Great green ideas to fire a new Irish industrial revolution

One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2019 is to write more about climate change and the environment. The reasons are: firstly, this is quite simply the existential issue of our age, and one that our politicians in both Irish jurisdictions largely ignore; secondly, there is only so much one can write about people retreating to their tribal trenches in Brexit-bewitched Northern Ireland; and thirdly, maybe, just maybe, the huge threat of climate change is one that could get both politicians and people on this island working together.

I will be expanding my coverage of our imperilled island – and imperilled world  –   through interviews with a range of leaders of opinion in this vital area. I am starting with the Green Party leader in the Republic, Eamon Ryan. It is wonderfully refreshing to meet a political leader who is so idealistic, hopeful in the face of apparently insurmountable obstacles, and fizzing with new ideas.

Ryan believes the one thing the Irish government – a disgraceful laggard in European terms when it comes to climate change action – can do immediately is to agree to People Before Profit TD Brid Smyth’s bill to stop the government issuing any more oil and gas exploration licences off the Irish coast. This is currently in committee stage in the Oireachtas despite the government’s determined opposition.  ‘We know that four-fifths of already discovered fossil fuel reserves will have to stay in the ground if we are to avoid runaway climate change’, says Ryan. ‘There have been 140 attempts to drill for oil and gas in Irish waters, up to 200 miles out into the Atlantic, at a cost of around €100 million a go, and only three small pockets of gas have been discovered. We should be spending those sums on investing instead in renewable energy – wind and wave –  bringing it ashore on the west coast, and using it to build new industries there.’

He concedes that stopping this unsuccessful and expensive policy won’t help Ireland meet its immediate carbon reduction targets. ‘But it will send a signal, internationally and to the Irish public, that we know that in the next decade and a half we have to stop the use of of fossil fuels and replace them with a more earth-protecting alternative.’ He wants the money saved on stopping oil and gas exploration to go towards three major projects, and he is nothing if not ambitious.

Firstly, there is offshore wind, which he says is now competitive in price. Here he proposes a major offshore wind farm in the Irish Sea (similar to the General Electric-owned farm off Arklow but bigger), that would also connect, through the Isle of Man, with the British grid. Secondly, he wants the government to support investment in the kind of very large floating wind turbines in the Atlantic that have been pioneered off the coasts of Norway and the north of Scotland (and in the US, China and Japan). ‘Our sea area is 10 times as large as our land area, and we now know, with reasonable certainty, that over the next 10-15 years we could deploy and become good at this kind of large-scale technology.’

Thirdly he wants the electrification of the heating systems in the million Irish homes with oil-fired central heating through the installation of heat pumps. Heat pumps use a small amount of energy to pull heat out of the air and ground to heat a well-insulated house or other building, and can also be reversed to cool such a building. Ryan stresses that this is not a small or cheap project, with a cost of €40,000 per house for such ‘retrofitting’. But over time it would greatly reduce the €6 billion per year we currently spend on importing oil and gas from faraway places like Russia and Saudi Arabia. He estimates the cost of retrofitting every social house and public building (notably schools and hospitals) in the country at €50 billion. Ireland would be one of the first countries in the world to tackle energy efficiency in buildings on this enormous scale. And we are starting from an extremely low base: only around a hundred houses every year are retrofitted at present, with even the not very ambitious National Development Plan saying this must rise to 45,000 houses per annum by 2021.

He also has radical ideas about transport. ‘We need a total change from the car-based, urban sprawl model. Electric cars are not a complete answer because even their manufacture consumes a large amount of resources. We need to radically improve and increase the cycling infrastructure, with a first priority being the ability of every child to cycle safely to school. We have to aim to emulate cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen; in the latter 30% of all trips are by bike, with the aim being to reach 50%. The figure in Dublin is 4-5%, so we need a tenfold increase in the amount of cycling.’ This will lead, among other things, to a major reduction in congestion in our car-clogged capital (a recent survey showed that Dublin drivers travel at the slowest city centre speeds in the world) and major health benefits for its inhabitants.

Ryan dreams of an Irish version of the Green New Deal, the policy programme American Democrats are currently debating which aims to wean the US off fossil fuels, curb greenhouse gas emissions and at the same time provide well-paid jobs in clean energy industries. He points out that his proposed retrofitting programme would require thousands of builders, engineers, electricians, plumbers and carpenters over the next  20 years to convert hundreds of thousands of houses. This will lead to a huge demand for skilled labour at a time when so much work is unskilled, precarious and threatened by automation and robotics. Because much of this new building work will be outside Dublin, it will not worsen the already overheated labour market in the capital’s construction sector.

He foresees young people from Kerry and Limerick and Galway  and Donegal being attracted back from England and Australia to work on retrofitting projects in their home places and being able to afford to move back to those areas to live. He would like to see such a retrofitting programme start with social and rural housing, to convince people of modest means and living in isolated communities of its value for them.

