(Image of: Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin by Giuseppe Milo)
Back in April of this year, Joe Biden paid a presidential visit to Ireland that coincided with the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. There have been other presidential visits to the Emerald Isle but Biden’s was a little unusual. It was less a state occasion and more an informal trip to the home of his forefathers and mothers. His stay began in Belfast, in the North of Ireland, where he spent a mere 18 hours (and for half of those he was asleep in bed). He couldn’t hide his delight in getting across the border and into the South of Ireland where his first stop was Carlingford, his paternal ancestral home, followed by a visit to Dublin, and finally onto to home of his mother’s folk in Ballina, County Mayo (that’s not mayonnaise for short). There was a deeply personal moment when he had an unplanned encounter with the priest who gave his late son Beau his last rites. But there was also some humour. Joe couldn’t come to Ireland and not treat us to at least one of his classic gaffs. He confused the All-Blacks rugby team with the Black-and-Tans (a nickname given to the brutal British militia sent to Ireland to suppress rebels in the early 1920s and whose improvised uniforms were a mix of dark green tunics which looked black and khaki British army trousers). Biden spoke of a distant cousin who played in an Irish rugby team that once defeated the All-Blacks, stating that “he was a hell of a rugby player; he beat the hell out of the Black and Tans.” Nice one, Joe!
While there was no scarcity of cheering crowds to meet Biden at each of his Southern destinations, the town of Ballina outdid them all. The throngs who descended upon the town queued for hours and endured strict security checks just to get close to where guest of honour was going to speak. Those interviewed for TV were simply beside themselves with joy; they gushed with glee at how this was the greatest day of their lives and expressed great pride that the President of the USA (who “just loves being Irish” apparently) was one of their own. It was painful to behold. The town itself, which even has a mural of Biden, was decked out like Philadelphia on the Fourth of July. There were some Irish people with the good sense to see Biden for what he represents and who staged anti-imperialist, anti-war and pro-Palestinian protests but they were kept well out of sight.
What the Biden visit demonstrates more than anything is that Ireland, particularly the South of Ireland, is nothing more than a lapdog, happy to serve masters of its own making like the US, the EU and England too (though to a lesser extent these days). Being Irish myself, I explain this as a hangover from colonialism where we seem to still need somebody to rule us. This colonised mindset has prevented us from developing a more mature national psyche. Instead of being strong and courageous against injustice, instead of joining forces with other oppressed nations (in any meaningful way), we have instead become the grovelling poster child for neo-liberalism and Western dominance.
Ireland’s actions over the last century seem to support this claim. For example, the Southern government has practically given away the country’s fossil fuel assets. In the 1970s, the government issued petroleum-prospecting licences to speculators at a cost of £610. Compare this with the British who were selling off equivalent-sized areas for exploration for £1m and above. The concessions the Irish were giving were so unusual that they were referred to as amazing and exceptional. Then in 1989, the government reduced the state’s share in its offshore oil and gas interests to zero, and abolished royalties thus ensuring the country would never benefit from any resources found. Leaving aside the ecological disaster that fossil fuels are and the fact that they should stay in the ground, the issue at point is why any country would want to discard its resources. There was nothing to stop them setting up a sovereign wealth fund like in Norway to ensure the revenue from the fossil fuel resources benefited the country. Or they could’ve placed a windfall tax on fossil fuels to fund public services or grow a publicly-owned renewable energy sector.
The South of Ireland also has a policy of military neutrality and yet it allows the US military to use Shannon airport as a base, including for rendition-linked flights. Ireland is infamous for light-touch tax regulations and incentives that enable corporations to use and abuse the country and avoid paying taxes in their own counties. This, it would be claimed, is the reason for the South’s economic success in leading up to and following the Great Recession of 2008. Talking of 2008, Ireland accepted without a whimper the punitive, austerity-imposing economic adjustment programme from the EU, a bailout that cost the state its fiscal sovereignty. Whether this was the right or wrong thing to do, the fact is, obedient little Ireland rolled over and said yes.
I could go on but you get the idea. The South is a country with very little self-esteem.
Maybe it’s all you can expect from a country that endured 800 years of English colonisation. After centuries of rebellions and risings against this ruthless oppressor, the Easter rising of 1916 became a catalyst for an ensuing war (involving the aforementioned Black-and-Tans) that soon after brought about the creation of a new Irish state, the Republic of Ireland (aka the South). But that Republic was only made up of 26 of the 32 counties in Ireland and the remaining 6 counties in the northern part of the country remained under British rule and became Northern Ireland (aka the North). Thus, the country was partitioned and remains so to this day.
