Interdependence is the antidote to Northern Irish politics
A policy of enhanced all-island relationships will build economic, cultural and political opportunity
The furthering of linkages between North and South through culture, environment and tourism can raise the levels of mutual dependence and assist in the avoidance of conflict. Photograph: iStock
Debate on the constitutional position of Northern Ireland is often presented as binary: the options given are the status quo or a Border poll, with the implication that the latter will, sooner or later, bring about Irish unity. But the facts on the ground suggest a third option, a kind of middle way, one that reflects the reality of lives as lived on the island rather than any abstract ideals or history: interdependence.
There is no evidence that we are close to the necessary conditions for a Border poll. Data shows that the majority in Northern Ireland wish to remain in the UK and the desire for Irish unification has grown, but not significantly, since 1998.
The reality of these people’s lives is increasing inter-community connection and augmented mutual dependence across the island of Ireland
The University of Liverpool Northern Ireland General Election Survey, conducted in January 2020, found that when asked what the most important issue was for respondents, a mere 5 per cent stated constitutional issues, compared with more than 80 per cent choosing education, health, jobs and the economy.
These are the very people who were dragged through a barbaric conflict and who listen daily to commentators and politicians arguing about constitutional and legacy issues, but never about jobs and investment. The reality of these people’s lives is increasing inter-community connection and augmented mutual dependence across the island of Ireland. But commentators and politicians rarely choose to speak to this reality, trapped as they are in the binary framework of the constitutional question.
These debates in Northern Ireland do not draw from the well of data and fact. This is an intellectual space which is increasingly infused by rhetorical devices and a refusal to deal with evidence in a manner that reflects caution and non-partisan positioning.
Nationalists typically present the 26 counties as Nirvana and the Wee 6 as a hapless place due to its links with perfidious Albion. Unionists respond that 15 per cent of southerners live in poverty, that rural Ireland has been abandoned, and like to remind us that two-thirds of the southern population do not have access to free healthcare.
One side guffaws about Brexit as an opportunity to drive the end of partition, even as businesspeople worry about their future and others their jobs; similarly, political unionism exercises a veto over language and equality rights in which the harm caused is worth the points scored. Such ethno-nationalist entrepreneurship has little to do with anything other than its own grandstanding.
Within political unionism we find a limited space that promotes and persuades for the union. And yet, across the aisle, there is no serious blueprint setting out what a united Ireland would be.
The policies and structures that truly produce seismic societal effects typically go neglected; few applaud or commemorate them
There is an alternative approach. The Whitaker Report in 1958 ditched economic nationalism, brought women into the labour market, led slowly to the erosion of the church-State relationship and drove the reform of Irish law and society that created the capacity to have a private life. Yet there is no memorial, parade or banners commemorating the report. The policies and structures that truly produce seismic societal effects typically go neglected; few applaud or commemorate them.
The structures of the Good Friday Agreement, the Northern Ireland Protocol and the new Shared Island unit of the Department of the Taoiseach are the points through which to build and sustain an interdependence that will not be bogged down by wearied conjecture and sectarian head-counting.
The protocol entails a policy of enhanced all-island relationships that will build economic, cultural and political opportunity. The protocol and its promotion of greater North-South co-operation, combined with Northern Ireland being within the EU customs code and UK customs territory, can frame critical all-island connectivity.
Northern Ireland’s unique trading arrangements will build the next generation of all-island economic activity. The work of the first post-conflict generation led to Belfast becoming the fifth-best mid-sized “European city of the future”, according to the annual ranking produced by the consultancy firm fDi. In the “economic potential” ranking, Belfast was ranked third, behind only Zurich and Edinburgh. Of course, investors know this and are building interdependence into emerging relationships, while certain commentators continue to present the place as a mere backwater.
The binary approach to this issue also relies on and propagates the skewed idea that there are two economies on the island, as defined by the Border. In fact, there are several – among them Dublin, Belfast, the southwest, and the “left behind”.
There is an immediate case for building an Atlantic corridor linking Derry and Limerick. The furthering of linkages between North and South through culture, environment and tourism can also raise the levels of mutual dependence and assist in the avoidance of conflict.
For those who are pro-union, greater North-South connection can render the Border so invisible that the desire for unification will abate. For those who are pro-unity, greater interdependence can re-establish connections cast asunder by partition. Interdependence is the antidote to the politics of immiserating dissonance that have crippled Northern Ireland for so long.