The Green Party leader admits that to have any chance of beginning to see his dreams turn into reality, it needs to double its 2-3% electoral support so as to hold the balance of power and thus force the larger parties to take on at least some of its visionary programme. This is what the German Greens have done successfully, so that they are now winning 18-20% of the vote in states like Bavaria and Hesse, and forming part of governing coalitions in nine of Germany’s 16 state legislatures.

Ryan believes this is partly because they are listening to rural voters’ concerns, and making sure, for example, that farmer-owned local energy collectives get high prices for the wind and solar energy they produce. [‘That’s a very small example’, says a friend who knows Germany well. ‘The German Green vote is mainly an urban one and attracts those who are cosmopolitan and internationalist, but not neo-liberal, and who believe important questions like climate change, refugees and organised crime can best be dealt with by international organisations, above all the EU’].

Green parties vary markedly from country to country, but agree on one thing: ‘they have to make the new green economy a positive ‘we’ story that is both about quality of life and strength of community,’ says Ryan. However he recognises that the ‘Yellow Jackets’ – the people left behind by economic progress who can’t think beyond next week, let alone 12 years into a future of climate crisis – represent a real challenge for the Greens, as for all established political parties. ‘We have to listen to them, rather than look down on them, unlike a classic liberal elitist like Macron.’

He accepts that winning over the farming community will be a particular hurdle in Ireland. But he maintains that the current system based largely on meat and dairy is not good for its producers, with beef farmers, for example, earning an annual average wage of just €13,000. He has faith that a future Common Agricultural Policy, focused on protecting biodiversity and water quality and storing carbon, will serve the interests of the farmers rather than – at present – those of the big supermarket chains. As a non-expert, I remain a sceptic in this area.

The greatest challenge is for young people. The youth climate strike, in which Irish schoolchildren are playing their part, is the inspiration of the moment. The British environmental writer George Monbiot says the youth strikers need a short, simple story which goes something like this: ‘The world has been thrown into climate chaos, caused by fossil fuel companies, the billionaires who profit from them and the politicians they have bought. But we, the young heroes, will confront these oligarchs, using our moral authority to create a movement so big and politically dangerous that our governments are forced to shut down the fossil economy and restore the benign conditions in which humans and other species can thrive.’ It’s a big ask for schoolchildren and teenagers, a drastic reversal of the roles of caring adults and cared-for children. Ryan adds that young people will be concerned about more than the environment. They want to know about a safe and benign future, asking not only ‘What will I be doing in 12 years when I am living in an age of floods, drought, extreme heat and poverty?’ but also ‘What will I work at? How will I get a home? How will I have a family?’

For him too it is about the economy as well as the environment: ‘The old ways which saw Europe buying in resources from the rest of the world are at risk now: from China in manufacturing and the US in software development. Europe is in danger of doing nothing but consuming. We have to create new industries, particularly in the green economy, which are hyper-efficient and low carbon. Europe has a real opportunity to take a lead here.’

The Greens, as an all-Ireland party, also have a strong North-South dimension, and it is a constructive and practical one. Ryan reminded me that during his time as Minister for Energy and Natural Resources between 2007 and 2011 he worked with Nigel Dodds and then Arlene Foster to develop an all-island electricity market, an all-island grid and a single all-island supply company, all with minimum controversy.

One can see how he worked well with DUP ministers. ‘My vision of an electricity system balanced between variable renewable energy supply and variable demand won’t work if we try to do it on this island alone – it has to be on a larger scale, involving inter-connectors with Britain and France. In the Brexit talks, we are stuck on the border issue, the sovereignty issue. Nobody is stuck on energy. Nobody disagrees that we must continue energy cooperation. Britain, whose energy prices are 50% higher than the EU average, knows that the only way it will keep its electricity prices down is through an inter-connector with the continent. We are equally pragmatic, and also know that most of our gas comes from the UK.’

Posted in General, The island environment | 1 Comment

Is it time for the Irish government to compromise on the backstop?

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have been a lonely voice over the past 15 months expressing concern over the Irish government’s steely ‘ not an inch’ strategy over the so-called ‘backstop’, the insurance policy to ensure there will be no hard border caused by the British withdrawal from the EU.

My motivation was a relatively narrowly-focused one, based on concern that the relationships that are so vital to maintaining peace and ensuring progress in the North – between the Irish and British governments, and between the former and the DUP – are not damaged in the fall-out from Brexit.  However I was also impressed by the arguments of economist and Irish Independent columnist Dan O’ Brien, who argued that the negative effects of a no-deal Brexit were likely to be greater for Ireland than for Britain, for two main reasons: firstly, Ireland is more than three times more dependent on trade with the rest of the world than the UK is; and secondly, Irish exports to the UK relative to the size of our economy are greater than UK exports to the whole of the EU relative to the size of their economy.

I have to say that two and a half years after the Brexit referendum vote, relations between Dublin, London and Belfast seem to me worse than they have been for most of the past 30 years. The Irish government’s unwavering insistence on the backstop has contributed to this. In Britain the backstop has emerged as the most hated element in Theresa May’s draft Withdrawal Agreement, overwhelmingly rejected by the House of Commons. The danger has now become that if the backstop precipitates a no-deal Brexit, we will end up with the very border the backstop is designed to avoid.

