Brexit makes the Nortern Ireland crisis harder to solve. That should make us worried.

Major catastrophes often arise out the disproportionately small. The First World War arose from a conflict between a second-rate power and a third-rate power over a tiny Balkan province. Some time before Britain’s referendum last year, I and some friends were speculating on the impact of a Brexit vote. I suggested that the it would be so far-reaching that some unforeseen complication might derail the whole process. Somebody suggested that the unforeseen complication was quite likely to come from Northern Ireland. I worry that she may have been right. It is not that I see Brexit being derailed, but I do sense that most people will deeply regret it. And I hope I am wrong.

What put me in mind of this was a bit of long overdue catch-up TV viewing, last week,  of a programme broadcast way back in 2014: The Long Shadow. This was by Cambridge Historian David Reynolds, and it dealt with the legacy of the First World War on subsequent history. In this programme (the last of a series of three) he dealt with the unbottling of nationalism, and the attempt to create states based on a dominant nationality. By 1918 it was accepted that multi-national states, like the Austria-Hungary were doomed to failure, and, indeed, were undemocratic empires.  Austria Hungary was carved up into supposedly coherent nation-states, as was the Ottoman Empire, and much of the Russian empire. But this had dire consequences. The nationalities that the people of Europe identified with (primarily based on language) did not fit into neat boundaries; minorities were everywhere. At first the small states, like Czechoslovakia tried to impose their own nationality on the minorities within their borders, by force if necessary. And then the Germans tried to impose their own idea of nationalism on the whole continent. Perhaps 40 million people were killed.

The European Union was created as a reaction to this. The feeling amongst its founders was that the idea of a nation-state was fundamentally flawed, and that states should be set within a transnational framework that fostered beneficial cooperation. The dilution of national sovereignty was not seen as a regrettable cost, but as the whole point of the exercise. For all its flaws, that remains the founding principle of the EU.

But it is not understood by the English, who have underestimated the European project at every turn. Before the First World War the United Kingdom, the state that the English dominated, was under stress. A highly controversial Home Rule proposition was in progress in Ireland, and the British government was consumed by the growing probability of a civil war there, as the Irish organised themselves into armed camps. So much so that ministers barely notice the emerging crisis in central Europe that was to bring the house down. Home Rule was also proposed for Scotland, and many Welsh were pushing for the disestablishment of the Church. The war seemed to heal these rifts in a common cause, as the nationalities fought side by side. And in Britain that is how things worked out; a Welsh nationalist (David Lloyd-George) became Prime Minister and talk of Scottish Home rule vanished. But in Ireland matters played out in a similar way to the rest of Europe. A civil war broke out, first as Irish nationalists fought for independence, and then within the new Irish Free State. And in Ulster, the Unionists set about imposing their will on the Catholic minority, much as the Czechs had done to the Sudeten Germans. 50 years later this blew up into the Ulster Troubles, in which thousands more were killed. This was brought to an end in the Good Friday Agreement in 1997, in part by using EU institutions to fudge the question of nationality.

The English never understood what was happening in Ireland, which so often upset their plans and their self-image as a democratic, peaceful nation. They just wanted it all to go away. To them the virtues of a nation-state were self-evident. The English had forged their own nation in the Middle Ages as a fusion between the French Normans and the Germanic Anglo-Saxons. The incorporation of Cornish, Welsh and then Scots into the national structure did not pose a serious challenge to their view of nationhood. The English assumed that these nations were assimilating happily enough into a new fusion: the British nation. The EU was looked on as a transaction of convenience, and when it trampled on British sovereign institutions, it rankled. And a so a majority of the English rejected membership.

But by then there was already trouble with this complacent outlook. The Scots increasingly resented how their own sense of nationhood was trampled on by the English. Devolution did not change English attitudes, which was the root cause of the trouble (though the English still think it is about obstreperous Scots). The SNP rose to power and only narrowly lost an independence referendum in 2014. That referendum only enabled the SNP to consolidate its power, as the Labour Party collapsed. The Scots were always more sympathetic to the transnational idea of the EU, and did not see the sovereignty of the British parliament as a sacred gift from God, or the pinacle of democracy, as English conservatives did. No doubt continued membership of the EU was one of the things that persuaded many Scots to vote for the union – and they strongly supported membership in the referendum.

