Category Archives: Articles

Bold statements, bald facts

 

 

 

 

According to Brian Feeney: “Reality is that a century of partition has left the north much poorer than the south.” (£)

No one can deny Brian Feeney loves a sweeping statement: “Irish unity will be beneficial to all on the island” – everyone’s a winner  – he says, based supposedly on a report by Paul Gosling and Pat McArt. This may be the same as the report reviewed earlier on This Union, as the claims are as strange as ever. Or it could be from A New Union: A New Society – Ireland 2050 which does credit Pat McArt and appears on Gosling’s website in June, using the earlier report for economic points.

In fact, that The economic impact of an all-island economy published earlier this year assumed unity would be accompanied by quite a major reduction in public sector jobs and spending in Northern Ireland – despite the significant impact that could be expected on the NI economy from this cut, there was no accompanying indication on how the private sector might be able to compensate as local spending power diminishes, significantly. Besides…

Two major fallacies are repeated in Feeney’s article.

First, the relative economic decline of Ulster after the 1920s cannot be attributed to Partition. Exports from Northern Ireland to Southern Ireland were always relatively low so the impact of any loss of a market there was a small factor. Northern Ireland does have a longstanding competitiveness problem, but the creation of a border isn’t either cause or consequence.

Second, somewhat undermining Feeney’s stated assumptions about the strength of a post-unity Irish economy, he repeats the presumption that a subsidy from Whitehall should continue after unity.

Some may find it comforting to assume, as Feeney does, that Westminster caused an investment deficit in NI. The facts are otherwise:

  • for decades public spending per head had been above the UK average.
  • Westminster or Whitehall cannot be blamed that so much money had to be spent on combatting terrorism.
  • NI spending per head on health has exceeded, consistently, the rest of the UK.

Finally:

  • Northern Ireland had a devolved Government during 2007-17. Surely it bears some responsibility for spending decisions?

Brian Feeney’s bold sweeping statements are a bit bald on facts.

 

 

Dr Esmond Birnie – Economist

‘Burn everything British, but their coal’

 

 

 

 

 

Of all the nationalist oppositions to Brexit, in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland or Scotland, perhaps also the trans-nationalist EU, Sinn Fein’s opposition is perhaps the most cynical.

Legacy. The Past in the Future.

 

 

 

 

 

A seminar held on Saturday 3 March in Belfast examined the coming legacy legislation that will govern Northern Ireland’s approach to the past. In an Editorial, the Belfast News Letter described it as “a rare event” principally because those attending and speaking gave scrutiny of legacy structures has was not overwhelmingly positive to the 2014 Stormont House proposals. The important point made as to what might follow this initiative was made:

“These vital voices have not received anything like the coverage they deserve on legacy, as aggressive pro-republican factions make the most noise. But London seems determined to implement Stormont House, so critics will have to engage fully with the consultation process.” 

A huge challenge lies ahead. As part of that process This Union hopes to be able to publish a number of the papers that were presented to the Seminar, or articles from the speakers based on what was said on the day. These are not uniform, and contain a range of views. No-one at the Seminar expected absolute unanimity. This was a place to explore and share thoughts on the issue.

Brexit summary, before the next round….

 

 

 

 

 

Policy Exchange’s Chief Economic Adviser Dr Graham Gudgin gave evidence to the House of Lords EU Select Committee on UK-Irish relations after Brexit. Dr Gudgin argued that electronic solutions should be prioritised for the border and argued that securing a free trade agreement with the EU must be a priority.

This is an extract of his presentation; a better version is on the Parliament live site (the embed output quality isn’t great):

The full hearing of evidence can be found at Parliamentlive.TV

The written submission to the EU Committee is below:

Something less than worthwhile

 

 

 

 

 

 

Human Rights Consortium: Rights at Risk: brexit, human rights and Northern Ireland; Belfast, January 2018

It would be an injustice to write an extensive critique to the 132 pages of puffery and hype funded by the ROI’s department of Foreign Affairs and Trade – funding assigned to ‘reconciliation’, apparently.

So the following number of points amounts to a summaries to why this document deserves little of the reader’s attention:

Our Island Histories?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Consider the following quotations:

“I happen to belong to a minority who hold that the breakup of the United Kingdom may be imminent”.

“It [Northern Ireland] pays a heavy fine every day for keeping its distance from a prospering Republic. In the long run, its destiny can only lie in a united Ireland, perhaps as an autonomous Province”.

From Norman Davies’s book, The Isles: A History, p. 881 and p. 882.

One thing I did during the tail end of the Christmas and New Year Holidays was re-read a book that was first published in 1999; Norman Davies 2000, The Isles: A History, Papermac (all my page references relate to that edition).

Davies is a one time History Professor at London University and a Fellow of Wolfson College Oxford. His various works on the history of Poland are, rightly, very highly regarded.

