British politics needs to start planning for the day Northern Ireland ceases to exist

by Kevin Meagher

Nineteen years ago this week, Tony Blair, Mo Mowlam, Bertie Ahern the Irish Taoiseach and the various political parties were in the final stages of agreeing what became the Belfast Agreement, better known, given the day it was finalised, as the Good Friday Agreement.

It was a triumph for all involved and, whatever else his critics point to, Blair’s crowning achievement; a superb piece of leadership and political tradecraft.

It was a deal that ensured cross-community power-sharing and a devolved assembly.

The end of the British Army’s presence in Northern Ireland and the release of paramilitary prisoners.

Strengthened east-west links between the Irish and British governments and north-south bodies to create all-Ireland institutions.

It is a deal that has provided two decades of relative peace and normality and become a lodestar in the field of conflict resolution.

But the Good Friday Agreement settlement is now faltering.

The collapse of the power-sharing executive in January, (following Arlene Foster’s woeful handling of a £500m heating subsidy), Sinn Fein’s strengthened mandate in the subsequent assembly elections and the current difficulty with restoring the executive are testing its resilience as a model.

The broader truth is that the Good Friday Agreement was never meant to last. It was always a stop-gap solution. An interregnum. A transition space between the conflict of the Troubles and the advent, eventually, of a unified Irish state.

The agreement is underpinned by the principle of consent – that there can be no change to Northern Ireland’s constitutional status unless a majority so wishes it. Of course, flip that around and it means there will be a change when there is consent.

The net effect of which is that Northern Ireland will remain a contested territory. And one the British state shows less and less interest in maintaining, even though we are not so sanguine about our sovereignty in other instances.

Where Northern Ireland is quietly seen as a problem worth jettisoning, Scotland is regarded as an asset to the UK worth holding on to.

MPs were more than happy to make the trip north to campaign to keep Scotland in the Union during the 2014 referendum on independence. Ties of affection and the practical difficulties of divorcing the two principal parts of the UK were powerful motivators.

A few committed unionists aside, there will be no procession of MPs and party campaigners trudging the highways of North Antrim and the byways of South Armagh trying to keep Northern Ireland in the Union when the referendum on its constitutional future eventually comes.

There will be an audible sigh of relief that it’s gone.

In finding an accommodation between those who wish to see a united Ireland and those who want to remain part of the UK (constitutionalists and militants alike), the Good Friday Agreement effectively placed Northern Ireland in an antechamber.

The door to the Union closed behind it and opens out (eventually) onto a united Ireland.

It is dishonest to pretend this was not the intention all those years ago and, as the settlement begins to show its age, we need to start talking about Northern Ireland’s long term future.

We need to start by internalising the reality that it doesn’t really have one. It has, at best, a medium-term lifespan.

Within a decade (possibly sooner) the Catholic-Nationalist community will outnumber the Protestant-Unionist one. When that feeds through into the electorate, there will be demands for a referendum on Northern Ireland’s constitutional status and when that happens, it is gone.

Tellingly, the recent assembly elections saw overt unionist parties lose their majority for the first time.

So it’s high time this issue was on everyone’s radar, if for no other reason than for political and financial risk management.

After all, the short-term challenges Northern Ireland faces are dramatic and by the early 2020s, Brexit will have plunged it into financial and political chaos.

It currently benefits from around €600m of funding a year from the European Union. Even if Whitehall manages to wangle a transitional arrangement out of the Commission as part of the Brexit negotiations, it’s hard to see how that funding could possibly last beyond 2020.

Of course, if Britain goes down with a dose of the Brexit-related economic sniffles, Northern Ireland will be flat on its back with tuberculosis.

We know this because analysis from the assembly’s own committee for enterprise, trade and investment tells us as much. Its respected independent adviser, Dr. Leslie Budd from the Open University’s Business School, reckons Brexit could knock three per cent off Northern Ireland’s GDP. That’s tens of thousands of jobs.

Inward investment is another disaster waiting to happen. At her party conference last year, the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, accused Dublin of sending trade officials around the world ‘to talk down our economy, and to attempt to poach our investors.’

Does Foster not even understand the elementary rules of capitalism? Frankly, why would any investor choose post-Brexit Northern Ireland over the Irish Republic?