The aspirations of the rebels back in the early 20th century were impressive. They wanted a socialist republic and had drafted a Democratic Programme. A brief but bold vision, it declared that there should be public ownership of the means of production, of natural resources and of wealth; that the country should be ruled in accordance with the principles of liberty, equality and justice; that the state should provide for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of children and for their education, should provide for the welfare of the older members of society, and should provide for the health of the population in general; that industry should be developed along progressive co-operative lines; that foreign trade should be mutually advantageous; and that cooperation should be sought with other countries to develop an international standard for lasting improvement in the conditions under which the working classes live and labour.
The Irish republic of that emerged after Partition could not have been further from the Republic envisaged in the Democratic Programme and economically, both the Northern and Southern states embraced capitalism, and later neo-liberalism, with open arms. In the years that came after partial independence, the South focused on the mammoth task of establishing itself as a sovereign state; it became ultra-conservative and dominated by the Catholic Church, aided and abetted by political rulers; that regime was nearly as oppressive as colonial rule had been. The North was equally socially conservative and oppressive, in this case ruled on behalf of the British by Protestant elites who had no intention of sharing power or even basic civil rights with the Catholic population. Over time, those across the island grew accustomed to Partition, resigned to it even, and as decades passed, those who wanted the full independence of Ireland and removal of the British presence from the island (i.e. Irish republicans) dwindled in numbers. The conflict in the North that ended with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 was a war against the British but it took anti-Catholic discrimination to trigger it, not anger at Partition. Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, there’s been no genuine or credible attempt to bring about unification of the country. At best there’s been rhetoric but more often than not, the idea of unification has been treated with various shades of apathy, derision and hostility.
However, in the last number of years, the Irish unity debate has been rekindled. It is now, for the first time, being taken seriously at all levels of Irish civic society and not just by marginalised groups. This has happened not as a result of any drive from within Ireland but as a consequence of Brexit. The irony is painful, not just because it’s British interference in Irish affairs again but because we didn’t seem to have it within ourselves to make it happen.
Regardless of how it has come about, the unity debate presents Ireland with a rare opportunity that few countries get: the chance for a national do-over that fits better with the aspirations of the long-forgotten Democratic Programme. The question is: will Ireland finally grow a spine and become the nation state those last-century visionaries fought and died for?
The early signs are not encouraging.
The primary vehicle that has been established to take the unity debate forward is known as Ireland’s Future. A civic organisation, their aim is to prepare for a referendum on Irish unity but learning from the mistakes of the Brexit referendum. That at least is wise. But that might be where its wisdom begins and ends.
The Board is a motley crew comprising of an entrepreneur, a PR professional, a singer, a human rights/constitutional solicitor, an historian, a journalist, and an academic. The organisation has also organised events and published reports. Those invited to contribute to these events and reports have included politicians, business people / corporations, celebrities, neoliberal economists, mainstream journalists, trade unionists, ethnic minority representatives, academics, spiritual representatives, sports people, musicians, and community workers. The events and reports have overwhelmingly placed an emphasis on national identity, sovereignty, citizenship, the constitution, the Good Friday Agreement, the need to establish a Citizens’ Assembly, the impact/relevance of Brexit, and the institutions of governance/democracy. None of this should be a surprise. It’s a debate on unity, after all.
But Ireland’s Future should do more than grapple with this narrow set of issues. It cannot be serious about creating a new sovereign state without taking a deep dive into the problems facing our modern world. Moreover, it has a duty to take into account all the institutions that are necessary for the functioning of a healthy society, for example, the institutions of kinship, of community, of culture, of the economy. It has a duty too to consider the responsibility that this new state would have in tackling the biggest threat to human life on earth outside of nuclear annihilation: the ecological crisis.
For the most part, these vitals are missing from their work thus far. Citizens’ rights, education, housing, culture and heritage are fleetingly referred to, and if there’s any acknowledgement of the rising anti-immigrant attitudes towards communities of migrants and asylum seekers, I didn’t see it.
They do have a report dedicated to health but it presents, without resistance, the Southern healthcare system as the model of choice, playing down the NHS in the North, which for all its faults is a free universal health system. While it’s true that the Southern healthcare system is of a high quality, it is also a two-tier system with only about 37% of the population entitled to a (means-tested) medical card granting them free healthcare. Everyone else pay fees, albeit subsidised, and about 40% of the population has private insurance, the highest percentage in Europe. Health insurance can cost an annual average of €1,925 per person with charges placed on prescriptions and visits to the doctor and Accident and Emergency. Just to note, the NHS has come under heavy media criticism since the Covid pandemic and this has only bolstered opponents of free healthcare who want to see the NHS privatised. But it’s not the NHS model that is the problem, it’s repeated Tory budget cuts, and a socially-responsible media should condemn the cuts instead of the NHS.
