Uniting Irelands

Notes from the Western Periphery

John Bradley

People talk these days about prospects for a united Ireland. Such debates are healthy, provided they run their course peacefully. In this centenary year of the establishment of our State, there are aspects of the path that led to independence that have relevance for the future of the island.
Back in 2016 Declan Kiberd and PJ Matthews launched their ‘Handbook of the Irish Revival: An Anthology of Irish Cultural and Political Writings 1891-1922’. It is a collection of contemporary writings dealing with the opportunities and challenges of independence. I was privileged to be at this event and it got me thinking.
The period 1891 to 1922 produced not only a remarkable crop of writers but also a range of innovative political thinkers and activists. The handbook collects for the first time many essays, articles and letters by renowned figures such as Joyce, Yeats, Shaw, O’Casey, and Synge, among others. The material deals with cultural, social and political issues, and presents the aspirations of those involved in the late-19th-century Irish Revival movement, covering literature, religion, drama, education, women’s rights and the 1916 Rising.
The anthology plots the progress toward independence and is compelling and impressive. However, it forced me to realise how little preparation had been made for the economic governance of the wished-for state.
With the exception of Michael Davitt and James Connolly (not included in the handbook), who articulated socialist-leaning programmes, the leaders of thought and action during the pre-independence period were not much interested in business or economics.
Few in the independence leadership cared about economic, business and regional realities and how they should address these in their independent state. Perhaps the experience of rural and urban  poverty focused the minds of those two exceptional thinkers on the world of work?
Shortly after I joined the ESRI in 1982, I found a pile of old publications from the Central Statistics Office that was about to be discarded. The cover of a 1949 copy of the Statistical Bulletin caught my attention and encapsulated the romanticised and unrealistic view of the Irish economy that Eamon de Valera found so reassuring. An idealised prosperous merchant with his idealised wife. A spinning wheel to signify industry. A sailing clipper for commerce. A church in an idealised rural landscape.
Consequences flowed from this neglect of the economic side of the emerging State. In his book on ‘The Modernisation of Irish Society: 1848-1918’, Professor Joe Lee posed a damning question:
“Why did Ireland, outside the Lagan Valley, fail to create her own Bostons and Birminghams? Why did the population of Belfast increase from 100,000 to 400,000 between 1850 and 1914, while that of Dublin only managed to creep up from 250,000 to 300,000?”
Irish people did create Bostons and Birminghams, but not in Ireland! Professor Lee makes a compelling case for internal societal failures rather than the more widely asserted British orchestrated external restraints on Irish welfare and development. The dysfunctionality of the island economy today is partially a legacy of the lack of deep, thoughtful analysis of the economic governance of an independent Ireland.
Three economic strategies dominated post-independence Ireland, a small partitioned state that, for a long time, would have to survive in the shadow of the former colonial power. Governments of 1922-32 simply continued to run the economy of the Irish Free State as a region of the UK. Governments of 1932-66 retreated behind high tariff barriers. Links with the rest of the world were minimised, except of course for the scourge of emigration.
Ireland industrialised during this period, but it never modernised. Governments after 1966 relied on foreign multinational enterprises to revive and eventually to dominate the economy, using low taxes on their profits and an educated labour force as the main incentives.
Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland a long period of deindustrialisation ensued after WWI that saw the previous industrial success gradually melt away. Civil unrest after 1968 and the implosion of what remained of its manufacturing base further exacerbated difficulties. The North drifted into a state of chronic dependence on financial support from London.
In 2012, when Professor Michael Best and I embarked on research into the cross-border economy, we expected to find that businesses would be obsessed with ‘border’ problems. What we found was dramatically different. Competent firms traded and cooperated pragmatically across the border in what was – until last January – an undisputed part of the Single European Market. The ‘partitionist’ mind set was more often to be found among policy makers in Belfast and Dublin, both in government and in state development agencies.
The good news is that an ‘island’ economy of sorts emerged in the post-Good Friday era in the absence of coherent island policy frameworks through pragmatic actions by business people of all communities.
However, the outcome could have been so much better. In this centenary year, all political parties on the island need to acknowledge and build on that reality and wake up to the great potential that it offers.