As its inward investment agency gleefully puts it on its homepage:

“Ireland is a committed member of the European Union and provides companies with guaranteed access to the European market.  Ireland is the only English speaking country in the Eurozone and provides an ideal hub for organisations seeking a European base.”

Northern Ireland’s private sector, already anaemic, will be reduced to the sandwich van outside the studio where they film Game of Thrones. (Until they stop making it next year).

And we’re still no clearer about whether we will see a hard border between Northern and southern Ireland, with ministers protesting they don’t want that to happen, but powerless at this stage to rule it out.

The reunification of the island of Ireland would counter all these disastrous effects, representing an evidence-based solution to the difficulties thrown up by Brexit.

So this is not a question of romantic Irish nationalists pining for the reunification of the island. It’s actually about pointing out to dewy-eyed unionists that Northern Ireland’s model is politically and economically stone-cold dead.

And that reunification is the rational alternative. The sensible and pragmatic argument. If for no other reason than the overwhelming economic benefits of a creating a single Irish state have been calculated at up to €38 billion over the first eight years.

But we can’t just wait for this inexorable sequence of events to unravel and land us with a massive political problem.

Neither is it fair to mislead the Protestant-Unionist community that we are more committed to maintaining the status quo than we are. (After all, it’s ‘Team GB’, not ‘Team GB&NI’).

The Good Friday Agreement was a masterly display of ‘creative ambiguity,’ with something for everyone to buy into. But it’s time for British politics to start coming clean: the clock is already ticking on the day Northern Ireland will cease to exist.

So we need to start discussing and planning for it.

Kevin Meagher is the author of ‘A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about,’ published by Biteback

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8 Responses to “British politics needs to start planning for the day Northern Ireland ceases to exist”

  1. John P Reid says:

    Are you really calling the UDA paramilitary prisoners, and the aiRA was half the time a drugs racket,and extortion ring that even Catholics didn’t get fair treatment from
    By the way, I have no time for the Sun, but the sun is launching a crowd funding for a private prosecution against those exempt from prosecution under the Good Friday agreement,for the Hyde park bombing what if the accused weren’t part of the U.K. Anymore and the private prosecution was scsessfull

  2. Tafia says:

    British politics needs to start planning for the day Northern Ireland ceases to exist

    Northern Ireland has always been in a position of sooner-or-later it will become part of the Republic. That has always been accepted in London – that as soon as they want out, then out they are going. It’s a headache we’ve been stuck with – not wanted.

    The UK needs to make absolutely no plans whatsoever – if it elects to join the Republic then it’s the Republic that needs to make plans. It is no longer London’s problem – it’s Dublin’s. Northern Ireland is the most devolved part of the UK – more devolved than even Scotland. It even has it’s own separate vehicle licensing system in Coleraine. It has it’s own tax offices etc etc – them leaving is no big deal administravely. (don’t over egg the pudding – it’s not as big as people assume – there’s a million more people living in Gtr Manchester than living in the north)

    BUT – and these are very big ‘buts’

    It will be by referendum in both the North AND more crucially, the Republic. Have you considered what would happen if Northern Ireland voted for reunification but the Republic didn’t? Or vice versa? How do you ‘sell’ a heavily state-reliant province as a good deal to an already bankrupt Republic that doesn’t want any more state debt?

    Northern Ireland has the highest percentage of public sector jobs of any region in the UK – some 28%. At least half of those aren’t public sector jobs in the Republic (which is an economically liberal very pro-free market economy) – so there will be a major privatisation and culling carried out should they unify. The Republic’s labour rights aren’t a patch on those currently enjoyed by northerners – who come under UK law. If you think UK unions are fairly weak these days you should see the ones in the Republic – where virtaully any form of industrial action nearly always has to be approved in Court, in advance.

    Northern Ireland has an NHS – the Republic does not except for the very very needy. They have a mutualised compulsory insurance-type system that isn’t cheap and you have to pay for visits to the GP or A&E. Would people in the North willingly vote to dismantle their free health care?

    Northern Ireland would as a region cease to exist and Belfast would have no more importance in Dublin’s eyes than Galway or Cork. The six counties would become precisely that – just six counties amongst 32.

