Wet dreams and the unfinished revolution

ONE hundred years ago the Irish Revolution reached its bloody climax. In May 1921 a treaty gave the people of this island the freedom to achieve independence from the British Empire. It came at a cost. The land was partitioned. This sparked a bitter civil war which was to shape its politics for the rest of the century. This year will be a painful one for many as the Irish republic recalls its difficult birth, commemorates its struggles and remembers it’s dead. Many of the ideals of the cultural nationalists, socialists and republicans of the 1916 Easter Rising have not been achieved though the 26-county republic has become a modern nation with a secular constitution and a record of tolerance and inclusion toward its citizens. It is respected on the international stage, has a seat on the United Nations Security Council and is a progressive contributor to the European Union where Mairead McGuinness is commissioner for financial stability, financial services and capital markets. Yet this republic is no Utopia. It has much to do if it is to honour its international commitments on climate change. Policing, housing and health have been underfunded for decades fostering crime and inflicting homelessness and pain upon too many citizens.

Though the status of Northern Ireland remains an issue for many, the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 brought about a lasting peace and considerable progress. Despite many tensions between the five parties in government at Stormont, and between those with entrenched views in both nationalist and unionist communities, there is much greater tolerance and respect for opposing traditions than there has been for decades. Fairness is underpinned by effective legislation. A mechanism exists to hold a border poll, if it appears to be the wish of the majority in the six counties. Unionists plan to celebrate partition and the UK government has set aside £3m for the occasion. Nationalists have said there is nothing to celebrate but the vast majority will respect the right to demonstrate a British identity and a desire to remain a part of the UK. However both unionists and nationalists recognise that Northern Ireland is changing. Old wounds are healing and a new generation is entering politics. The constitutional issue is no longer the only one on the agenda.

The coming century is likely to be equally as dramatic though hopefully not as bloody. The UK’s decision to leave the European Union will dramatically reshape the relationship between Ireland and Britain in economic, social and political terms.

It was the late, great JK Galbraith who said that economic forecasting ‘made astrology respectable’ but there is certain to be an historic shift which will have a significant impact upon trade and employment. The Irish republic is sure to gain from its position as an English speaking nation inside the world’s largest single market and has already attracted financial services companies from their traditional home in London. Manufacturing is also likely to gain as global companies seek a low tax home where they can enjoy tax free trade with the EU. The biggest losers will be in traditional industries such as farming and food. Some 80% of the milk and beef produced on this fertile island finds a market in the big cities of Britain. Exporters now face the prospect of punishing taxes which will price them off the shelves at Tesco and Sainsbury’s. The fishing industry will also suffer as Britain demands the right to take the lion’s share of stocks from its coastal waters, despite the fact that the majority of its catch is sold to EU countries.

It is much more difficult to forecast the long term impact upon Northern Ireland because we do not yet know how the Northern Ireland Protocol will work in practice. This was agreed as a means of preventing a hard border on the island of Ireland, a border which would undermine the Good Friday Agreement. The Protocol leaves the six counties with one foot in the EU. Brussels will apply no taxes to manufactured goods from Northern Ireland. Arguably the north now has the best of both worlds with relatively free access to the UK and EU markets but this too comes at a cost. Millions of pounds of EU support has been lost including £100 million a year for the Department of the Economy.

The impact of Brexit will be most noticeable at Ireland’s busy ports. Belfast, Larne and Warrenpoint in the north form part of the hauliers ‘land bridge’ to Europe. A so-called customs border in the Irish Sea, to be monitored by the EU, will cause some problems for companies which rely upon swift passage between the two islands, particularly those in the fresh food business. The prawn sandwich sold by Marks & Spencer in Belfast is made in Scotland and can’t sit in a queue waiting for customs approval. Freight companies are already switching to the ports of Dublin, Rosslare and Cork where ferry operators have added extra capacity to connect Ireland directly with its EU partners.

Many unionists argue that a border in the Irish Sea undermines their status as British citizens. Nationalists are quick to point out that they are the authors of their own misfortune because they campaigned for the UK to leave the EU heedless of the damage it would do on this island. In political terms it hands more power to the Northern Ireland Assembly which can decide whether to retain or remove the Protocol. Only time will tell how this will play out.

Arguably the Irish revolution is still underway. If the UK remains a prosperous place after Brexit and if the Northern Ireland Protocol can be made to work for everyone, then the balancing act that is partition is likely to continue. But these are very big questions. Many respected economists believe the UK will suffer greatly outside the EU and this could trigger its destruction. The last 14 opinion polls in Scotland reveal a settled mood which favours independence.

English nationalism may yet get its wet dream of splendid isolation.

 

© Maurice Neill 2020