Even 19 years on from its publication this book is still worth considering. This is partly because it may be the pre-eminent representative of a group of books which appeared in the 1990s which cast doubt as to whether the UK will long endure. This is one reason why those who want the UK of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to continue should read this book- as Andrew Robert’s review said of the book:

“This is a dangerous book, written at a dangerous time”.

(It is not the only reason for reading Davies – if you are familiar with his recent books – Europe: A History (1996), Rising’44 The Battle for Warsaw (2003), Vanished Kingdoms (2010) – you’ll know he has a particular way of presenting and doing history.)

About the book: What was Davies trying to do?

To write a history of these isles (Davies objects to the use of the term “British Isles”) which is genuinely all encompassing: not one which is really a history of England but under another name.

He used the following periodization:

  • From the end of the Ice Ages to about AD43: the “original” inhabitants plus some later Celtic tribes (he writes it is an open question just how many Celts did arrive- p. 41).
  • About AD43 to 410: the Roman Empire, though in the long run any lasting Latin influence was limited.
  • About 410 to 800: the “Germanico-Celtic isles” when the contest between the Romano-British and the Anglo-Saxons initially hung in the balance but eventually the former were pushed back into Cornwall, Wales, Cumbria and Strathclyde.
  • About 800 to 1154: “Isles of the West”, a period of increasing inter-dependence with Scandinavia- first through the Vikings and then the Normans.
  • About 1154 to 1326: England and parts of Wales and parts of Ireland were part of a dynastic conglomerate which also included much of what would become modern France.
  • 1326 to 1603: An English nation-state began to develop- incorporating Wales and parts of Ireland (though not Scotland).
  • 1603 to 1707: The three kingdoms- England & Wales, Ireland and Scotland- were united but only in the form of a personal union of crowns.
  • 1707-about 1922: “Imperial Isles”- after the 1707 England-Scotland Union, a British state developed in parallel with the British Empire.
  • About 1922 to present: “Post-Imperial Isles”- not just a retreat from Empire but, argues Davies, a time when most of the props of Britishness suffered substantial and rapid decay.

There is a challenge in all of this for pro-union people

Many of us will have had the irritating experience of encountering people who use the term England to refer to (Great) Britain or the UK. One of Davies’s achievements is show how this way of thinking is extremely common and deep-rooted.

We should be realistic and accept that historically the two Acts of Union, 1707 and 1800, were often regarded in England not so much as the creation of a partnership and more about England continuing on pretty much as before though with some “Celtic” appendages. That said, regardless, of the how the modern UK came into being, there is still the argument that in practice it did largely work and still works for the mutual benefit of its component parts. That is something Davies’s book never really considers.

Mistakes in the book

This book includes 1,040 pages of text and appendices. Some typos and debatable points are to be expected but it is necessary to point out that there are quite a few mistakes/very questionable statements about Ulster/Irish history. My reason for listing these is not pedantry but because they may evidence a failure to understand, or perhaps try to read more widely about, unionists in Northern Ireland:

  • p519, the Duke of Bromberg (Schomberg, presumably).
  • p609, representatives of the Ulster Free Presbyterian Church were found in nineteenth century Glasgow (a confusion of the older Scottish Free Presbyterian Church with the one founded sixty years later by the Rev. Ian Paisley).
  • p664-5, p803, and elsewhere, he strongly implies that the pound sterling was about to collapse into the Euro (the pound has remained outside the Eurozone and there is now almost no support for joining the Euro).
  • p759, a British Army armoured car drove onto the pitch at Croke Park and machine gunned the crowd during one incident of the Anglo-Irish War (14 Irish civilians did die in Croke Park but the armoured car did not drive in; except as shown in the Hollywood film Michael Collins).
  • p770, the Northern Ireland protestant community is divided between Anglicans and Free Presbyterians (the Free Presbyterian church has always been one of the smallest denominations).
  • p772, the “non-sectarian” SDLP (it may claim to be, though it doesn’t manage to live up to that pretension).
  • p773, at the time Davies was finishing his book devolution in Northern Ireland was being delayed largely because of unionist failures to the implement the 1998 Agreement (there is almost no recognition of the importance of the IRA’s failure to decommission).
  • p880 nearly 60% of British trade was with the EU (in 1999 55% of exports went to the rest of the EU, declining to 44% by 2015).
  • p882, “the glory” of Patrick Pearse was in his, “…preaching of religious tolerance” (there have been some analyses of Pearse’s reduction of (Catholic) Christianity to the “blood sacrifice” and such analyses have certainly not highlighted his tolerance).