    To get re-unification then in the north you would have to get the protestant middle class to vote for it whilst banking on the entire catholic population to vote for it. And that’s before you try to convince public sector workers it’s a good idea along with NHS users.

    It will happen one day but that day is still a long way off.

  3. Anne says:

    The saying goes that money talks and Brexit has added a different dimension into the NI issue. If NI feels that their economic future lies with the south – this is the way they will go. Westminster will not replace the subsidies that NI currently receive from The EU.
    I think you are also correct in that Westminster will work hard to keep Scotland but I just don’t see that same desire to keep NI.

  4. John Vinall says:

    I’m not sure that the reunification of NI with EIRE is as inevitable as you seem to think. I’d agree with Tafia that the people of NI would find it difficult to give up a significant number of their benefits in order to acquire an uncertain future.

    I wonder what the prospects are of NI becoming its own nation? After all, it’s big enough to compete, (just a little smaller than Slovenia and Latvia, bigger than Estonia, Cyprus and Malta), it would slot into the EU with no difficulty…

  5. the assumption here is that nationalism is an unstoppable force, which is now becoming true only because socialists do not stand up for internationalism. The Scots are also arguing the case for independence on the same basis, though all indications are that the SNP outflanking of New Labour on the basis of being a slightly more left wing party, social democrat in nature, goes against both a rational analysis of the scots economic reality and the subsidy Scotland gets from England to help keep the Scottish welfare state going.

    In a year when Marine Le Pen is making a realistic case for the French Presidency and a xenophobic right wing party is second in the opinion polls in the former Social Democratic paradise of Sweden, the Labour Party should be making the case for multi national states as the future. From its current position on Brexit, the opposite seems to be the case, destroying its position in Scotland where the race is becoming Tory versus SNP. Labour has never campaigned in Northern Ireland as it has calculated it could win in the mainland without MPs from the North. Its a short term calculation which is now coming apart at the seams, along with much else.

    There is no long term future in avoiding the national issue and allowing the BRexiteers to win, and not only because NI and Scotland both voted to stay within the EU.

    Trevor FIsher.

  6. John P Reid says:

    I agree with John Vinall

  7. John P Reid says:

    Trevor, So when The far left wanted northern ireland not to be part of the u.k, they weren’t socialists
    Also you’re saying if the welsh Nationalist party want Wales out the U.K., they’re not internationalists too?

    These various reasons why labour are third in Scotland, none are to do with Brexit, I wouldn’t even think that the million or so Scots who voted Brexit, have gone to the Tories due to labour having people like you who are remain,
    The libdems going up 1% in the polls since the election is more to do with ex labour people not like Jeremy, and there support is higher in England, so the libdems aren’t listing up remain votes above Hadrian wall

  8. In reply to John Reid, the far left has never had a united position. The COmmunist Party of Great Britain when it was around wanted the UK as it thought it could take over a unified British state. However it was opportunistic, backing the IRA at times but never having any interest in Scottish nationalism, though some of its cadres were prepared to do so. The Welsh position is not one I am concerned with, as it did not turn up at the Anti BRexit rally earlier this month in Manchester.

    But the SNP and Sinn Fein did and this was a reminder that Sinn Fein stands for both ‘Ourselves Alone’ – its founders were consistent, they did not care about anyone but the Irish – and gaelic language revivalists, language being a barrier to human communication. I do admire the consistency of the original Sinn Feiners like Arthur Griffiths, they were consistent and wanted to turn their backs on the rest of the world. Their current followers though posing as a kind of socialists are essentially Ireland First. Their real position is in league with Trump, whose America FIrst is consistent with being a nationalist.

    Nationalism is a divisive and reactionary, anti foreigner politics which regards the place you are born as deciding everything about you. I look forward to the day BRexit is kicked into the long grass and we do NOT take Back Control. If the current alignments hold and Scotland goes into the wilderness of independence, the Britexiteeers will have the consistency to take back the border with Scotland and rebuild Hadrians Wall.

    I am not joking. Any tendency that can threaten war over Gibraltar is at least consistent in being unable to understand the absurdity of its politics.

    It is now time to take that reactionary politics at face value. Nationalism solves no problems and adds to the ones we have- so put it in focus.

    Trevor Fisher,

    Trevor FIsher,

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