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.