Ireland’s Future does give the economy a little attention though from what’s on display to-date, there’s no sense that the United Ireland they envisage will stray far from capitalism or from neo-liberal policies. They clearly favour the Southern economic model. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is deemed instrumental to the increased wealth in Irish society since Partition and is lauded as a success. Economic growth as essential and GDP is the single measure of economic success. Corporation tax should be harmonised across the island. Take that as code for lowering the 25% corporation tax rate in the North to match the notoriously low 12.5% rate in the South (a rate that is a major component of the successful Southern economy).
A superficial comparison is made between the economies North and South. The reason for the decline in the North’s economy since Partition is blamed on the conflict and on the economic constraints created by Partition, i.e. the lack of fiscal powers and control from Westminster. While these are certainly factors, globalisation was also a major factor and that is not mentioned. They have high praise for the economic model of the South and they point out that the South had the second fastest growing economy in world after the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. In reality, the extraordinary growth in the Southern economy, often called the Celtic Tiger, had started at least three years before 1998 and multiple compounding factors were responsible for that growth. Of course, the Celtic Tiger was an unsustainable bubble that fell on its sorry, non-resilient ass once the 2008 crisis struck. Ireland’s Future fails to highlight this because many of the Celtic Tiger policies, including FDI and low corporation tax, remain at the forefront of the Southern economy.
Some of the Ireland’s Future reports remark upon the need to restructure health, education, infrastructure, and business development on an all-island basis using a programme similar to the German reunification programme, a programme which, by the way, was a master class in disaster capitalism that practically asset-stripped East Germany.
In one report, there’s a small reference to the ecology from an author who writes about the need to address the ecological crisis on an all-Ireland basis. He states that we have to radically change our economic system to tackle this crisis and criticises the Celtic Tiger for creating much of the wealth and environmental inequalities in Ireland. It’s notable that the only mention of a rethink on the economy or the need for an alternative to neo-liberalism is practically hidden away in a report about the environment rather than having a presence in the materials that focus on the economy. Given the urgency in dealing with the ecological crisis, Ireland’s Future seems out of touch with the reality of modern Ireland and the world.
Overall, Ireland’s Future offersan expected but still disappointing approach that is reductionist in most of its analysis. Their proposals assume that the neoliberal South is on the right track. They accept neoliberalism without debate or doubt, and accept too that there is no better alternative to capitalism. In fact, it’s worse than that. Ireland’s Future is so firmly wedded to capitalism it doesn’t even entertain the notion of the need for an alternative.
Ireland’s Future seems so certain of the validity of the Southern approach that they have
conveniently overlooked major problems in southern Irish society today. For instance, consistent child poverty sits at 5% of children and 13% of children are at risk of poverty, while 14% of the general population is at risk of poverty. Rates of pay in the South are higher compared to the North and many other European countries but so is the cost of living; the cost of essential goods and services in the South is 40% higher than the EU average, and the South is officially the most expensive country in the EU. The South also ranks 32 out of 34 among OECD members for income inequality before taxes and transfers, and after taxes and transfers it ranks 15 out of 34, making it one of the worst for income inequality in the EU. Wealth inequality in the country is also high: the wealthiest 10% own about 40% of the country’s wealth. In spite of these inequalities, the country’s GDP shows the Southern economy as a very healthy one. Ireland had the second-highest GDP in the EU in 2022 and per capita, the South is considered one of the wealthiest countries in the world and the most affluent in Europe, second only to Luxemburg. This shows the great danger of using GDP as a measure of economic health. The South also has an enormous housing crisis caused by increases in house prices and rents over the last decade. There is an inadequate supply of affordable housing and house prices are now seven times the median income. In 2021, Dublin ranked as the 6th most expensive capital city in the world to rent in and 90% of earners find average rent unaffordable. This crisis can be attributed to government policy on housing which gives free rein to private companies that seek to maximise profit rather than to provide homes.
Sadly, little of what Ireland’s Future has put on the table inspires much confidence that a 32-county Ireland would be a more equitable, democratic, participatory or environmentally sustainable place than the two divided states that exist now. The voices of grassroots activists with progressive ideas have been largely excluded from the debate, at least this far. Those voices are small. They’re not part of the great-and-the-good of Irish society. They have little in the way of resources although they still manage to make progress and achieve successes through tireless, diligent work. They go unnoticed by the powers that be and are even at times impeded by those powers.
Ireland’s Future may not hear these voices but one thing is for certain, it is they who hold the seeds for what a new 32-county Ireland must become if we are to emerge from the climate crisis and eliminate the crippling social and economic injustices of our day. It is they who can seize this unprecedented opportunity and transition Ireland into a nation fit for a better world beyond capitalism.
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