I’ve just had a surreal moment in the Centra at Donegal Square, Belfast, right opposite the City Hall. Blaring on the radio was The Police’s ‘Invisible Sun’. The Polish shop assistant was oblivious, but think about it: this is a song penned in 1981 by Sting about the Hunger Strikers, the conflict in the North and the nihilism of the Troubles. Those dark days are very far from the sunny Belfast I am strolling around today. While it’s no Dublin, the transformation is truly extraordinary. In the same way as Northerners, particularly unionists, should travel South more often to see that we don’t bite, we Southerners should also head North, to see what has been achieved here. It’s only two hours from Dublin and when you think of the carnage of the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and 1990s, the results of (an often difficult) peace are worth savouring.
I’m up in Belfast to take part in a panel discussion on the Brexit poll, which is in St Mary’s University on the Falls Road. For a variety of reasons, I’m more familiar with the other side of town, so a trip up the Falls should be interesting. Unfortunately, or maybe predictably, it appears that the Brexit debate has more or less split the North on religious lines again. True, the diminutive Ulster Unionist Party is grudgingly pro-Remain, but the main unionist political tribe, the DUP, is deep Brexit and the nationalists are flying the star-spangled EU banner.
It’s just the way it is up here. Things break down religiously. Billy says black, Seamie says white. Alison says bacon, Mairead says rashers. There are all sorts of little tells that give you away.
Sigmund Freud – a man who thought that psychology was wasted on the Irish – described this tribal search for bizarre, infinitesimal micro-distinctions as the “narcissism of small differences”. When the differences between two groups are so small to the untrained eye, those tiny ones that exist are elevated by either side as evidence of a profound distinction. When you come up North, the narcissism of small differences is flamboyantly on display. You see the same sort of thing in the Balkans.
In fact, speaking of the Balkans, doesn’t British Prime Minister David Cameron remind you of an Ottoman Pasha trying desperately to keep the warring factions together? He is the last of the Ottomans. In the end, the poor Ottomans couldn’t hold the warring tribes together, leading to what the British pejoratively described as “Balkanisation”. Interestingly, are we now we are seeing the Balkanisation of Britain?
In England, you have anti-European, pro-British, English nationalists ahead in the polls. In Scotland, you have anti-English, pro-European, Scottish nationalists firmly in power. In Wales, you have anti-English, kind of pro-European nationalists driving their own Brexit agenda. Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, you have the anti-each other, whatever you’re having yourself, British and Irish nationalists pulling in opposite directions. Is it any wonder that Pasha Cameron looks jaded? Who is going to hold it all together?
History tells us that one thing is clear: when you dilute the glue that bonds nations together, you do it at your peril. Consider what could happen to Northern Ireland in the coming years.
The DUP is campaigning for Brexit, but it should be careful what it wishes for because Brexit may loosen the UK so much that the DUP could be signing its own death warrant. Here is the possible scenario that could unfold if there’s a break-up of the UK.
The English lead the British out of Europe. The Scottish react by going to the polls again, wanting to stay in Europe. They have to leave the UK to stay in the EU, and by a small margin they vote to stay in Europe but leave the English. Not unfeasible.
The rump UK becomes an entity involving a Eurosceptic England, a modestly pro-European but compliant Wales and an ever-divided Northern Ireland. However, it is a Northern Ireland shorn of its fraternal brothers, the Scots, in a union with the ambivalent English. There has never been the same cultural affinity between the English and the Northern unionists.
The Shinners then go for a border poll, triggered by the Scots leaving the UK. At the moment, there is still a majority for NI to remain in the rump UK, but the focus of attention on NI prompts an ambivalent England to question this. If they can have a UK without the much more significant Scots, the English will ask why they should bother with these punters in Ireland, who they have less and less in common with?
Economically, the Union has been a disaster for all the people of NI.
If we go back to 1920, 80pc of the industrial output of the entire island of Ireland came from the three counties centred on Belfast. This was where all Irish industry was. It was industrial and innovative; northern entrepreneurs and inventors were at the forefront of industrial innovation. By 1911, Belfast was the biggest city in Ireland, with a population of close to 400,000, which was growing rapidly. It was by far the richest part of the island.
Fast-forward to now and the collapse of the once-dynamic Northern economy versus that of the Republic is shocking. Having been a fraction of the North’s at independence, the Republic’s industrial output is now 10 times greater than that of Northern Ireland. Exports from the Republic are €89bn while from the North, exports are a paltry €6bn. This obviously reflects the presence of multinationals, but it also underscores just how far ahead the Republic’s industrial base is.
The total size of the Republic’s economy is now four times that of the North, even though the labour force is not even two and a half times bigger. In terms of income per head, the Republic is now almost twice as rich per person as the North. The average income per head in the Republic is €39,873, while it languishes at €23,700 up North. The differing fortunes of North and South can be easily seen in the fact that, having been smaller than Belfast at the time of partition, the population of the greater Dublin area is now almost three times bigger than the greater Belfast metropolitan region.
Even the perennial deficit which funds NI, the £7bn annual subvention, is no more than 5pc of Irish GDP and would obviously would be smaller if both economies were conjoined.
Maybe the DUP’s best long-term strategy is an alliance with middle-ground, I’m-all-right-Jack Southerners who wouldn’t contemplate union with Northern nationalists. Conor Cruise O’Brien once said the last great battle of unionism would be with the English, not the Irish. Could it also be the case that the last great battle of Northern nationalists will not be with England, but with Ireland? Interesting times lie ahead.