Monday 20 October 2008

Should nationalists promote 'normality'?

Is a constant state of crisis essential for nationalism to achieve its objectives? The history of the last 40 years (if not longer) has tended to promote the notion that nationalism can only be successful if the northern state fails. Conversely, the notion that unionism wins if the northern state is successful is, for many, taken for granted.

Hence for nationalism, in general, the improvement of the northern economy is not a priority. For unionists, though, some success for 'their wee country' would finally erase the hurt that Charlie Haughey's 'failed entity' comment caused.

Is nationalism right to downplay economic success in comparison to cultural success? Would an economically successful Northern Ireland be more or less likely to be re-integrated with the south?

If nationalists, both Sinn Féin and the SDLP, worked hard to promote the economy of Northern Ireland, to the extent even of shelving their other political demands (policing and justice, Irish language, etc), would the long-term outcome be better or worse for nationalism?

The answer, I suspect, is that a successful Northern Ireland would bring re-unification closer.

One of the taunts of unionists is that 'the south couldn't afford the north', as if the north was an expensive call-girl. To an extent, this is true – the transfer from Whitehall is enormous due to the almost complete absence of a real economy in the north. It is, in effect, a state on welfare. As long as this continues, re-unification is financially unattractive.

The 'state on welfare' clearly has an unnaturally dependent relationship with its paymaster – it is in thrall to London, which pays the piper and thus calls the tune. The lack of an outward-looking business class in Northern Ireland means that it remains largely unaffected by factors elsewhere. It is a state-funded internal colony of Britain, and has little need or appetite for closer ties with anyone else. The south, while physically closer, is not where the money comes from, and is thus less important to many people in Northern Ireland.

If this situation was changed, and Northern Ireland PLC became a dynamic business-friendly environment:

  • Businesses would forge links with their natural hinterland, the rest of Ireland,
  • The irrationality of having two states on one small island would start to become obvious to everyone,
  • Infrastructures would be redesigned to minimise costs. This would mean single infrastructures for the whole island for many things.
  • The north's dependency on government funded pseudo-jobs would wane – London would become just one city amongst others.
  • People would start to look beyond the narrowness of Britain, and realise that in the wider world their tribal posturing seems odd and unfashionable.

Over a longer period, if Northern Ireland was a success, tax revenue would increase and welfare payments would decrease. The cost of re-unification would get smaller and smaller, while the waste and inefficiencies of partition would become more obvious. Parties and politicians that were obsessed with keeping the divisions, the border, partition, would start to be seen as obstacles to future well-being, and although they would continue to get the tribal unionist vote, they would start to lose the support of moderates.

For Sinn Féin to pursue the economic well-being of the north, even within the current 'internal settlement', could well turn out to be the best move. By failing to bring down the northern state by either violence or neglect, it could actually bring about its extinction by prosperity. As nationalists, Sinn Féin may even recognise that the cause of Ireland is greater than the cause of Sinn Féin. Its apparent failure, as a radical republican party, may lead to its own demise or irrelevance, but it could also lead within a generation, to the success of nationalism. Sinn Féin, and the confrontational approach, are not requirements for national re-unification. A more consensual approach, spearheaded by a new party, which does not evoke the kind of visceral loathing that Sinn Féin does amongst unionists, may succeed – the demographic balance is approaching the tipping point, and a new party that can attract the middle ground, through moderation, and sound economic and social policies, may be able to tip the political balance.

The old leaders of the confrontational phase are nearing retirement, and will soon be replaced by younger people. Nationalism should not be afraid to reform itself politically in order to take advantage of the new opportunities. A new direction, with new leaders, a new political formation, and a strong commitment to making Northern Ireland work – preparing it for re-unification – is worth discussing.


Anonymous said...

A fair argument but Unionists will use the prosperity of Northern Ireland to champion an independent entity if a nationalist majority is looming. Britain will be more inclined towards the status quo if NI is no hassle to them.

Moreover, a prosperous London controlled NI is effectively in competition with the South. This won't engender an "all for one" relationship even among nationalists north and south. It'll breed rivalry which is best left to all-Ireland nationalism against 06 Unionism. We already seen this with Lenihan on about Southerners shopping in the North.

No, the great Charlie was right about NI. It's a failed entity and because of its undemocratic sectarian creation became one of the most blood stained regions in Western Europe.

Helping the economy of an intrinsically failed state isn't wise. People in the 26 won't vote against a united Ireland whatever the financial cost. It'll be a gradual withdrawal by Britain anyway.

All northern nationalists need to concentrate on is 50 plus 1 per cent voting for unification. Many nationalists will be less likely to want change in a prosperous environment. The sacrifice for independence is also economic for northern nationalists as it was in the South during many dark years after independence.

The less you have to lose the more ready you are for change.

Anonymous said...