I am no expert on the witches’ brew that is Brexit. But I hope I am not mistaken in seeing a small chink of light in the chaos and darkness that surrounds this issue five weeks from a possible no-deal ‘crash out’ on 29 March. The light comes from reading recent articles by two leading Irish journalists and a Northern Irish commentator.

This is complex stuff, so please bear with me. One has to start with the superbly well-informed RTE Brussels correspondent, Tony Connelly. In a blog earlier this month¹ Connelly sketched the outline of a possible deal between London and Brussels. He says the British side accept that weaving a way through the tangle of fiendishly complicated issues will not be easy, especially given that Ireland and the EU are adamant that the Withdrawal Agreement cannot be re-opened nor the backstop changed.

Therefore the new emphasis is on “re-balancing” so as to remove the “trap” which the British fear, because it is part of the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement, will keep them in the backstop, and therefore the Customs Union, indefinitely. The Political Declaration,which will point the way towards the future UK-EU trade relationship and thus provide a pathway for the UK out of the backstop, is non-binding.  There need to be further assurances “to re-balance this asymmetry between the political commitments and the legal text”, one British source told Connelly. The lawyers, with their versatile use of language, will play a key role here, notably UK Attorney General Geoffrey Cox.

The British want a time limit or an exit clause from the backstop to act as real incentive for both sides to push hard and soon towards a “frictionless” future trade deal, which would remove the risk of a hard Irish border, and therefore the need for the backstop. There is a fundamental dilemma for the UK here: it needs a high level of customs and regulatory alignment in order to keep the Irish border as invisible as possible, while wanting the freedom to negotiate its own trade deals around the world. The British, not for the first time, are pushing for two regulatory spheres, side by side, similar but not identical, but with an ambiguous degree of compliance and enforcement (ambiguous because they don’t want the European Court of Justice as the sole arbitrator of whether or not the Irish border remains invisible and whether customs rules can be waived at their borders). So far the EU have resisted this idea.

Connelly says the British side admits that such “parallel tracks” are complex, but “amid the fog of where we go next, this seems to be the plan.” A key element will be finding “a way through this that Dublin feels comfortable with”, one Brussels source told him. “We have to try and disentangle the longer-term commitment to no hard border and this particular set of arrangements.”

The Irish government has rejected any time limit or exit clause as rendering the backstop insurance policy meaningless. Perhaps they will  have to climb down a little. The sometimes erratic Irish Times Northern commentator, Newton Emerson, has argued – correctly in this instance  – that the backstop would not come into effect until the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020, a deadline which EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier has said could be extended for up to two years.² This could take a five year backstop (which Emerson suggests would be acceptable to the DUP) to the end of 2027, nearly nine years away. “Is the Irish government seriously suggesting that finding a way around a hard border would take nine years to negotiate with a Withdrawal Agreement in place?” he asks.

The former Irish Times political correspondent, Stephen Collins, always a knowledgeable and sensible voice, says “it is clearly in the interests of the UK, Ireland and the EU that the backstop should not prevent them from getting the kind of Brexit that would suit them all.”³ He says “a legal instrument clarifying the meaning of that [Withdrawal] Agreement as it relates to the backstop is being touted as the way around the problem.”

He believes “some redefining of the backstop would boost the chances of a reasonable deal being accepted” by the House of Commons. To get it through the Commons, any legal clarification would be sold as a significant success by the British government. He goes on: “While it would obviously be difficult for the Irish government and the EU to bite their tongues in that scenario, it would be in both their interests not to be too blunt. If the British want to foster a perception that the backstop has been changed, even if any clarification only amounts to a restatement of the obvious, so be it. While there may be some political difficulties for the Irish government in appearing to accept a compromise, it would be much more dangerous in the longer term to become wedded to a hardline stance for fear of losing face. In the coming weeks Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will have to be careful not to say or do anything to block off possible avenues of retreat for the British.” He concludes: “Knowing when it is time to pull back, or at least give the appearance of doing so, will be the real test of whether he has what it takes to be a statesman.”

If we don’t find some way to make the politics of compromise work in the next five weeks, we are facing not only a probable economic cataclysm in both our islands, but possibly seeing our neighbouring state in the hands of leaders with the deepest hue of reactionary politics: serial liars and charlatans like Boris Johnson and snooty far-right eccentrics like Jacob Rees Mogg. It is a terrifying and deeply depressing thought.

¹ ‘Hell, high water and the return of Chequers’, 9 February

² ‘There is a backstop deal to be done’, 24 January

³ ‘De Valera’s empty formula could solve UK’s Brexit impasse’, 21 February







Posted in General | 1 Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Cross-border cooperation, General | 3 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ENDNOTE: If you want to hear the most marvellous rendition of ‘Ireland’s Call’ – the anthem of the best rugby team in the world and (I hope) of an eventually united Irish people – watch and listen to this golden-voiced four year old girl singing it on



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

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

I am a disillusioned disciple of the Good Friday Agreement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

A bloody Finnish cautionary tale for Irish Republicans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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