The First to Leave

While English politicians and media work themselves up with two more months of lather over Brexit, Scottish politicians and media are in a similar spiraling clinch over looming Scottish Parliament elections. Given the relatively isolated nature of the snug Tory shires driving the former and the combined inevitability and timidity of the SNP manifesto, the likely outcome to either is boring: no change.

So, er, where’s the news? Whatever scare stories of Transylvanians and terrorists storming the white cliffs by the zillion or of a second indy referendum being triggered by Brexit persist, the smart money is on the UK establishment realising even a flawed EU is better than the back of Obama’s trade deal queue. It is equally on Nicola’s troops storming to a third term of dominating every aspect of Scottish political life from FMQs, to all Holyrood committees, to micromanaging councils, to being one voice for Scotland in the Mother of all Parliaments.

But one story—likely to occur sooner than either of the above—is a departure of a country from the United Kingdom. This story is wholly unreported, partly because the seething mayhem that was once Northern Ireland and dominated front pages and news taglines for decades slipped into the un-newsworthy oblivion of Cricklewood or Crossmyloof or any other sleepy corner of the country.

And everyone involved seem to have sighed massive relief and were happy with that.

But almost a century on, the awkward imperial ego-fudge that split Ireland in 1922 still looks as cack-handed as an elastoplast applied to treat a  brain hemorrhage. Eire has, despite hot-head elements, long taken a philosophical view on re-unification. That has allowed a peace process and the awkward fact that there are four-and-a-half countries on these islands, run as two sovereign states has been rather glossed over.

FIFA recognises Northern Ireland right to a team; the formidable Irish presence in the Six Nations quietly ignores the border. Irish citizens have special access to the UK; Eire turns a blind eye to motorists nipping into Monaghan or Louth for a cheaper fill-up; cartons of duty-free cigarettes slip quietly into Fermanagh by back roads. Despite the Troubles and the fierce debate about immigrants stuck at Calais, this is Britain’s own little Schengen.

And so this cack-handed fix might endure indefinitely, were the world to stay unchanged. But events, dear boy, are conspiring to propel this backwater back into the news. Ulster unionists have a long history of fierce loyalty to the UK since Scottish Protestants were forcibly planted there in the 1680’s in an attempt to dilute recalcitrant Catholics at the height of religious wars and dynastic turbulence under the Stuarts. It was to placate them that the undignified ‘land grab’ of the six counties was made in 1922.

Ulster prospered from its industrialisation and remaining part of the Empire. Its 1.5m Protestants consistently outvoted its 1m Catholics and sent an unwavering phalanx of unionist MPs to Westminster. But the last two censuses have set demographic alarm bells ringing. It’s true that a significant chunk of Polish Catholics have moved in but they are still under 1% of the population.

But those identified as Catholic increased from 40% to 41% of the population while those as Protestant dropped from 46% to 42% in just the ten years to 2011. Even more telling for the future is the age profile, shown in this table,


Age Profile by Religion in Northern Ireland

Age Profile by Religion in Northern Ireland

Those aged under 40 show a significant majority of Catholics, as well as a growth in those identifying as having no religion. As and of itself, this is not a reason to change a peaceful status quo that took much effort and hardship to establish. Under the 1998 Belfast Agreement, unification can only happen through the consent principle, that is by a majority of people in the North voting for unity, as well as a majority in the Republic.

“Parties such as Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are flexing their republican credentials; the SDLP also will assert their united Ireland aspirations.”  —Irish Times, 7th Nov 2015

However, the Irish Times is still skeptical of any such move soon. A survey of more than 2,000 people found 13% of Northern Irish favoured unity, with the figure at 36% in the South. Fifty years ago when Harland & Wolff was still building ships for the Empire and Eire was a relatively poor rural nation, there was little incentive. And, it could be argued, the ‘peace dividend’ has brought on the stagnant economy of the North while Eire is still recovering from last decade’s bank crash and property bubble.

But that is to ignore the huge advances that EU membership, EU investment and the Euro itself brought to Eire. Between 1970 and 2005 GDP per capita quadrupled from £7,465 to £30,924. Though it slid in recent years, it is now back up at £28,950. Despite the North’s economy growing at 1.4% (twice the UK’s) it still compares poorly with a £15,200 GDP per capita and with Eire’s lively 3.4% growth.

So, leaving aside the long and troubled colonial history and the rights and wrongs of the 1922 partition, not only is the demographic tide running towards re-unification but the economic argument—once an obvious hindrance—is now pulling strongly in the same direction. The fact that 54% of its trade is with the EU and another 33% with Eire means that Northern Ireland is even more discomfited by the Brexiters than Scotland and, like the Scots, will find itself increasingly at odds with the Little-Englanders who have taken over the Tory party.

In fact, hard-headed industrialist Belfast, teamed with the internet service and EU-foothold businesses of Dublin could be a duo with lessons for the Scots Edinburgh/Glasgow axis to learn from. Add in their idyllic rural West,  corresponding to our Highlands and the Scots and Irish could clean up on North American tourism because of the massive disaporas and high favourable profiles we both share there.

And maybe an all-Ireland soccer team would start to bust heads and lift trophies the way their rugby compatriots already do so well.

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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