Disagree with the commenter above. If NI remains economically backward, and a significant effort isn't made to accommodate Unionists - some form of repartition and not unity looms in the event of 50%+1. While I agree that there is a good chance that voters in the south would vote for unity if sold as a final settlement - as a northerner living in the south I can tell you that NI & unity is not a priority among people down here at all (and yes, how much taxes you have to pay is). If Unity could be achieved smoothly, then I agree people would probably vote for it in a referendum even if it does mean higher costs. But what do you think would be easier?
1/ Uniting with a wealthy state where people are happier and unity may mean reduced costs & better economies of scale

2/ with a poor state completely dependent on a false public sector with an armed police and high levels of public disorder where unity means increased costs & tensions ?

Remember, should a nationalist majority in a referendum in the north look likely the government in the south would open up _negotiations_ with the parties in the north & Britain (it's not a fiat accompli). If unity meant war... then I suspect the referendum may be quietly dropped at the behest of the southern government.

Anyway, in the meantime a good economy means good jobs for you and your children. Isn't that the purpose of politics (the end, the rest merely being the means?) Personally I think a strong northern economy would make unity more likely, but my point is even if it doesn't everyone ends up a winner anyway. Even on the point about Unionists pushing for an independent NI - where is the harm in that? By that stage with nationalists likely outnumbering Unionists there would be no chance of a return to Stormont style unionist rule. The state would reflect the character of both communities (that is be as Irish as the state to the south, but with strong Anglo & Scots influences). An independent NI would at least be it's own soveriegn entity - free to make it's own decisions about how to best pursue prosperity & develop it's culture. Some of the wealthiest states in the world are small states, for example Luxembourg and Monaco (and most of us would regard the citizens of Monaco as French ;-) ).

Without a strong Northern Irish state, voting for a UI could be like turkeys voting for Christmas. There are different power elites (vested interests) in the South, who would, to protect their own interests, run rough shod over northern concerns. (While I think the south is a much better run state generally, the northern NHS is much better run than the HSE. The south is currently beholden to the interests of wealthy property developers / speculators / corrupt bankers). It's not even true that the south couldn't afford the north. For most of the recent past the south has been importing workers to work in it's booming private sector economy (latest figures from the CSO show population in the south is up at 4.45 million compared with something like 2.5 million a decade ago). At the same time salaries in the public sector are high - much, much higher than in the north. What could have happened (theoritically) is that in the event unity public sector work could migrate to the cheaper north freeing workers in the south to take up jobs in the productive private sector. That is to say the "subvention" to the north need not be a subvention, but could be a cost saving. Any differences could be made up by increased FDI in the north arranged through the IDA with the help of low corporation tax. The former, would be very difficult to acheive politically - and the latter wouldn't happen at all unless the north was stable!

Although, I don't think pursuing a stable and prosperous NI should mean that nationalists roll over and give up on important issues (e.g. status of Irish). And ultimately to achieve that goal, as much authority should be devolved to Stormont as is possible.

By the way an interesting experiment might be to take the numerical gap between the two communities from the official stats of 2001. Make an educated guess (conservative) as to the natural increase in the Catholic population over the Protestant population (might be reasonable to assume it would be similar to the increase from 1991-2001, a period in which birth rates were falling) for the period 2001-2011 (when birth rates were mostly rising). Make a stab at estimating the number of immigrants from the accession states in NI currently. Use official estimates for net migration to project to 2011 and beyond. Subtract the increase in migrants & Catholic population from the difference between the two communities. The gap will be very small. If migration & birth rate trends continue for only a very short period of time - Ulster born Protestant majority may disapear within years rather than decades. Given that, and given that a good portion of marginal voters (those that make up the gap) are immigrants - does it not seem more likely that the constitutional issue will be settled by those that are driving prosperity?

Nevin said...

Horseman, there are two political aspirations here of roughly equal value. Promotion of one while ignoring the other will, IMO, continue to be the road to nowhere.

Working the common ground means accommodating, so far as that is possible, the two aspirations.

I should imagine that businessmen are driven mainly by profit, not by the distance to market.

I'd have thought that the 'narrowness' of a small island would have been greater than the narrowness of the UK. All of our 'external' relationships could benefit from development.

Horsemaan said...


I am certainly not proposing some sort of introverted Cuba-style Ireland. Far from it. The south is currently a much more open place than the north, insofar as it has direct links with Brussels, the US, and all international bodies and organisations. The north, in contrast, has few such links, and most relationships must pass through London's uncaring filter. So the north spends its time lobbying London, while Dublin is talking to Brussels, Washington, Frankfurt, etc.

I think most businesspeople recognise this (which is why the business community is far less partitionist than the unionist community).

Essentially, what I would suggest is that republicans should go back to republicanism. As you say, both traditions should be valued - that is, of course, one of true republicanism's core beliefs. But anonymous poster (at 10:02, above) put it very well - we will never cut the north's umbilical cord to London if it is still a basket-case economy and society. Curing the ills of northern society is an essential first step towards weaning it off London. And of course, regardless of the ultimate constitutional outcome, both republicans and unionists should wish the best quality of life for all the people.

In simple terms; a prosperous north within the UK is better than a poor north within ther UK; a prosperous north in a UI is better than a poor north in a UI. Some people may think that a poor north is a pre-condition for revolutionary change leading to a UI, but I think they are wrong. I think the chances of a poor north ever being in a UI are small, so go for prosperity, for the benefit of the people and to hasten the day of re-unification.