Speaking for the island

Notes from the Western Periphery

Sir George Quigley (1930–2013), former chairman of Ulster Bank.

John Bradley

The election of Edwin Poots as leader of the DUP reminds us that the emergence of more trusting North–South relationships from the permafrost of fear, indifference and hostility is unfinished business. Unionists remain deeply suspicious of any Southern involvement in their affairs. Nationalists resent their past abandonment to repression in a state where their rights were not respected.
I can date precisely when North-South challenges first entered into my professional life and became an integral part of my work as an economist.
In late 1989, the then Chairman of AIB, Peter Sutherland, asked me to address the members of his board during a weekend retreat. I noticed – to my surprise – that many members of the AIB board were from the North. I apologised for not being able to say anything about the economy of Northern Ireland.
There was nobody in the ESRI (at that time) working on Northern Ireland, on cross-border questions, or collaborating with Northern researchers. While Britain was firmly on the ESRI research radar screen, Northern Ireland was not.

In the following years, as I devoted more of my time to North-South issues, I learned the hard way that, absent the natural emergence of common business and economic interests, efforts to explore deeper into the past, present, and possible future interrelationships of both regions generated friction and opposition.
Examination of the possible synergies arising from enhanced cross-border economic activities ran the risk of being regarded as unwelcome interference. At worst, they were seen as threatening, striking at the heart of valued, but separate, regional identities.
Unlike my previous experience in international research within Europe (involving collaboration across the countries of the then 12-member European Community), North-South research was not accepted by both sides to be co-operative and ‘neutral’. The Irish ‘troubles’ were an example of regional conflicts that have become ever more common, in Europe and elsewhere, as small states, regions and communities seek to retain or gain a degree of autonomy and self-expression in a world that they consider increasingly dominated by external hostile forces.
By the early 1990s, the significance of the border was gradually changing and the possibility of future opportunities was attracting attention. However, the potential for mutual benefits of North-South cooperation in the context of an island economy was not universally accepted before the Single European Market was established.
For any state embroiled in conflict, the crucial time for reflection on future possibilities is not after peace has arrived. Rather, it is during the final stages of the conflict, when a clear identification of the possibilities about to be opened up by peace is essential to inspire and drive the practical bargaining that must be endured before the conflict and its horrific memories can fade.
This was when I first met Sir George Quigley, then Chairman of Ulster Bank. He dramatically articulated the galvanising concept of the ‘island economy’, presenting a radical challenge to deeply entrenched attitudes. Few who came into contact with Sir George could escape the powerful logic of his argument that this unsatisfactory situation must change.
Powerful contribution
In an extraordinary series of papers, talks and bridge-building activities, Sir George set out island-related topics that needed to be examined. These included building competitive advantage of enterprises on the island; the benefits of North-South trade; the quest for specific sectors of enterprise that could build island-wide synergies; the desirability of North-South alliances and mergers; creating island-wide public services; and ways of learning and benefiting from European regional development.
What made him so persuasive? He never over simplified things. He spelled out the deep background, in national, European and world terms. Whenever he spoke, he expected you to pay attention and to keep up! However, he made this easier by the engaging attractiveness of his language, and using his often mischievous sense of humour.
In a lecture in 1992, wishing to draw attention to the pervasive unwillingness to engage in constructive, open self-criticism, he told of the wife of the cannon of Worcester Cathedral who asked her husband: “Are we really descended from the apes?” The cannon replied: “My dear, we will hope it is not true, but let us pray that, if it is, it may not become generally known.”
Sir George’s was a quiet, powerful contribution toward solving one of the most important strategic challenges facing our island: namely, learning to live together in peace, harmony and prosperity. It was informed by his love of history, literature, religion and philosophy as well as by his engagement and deep knowledge of business and economics.
Tragically, his was often a lonely voice and his vision was not widely understood by Unionists. His criticisms, intended to guide rather that chastise, still speak to us today:
“No community can expect to reach its full potential as an economic player – or even be taken seriously – unless it exhibits political and community stability. The world does not expect us to solve all the problems before it takes us seriously. It just expects us to show surefootedness in negotiating the slippery terrain and to demonstrate that, as a community, we have reasonable problem-solving skills and competence.”

John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.