Davies rightly provides lavish detail on some of the smaller or forgotten “cultures” of the Isles – Welsh or Irish speaking, lowland Scots (Lallans), the Manx and Cornish – but one culture is largely invisible, the pro-British community in Ulster, or those who live, “…in the retarded time capsule of Protestant Ulster” (p769). Davies writes from a particular perspective and is too ready to repeat ‘accepted’ belittlement of Unionism as fact; facts that too readily fit a singular political narrative.

Conclusion

To be fair to Davies, as an historian he does put his head on the block by being willing to make “predictions”.  His history of Europe in 1996 was specific – the collapse of the UK could well happen before 2007. In this book he described the break-up of the UK as “imminent”.

There is an irony in all of this. Davies’s histories of eastern Europe have in effect championed the cause for Poland as against the historical expansionism of Russia (whether Soviet or Tsarist). However, when it comes to his own islands, Davies relapses into the sort of historical inevitability which so disfigured the thinking of Hegel and Marx – and seems an inherent touchstone of nationalism of whatever hue across our islands.

Today, of course, a reader of The Isles in 2018 does have the benefit of knowing what happened between 1999 and 2017. That a clear majority of Scots voted for the Union in 2014 and that a majority of the UK voted for Brexit in 2016.

Davies’s response might well be that the patient is still in poor health – the body politic could be felled by a heart attack at any time.

There isn’t much evidence for that.

Even so, for sure, those of us who wish to promote the case for the United Kingdom have our work cut out.

 

Dr Esmond Birnie – Economist

 

On Human Rights

 

 

 

 

 

 

Over the holidays the Irish Times carried a review of Omar Grech’s book on Human Rights and the Northern Ireland Conflict by Brice Dickson, first Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, who notes:

“Grech reminds his readers that during the Troubles, human-rights abuses were committed not just by the State but predominantly by unlawful paramilitary groups, especially the IRA. Most human-rights NGOs came relatively late to this realisation and even today some activists and politicians are reluctant to describe, say, the “punishment” shooting or beating of alleged juvenile delinquents as human-rights abuses.”

“Human rights are entitlements we claim not just because various international treaties require states to protect those rights. Their protection is the fundamental rationale for criminal justice systems worldwide and for civilised interaction between individuals within every society.”

Five principled points for Unionism

 

 

 

 

Sometimes we need to address the future by referencing some fundamentals.

In an article coinciding with the centenary of the Ulster Covenant, and reflecting on its place in the historical self-understanding of Unionists, Jane McGaughey observed that while it is remembered, primacy of The Covenant in the unionist ‘collective memory’ is dubious. Interestingly, McGaughey thought that this was due to its:

‘lack of stated adherence to Reformation Era Protestant principles of anti-Catholicism and literal biblical interpretation.’

That may seem a curious argument in our secular age. Her conclusion was unambiguous:

‘Sir Edward Carson once said that he would keep his covenant until his death; he was right. Since his death in 1935, the centrality of the Ulster Covenant to the unionist imagination has faded dramatically, replaced by images of battlefield heroics, religious fundamentalism, paramilitary warfare and the promise of peace. The Ulster Covenant now lies with Carson in St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast. His tomb is its ossuary’.

That was five years ago. Evidence is that is hasn’t been quite that forgotten. Though it would be true to say that the British Covenant (1914) largely mirroring the earlier Ulster Covenant, and signed by two million people, is rarely referenced.

The DUP prioritised The Union. Unionists do that.

 

 

 

 

 

The whole point of the DUP is to safeguard Northern Ireland’s position within the UK. As unionists, they believe in the nation state and see the UK as the rock on which our prosperity, security and identity is built.

It is unsurprising that these views have lead them into a strongly pro-Brexit stance, though even then there is a pragmatism to their politics that is sometimes missed. The government would have known what the DUP’s red lines were before the latest round of talks hit the buffers.

The Irish government denies the charge that it asked that Monday’s Brexit paper be kept from the DUP, but the reality is that the DUP had received only an emollient verbal briefing and had been asking for days to see a paper. It was passed to them only as Theresa May was going to lunch in Brussels; the frantic phone calls that followed stopped the deal in its tracks.

The issue of the Irish border is important, but not as challenging as the Irish government has made it.

That was the deal that wasn’t.

 

 

 

 

 

What might have been the economic impact on Northern Ireland if the Prime Minister had in fact accepted the deal which was proposed by Brussels on the morning of Monday 4 December? Here are some key points:

  1. In order to ensure regulations continued to be aligned between Northern Ireland and the EU notwithstanding any changes in the rest of the UK, this deal implied a substantial increase in the extent of devolution to Northern Ireland.

That begs several questions. Even if we assume devolution can be restored, would it be sensible to give Stormont extra powers when we’ve seen just how erratic the progress of devolved government has been in its almost 20 years 1999-2017?

  1. If regulatory harmony between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (plus the other 26 EU members) is obtained at the price of opening up a regulatory gap between Northern Ireland and Great Britain that will imply a very large economic cost.