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Brexit - Irish Politics

The island of Ireland is a tale of two widely differing economies

The hyping of Europe and Brexit issues has reached new heights with the suggestion that a minute to be adopted in the Brexit meeting of the 27 member states represents a major or even significant achievement for Ireland or for Enda Kenny.

The very idea that Northern Ireland, were it to vote for a united Ireland, might not be allowed to become part of the EU is ridiculous; so formalising in a Council minute the obvious truth that it could, or would, become part of the EU along with the rest of Ireland in the event of unity is hardly an earth-shattering event or, for that matter, a crowning moment in the Taoiseach’s career.

Our diplomats will have to achieve a lot more than that in the coming months if they are to justify their existence.

Unionist voters in Northern Ireland have a lot more to worry about than the impact of an Irish Language Act.  The economic outlook for the North post-Brexit is quite bleak; foreign direct investment will be very difficult for the North to attract outside of the EU.

The unionist economic heartland had its traditional roots in industry and agriculture. The traditional northern industrial base has been eroded very badly; any threat to the prosperity of northern agriculture post-Brexit would hit very hard at the underpinnings of the Union.

While the Tories have given vague assurances that the present EU pattern of agricultural subsidies and tariff protections will remain in place until 2020, that is of little comfort in assessing what might follow. The British part of the UK might live with a cheap food policy; the North cannot sustain such a model.

We also have to bear in mind that a post-landslide Tory government is bound to carry out a sustained programme of public expenditure cuts which immediately calls into question the sustainability of the UK exchequer subvention to the North.

That subvention currently translates into a £9.3bn (or ca. €12bn) annual exchequer deficit of more than 25% of GNP. We in the Republic are about to eliminate our current budget deficit completely in the next 24 months. Ireland may well be economically integrating north-south in some respects. But fiscally, Ireland is a tale of two widely differing economies.

Thomas Wentworth, the Stuarts’ loyal Lord Deputy in Ireland, famously said: “Put not your trust in princes” before laying his neck on the executioner’s block on foot of a death warrant signed by his king in 1641.

Unionists in today’s Northern Ireland might well be warned: “Put not your trust in Tories”.

Any Tory Chancellor will be keenly eyeing the annual subvention to Stormont in the coming years as he or she struggles to contain and eliminate the UK’s current budget deficit. UK farmers have little clout; Northern Ireland’s farmers might be numerically strong in the Stormont political arithmetic but they are utterly insignificant in that of Westminster.

The notion that a border poll will produce a united Ireland – in the sense of a unitary republic – in the short or medium term is illusory.

Irish unity, I think, is far more likely to happen by stages than by a once-off movement of the North from being part of the UK into a unitary Irish state. The North is unlikely to take that leap into a German-style re-unification with the South.

One intermediate scenario would be the creation of an Irish confederation in which the two parts of Ireland would agree to share a single membership of the EU in that capacity.

The Republic and a Northern Irish state would be partners in a EU state membership. The northern partner might even retain a linkage with the Crown of some type – perhaps along the Canadian model.

Such a model would put Ireland ahead of ten other EU member states in terms of population – among them Denmark, Finland and Slovakia.

But the problem with such scenarios is twofold; the unionist segment of the northern population sees no decisive advantage in becoming equal partners in a single Irish membership of the EU. Nor do many Catholic nationalists.

Firstly, their economy is receiving that massive subsidy. One in three in the North is a public employee.

Secondly, there is the issue as to who, other than Westminster, would be able and willing to sustain the North in entering such a confederal partnership.

The threat to Northern prosperity, and in particular unionist prosperity, would need to become a lot clearer and a lot more immediate before a radical change of outlook based on economic self-interest would outweigh traditional loyalties and fears.

North-south economic and trade integration is one thing; budgetary integration is another thing entirely.

The cause of unity among the people and the parts of Ireland, which I favour, needs an abandonment of the confrontational style of politics practised by Sinn Féin and the adoption of a collaborative politics instead.

It may well be that Tory policies on public spending cuts for Northern Ireland coupled with a dismantling of the North’s agricultural subsidy base will soon signal a sea-change in the economic prosperity of Northern Ireland. But old loyalties die hard.

That is why the real possibility of seeking a special economic zone status for Northen Ireland should be explored by Dublin in the context of the Brexit process.

If the North-South trading relationship and the North’s agricultural economy were preserved in a post-Brexit arrangement, the outlook for the northern economy might look a lot less bleak. This is an area where there is huge scope for imagination and flexibility in the EU negotiating position.

It is catastrophic that there is no elected government in the North at this critical juncture to take part in exploring such mitigatory proposals. It is ludicrous that the “cash-for-ash” affair has led us to this point.

That is the consequence of Adams’ confrontational politics. That confrontational approach is also evidenced by the ludicrous demand for a border poll. It is inexcusable to pursue that kind of politics at this point. DUP intransigence on the Irish language (which seems to be thawing somewhat) is no justification for decapitating the imperfect northern democracy at this critical point for the whole island.

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