Methodist, which had been strong around Drimoleague since the Great Revival of the 1850s, and preached his first sermon at the age of 19.  He then studied for three years at a bible college in north-east England and, although most his fellow students were destined for the foreign missions, he “felt the Lord urging me to return to my own place.”

In 1988  he was touched by tragedy when his first wife Mary, who was from a prominent Presbyterian family in Portadown, was diagnosed with cancer and died at the age of 36 eleven months after giving giving birth to their third child. In the early 1990s he married again – to Elizabeth from County Monaghan – and they had two more children.

In the 1980s the small Methodist church in nearby Bantry had closed, and a decade later Ross and his wife had a vision of  a new independent Christian church in the town. This was to become Bantry Christian Fellowship, “similar to Methodism but not labelled Protestant – a bible believing, real life community” in his words. This now has a thriving Sunday congregation of up to 70 people.

David Ross had known little about St Finbarr and his pilgrimage until the late eighties. He tells the story of how Denny O’Leary from Skibbereen had approached him because “he planned to ride a horse from Skibbereen to Gougane Barra by way of a pilgrim journey, a tradition which his parents had passed down.Would I send him on his way from Top of the Rock with a prayer?”

In 2012 David and Elizabeth Ross sought planning permission to build a walking centre in his grandfather’s old stone-built farmyard, with its superlative view across the Ilen valley to the mountains. They bought seven cosy timber lodges known as camping ‘pods’ which had been invented by a young English engineer who had got the idea from seeing the beehive shape of the Gallarus Oratory during a rain-soaked camping holiday in Kerry. They invested (helped by EU funding) in a splendid walking centre containing bathrooms, kitchen, games room and a large upstairs meeting room. In 2014 the centre was opened by the Fianna Fail politician Eamon O Cuiv TD, Eamon De Valera’s grandson, and a strong supporter of rural community self-help projects. “Now the Top of the Rock is once again a meeting place of joy, activity, laughter and reflection”, says Ross.

There are lessons for the often joyless and unreflecting society that is Northern Ireland in this story of strong and harmonious rural communities and successful local tourism in the south-west. If I had my way, I would bring hundreds of Northern Protestants, conservatives and evangelicals (along with their Catholic neighbours, of course), to spend their holidays in Drimoleague and Kealkill and Gougane Barra, so that they can rediscover the delight and revelation of their Irish Christian heritage: the pre-Reformation tradition of saints and solitude and powerful communion with God that once made Celtic Christianity such a light to the world. And so they can see how West Cork Protestants like David and Elizabeth Ross live in a spirit of enterprise, mutual love of place and communal harmony with their Catholic neighbours. “West Cork is a very open society”, says this 58 year old evangelical Christian farmer and tourism entrepreneur extraordinaire.

For when you strip away the anti-Catholicism of the Orange Order and the marching bands, evangelical Christianity is the best and most enduring element at the heart of Northern Protestant culture. It also thrives in the new, open Republic of Ireland. More of the North’s Protestants should come down and visit the magical seascapes and mountains of west Cork, meet its lovely people, attend Sunday worship at Bantry Christian Fellowship (or perhaps Drimoleague Methodist Church) and learn that for themselves.

They don’t even have to contemplate any penitential pilgrimage across the mountains, although I would strongly recommend that for the more athletic among them (the regularly-spaced bright yellow marker posts and stiles make it particularly easy to follow). For me, the Deelish Cascades walk across fields and along river banks from Top of the Rock to the impressive Castle Donovan (three kilometres there and back) – with its wondrous array of wild flowers, trees and plants, songbirds and river creatures – is simply the most beautiful country walk on the island of Ireland.

Posted in General, Republic of Ireland, The island environment | 1 Comment