Saturday, March 06, 2010

Prospects for Irish unity

By Theo Russell

THE RECENT conference on Irish Unity in London was an opportunity for over 500 activists, trade unionists, academics and political representatives to take a timely in-depth look at the prospects for ending partition after 89 years.

One of the major changes during the last generation is the economic balance in Ireland. Many in Britain will be surprised to discover that even after the current recession, average (median) weekly earnings in the Irish Republic were equivalent to £532, far outstripping Northern Ireland at £357, and even Britain itself at £397.

As Michael Burke of the Socialist Economic Bulletin pointed out, this is an astonishing change since partition in 1921, when per capita output and income were a fraction of those in the North. Since then, Northern Ireland has fallen behind mainland Britain, while the Irish Republic’s economic growth has raced ahead of both Britain and Northern Ireland.

In 1921 the Republic was almost totally dependent on the British export market, accounting for 98 per cent of its foreign trade. The fact that exporting live cattle accounted for over 95 per cent of southern Ireland’s economy sums up precisely the brutal colonial relationship with Britain.

Today Northern Ireland’s economy is dwarfed by that of the South. Last year the Irish Republic’s exports were €87 billion,,with only 14 per cent going to Britain. In contrast, the North’s “external sales” were a mere £12.5 billion, with over half going to the British mainland. If this is deducted the North’s actual overseas exports were less than £6 billion.

Unlike the Irish Republic, the North is not integrated into the global economy, and is becoming even less so. Hence it is increasingly dependent on Britain, whose own economy has declined relatively on in global terms.

As Burke points out, the boom in the South was not produced by far-sighted economic policies – as he says, “there have been none” – but by foreign multinationals “taking advantage of a well-educated workforce located in a prime conduit for trade between the two major blocs of the US and EU”.

As we have seen recently this means that the Republic is at the mercy of global economic forces, with the government’s purchase of tens of billions of bad loans resulting in a huge transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich.

Both Burke and Patricia McKeown, Northern Ireland secretary of Unison and a representative of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, spoke of the enormous economic problems and inequality facing working people in both parts of Ireland.

Northern Ireland has the highest number of “economically inactive” adults in the UK, and half the workforce is on or below the minimum wage. Unemployment in the North has risen faster than the rest of Britain during the recession, while the public sector, its largest employer, has been cut back.

McKeown said many large foreign investors, including Visteon, had taken millions in government subsidies before moving out. “Invest Northern Ireland,” she said, “has spent £16 billion, with virtually no actual jobs to show for it”.

She said the question for working class people in both parts of Ireland is “will ending partition bring a better life,” adding that “the Good Friday Agreement should not be vehicle for implementing neo-liberal economic policies”.

McKeown described the Northern Ireland Executive’s options as “severely restricted”, with government funding reduced since 1998. In effect, she said, “all they can do is agree how this will be divided”.

Income inequality in both North and South, as in Britain, is greater than in the rest of the EU. As Guardian journalist Seamus Milne puts it: “Any process leading to unity would clearly require far-reaching social and economic reform on both sides of the border.”

The Good Friday Agreement

The conference also assessed the progress and unfinished work of the Good Friday Agreement, with Sinn Féin MP Conor Murphy pointing out: ”Britain still has 5,000 troops and a significant MI5 presence in Ireland, and while the British government declares its neutrality in relations with Northern Ireland, in reality it favours the unionist community.”

“The Good Friday Agreement is a settlement, and clearly is not a resolution of the Irish issue”, he said.

Gerry Adams MP outlined the positive benefits since 1998, in particular the South’s multi-million Euro investment in upgrading Derry airport and new road infrastructure in the North.

And as Sinn Féin MLA Mitchel McLaughlin reminded delegates: “The British government, which is not trusted or respected by any constituency in Ireland, has been the common denominator that has subjugated and divided the people of Ireland for generations”.

“The future,” he said, “lies with nationalists and unionists agreeing on their relationships to and with each other in peaceful co-existence on this island without the British government setting the terms.”

Jayne Fisher, Sinn Féin office worker in London, looked at the growing North-South cooperation in many areas, with a significant increase in trade between the two.

She also assessed the changing communal balance in the North, with those declaring themselves Catholic growing from 35 per cent in 1961 to over 40 per cent in 2001, and those declaring themselves Protestant declining from over 62 per cent to 46 per cent. This has been paralleled by a steady rise in nationalist votes and a steady fall in Unionist votes.

This is significant because the Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum on the border issue. If a majority in the North votes to remove the border, the British and Irish governments are obligated under the agreement to implement re-unification.

But it is clear that ending partition is far more complex than merely holding a referendum, with many other factors involved. If the Conservatives do eventually return to power in London, the Good Friday Agreement itself could be seriously undermined.

Fisher also pointed out that while Sinn Féin has successfully avoided any significant splits in its republican and nationalist base, there has been growing division and instability within Unionism.

The DUP’s power-sharing deal with Sinn Féin led to the break-away of the “ultra-rejectionist” Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), splitting the Unionist camp three ways in the 2009 European election and taking 13 per cent of votes.

The Unionists’ troubles are in turn creating headaches for the British Conservative Party. It has “rediscovered” its Unionist roots and renewed the old tie with the UUP, but has been bogged down by Unionist in-fighting while succeeding in alienating the Nationalist community.

But Fisher pointed to one major and welcome change to the political landscape: “It is clear that there can be no return to the old way of ruling, with unionist dominance and veto.”

This conference provided a detailed and valuable stock-taking of the enormous changes that have taken place in Ireland since partition, especially in the past 30 years. While the Irish Republic has left its economic dependence on Britain far behind, Unionism on the other hand appears to be a spent force.

In spite of all the obstacles, the prospects for ending partition are now better than at any time since the dark days of 1921. At the same time, both North and South are still grappling with the terrible legacy of Britain’s colonial domination – the political and communal divisions and the futile duplication of services and infrastructure.

Reunification would provide a huge boost to overcoming these problems and advancing Ireland’s political, economic and cultural life. And the sooner that day comes, the better!

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