Actually Brexit does not improve the transactional case for Scots independence. It implies separation from critical markets in England without the EU safety net, and at least a transitional period in a distinctly parlous situation. But there’s trouble. The genie of English nationalism is out of the bottle, and it has taken over the Conservative government, whose political future seems assured. This is an us-against-them world view, one of whose dominant concepts is “bargaining position”. Relations with the rest of the EU are seen through this lens; and so is that between the UK and Scottish governments. The English attitude to the Scots is “lump it, you have no choice”; the British government, which contains virtually no Scots MPs, makes no concessions to Scots sensibilities. Even further devolution to the Scots government is probably seen as a way of forcing it to take ownership of austerity. This complacency is not unlike that formerly shown by EU Remainers on membership of the EU.

But at least nobody is killing each other. The worrying thing about Northern Ireland is just how little the politics has moved on since the killing ended. The Unionist First Minister Arlene Foster’s attitude to criticism over some rather dodgy financial goings on is to distract attention by upping the ante on sectarianism; her cohorts are happy to let her do it. The Ulster Protestant working classes are as entrenched in their anti-Catholic attitudes as ever, and this is putting pressure on the Irish Republicans to follow suit. Now the Northern Irish government has fallen – and attitudes are polarising.

The crisis in the province is not about Brexit. But Brexit is making it a much harder problem to solve. Irish Catholics are finding themselves in a country less tolerant of multiple identities, where community relations are seen in terms of bargaining position and multiculturalism is a dirty word. Could a return to violence improve that bargaining position? Meanwhile, most English people would probably welcome a reunification of Ireland as a solution to the many border issues thrown up by Brexit. That could easily push Protestant Loyalists to violence. It’s a combustible mix.

And what makes me gloomy is that I see no political leader in Westminster or Belfast with the vision, stature and charisma to move the nations of the United Kingdom onto a more constructive path. Especially when that constructive path almost certainly requires that the United Kingdom to remain a member of the European Union. But I hope I’m wrong.

9 thoughts on “Brexit makes the Nortern Ireland crisis harder to solve. That should make us worried.”

  1. “…. Perhaps 40 million people were killed.
    The European Union was created as a reaction to this…”

    That’s the official line. We needed the EU to stop France and Germany from regularly warring with each other. But what about Russia? They’ve been involved in wars too and a large proportion of that 40 million were Russian, or Soviet, casualties. Yet there has never been any suggestion that the way to prevent wars between Germany and Russia is to bring them gradually into the EU. Europe isn’t the EU. It reaches right up to the Ural mountains.

    Japan and China were part of WW2 also. So the way to prevent future wars is for them to share a common currency? Has anyone ever suggested that?

    Was it the EU that was created as a reaction? Or was it the old Common Market or EC or EEC? There’s a big difference. The EU is a stepping stone to the creation of a new super large nation state. The kind of nation state of which you seem to disapprove. And I would argue that its problems are largely due to it not being one, but it being more than just a free trade zone.

    The concept of the nation state isn’t perfect. But other continents seem to have a better historical record than Europe. Separate nation states don’t have to be at each others throats the whole time. Yes, free trade agreements are sensible. But sharing of currencies, as is being currently attempted by the EU, isn’t at all sensible.

    1. Whether the EU was right in its approach, and whether the single currency was a step too far is an open question – but I don’t think we can doubt its intention. It is as much about preventing conflict within states as between them- which is why your point about Russia is a red herring. The idea amongst its founding idealists was to create a multinational state – a more successful version of the Habsburg empire. The prevailing model of the nation-state remains one where there is a single dominant nationality amongst minorities who must accept this. Whether or not a multinational state is possible, I think the dominant-nation model is still flawed.

      And I think that shows pretty much everywhere in the world. The more successful single nation cultures are ones based on immigration and the destruction of the natives – USA, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, etc. Other than these India is another valiant attempt at a multinational state. China is in the process of a more or less explicit policy of Han domination. Russia has leveled Grozny to the ground, and so it goes on. Meanwhile Europe remains an almost unique combination of high living standards and relative equality (Canada, Australia and New Zealand are rivals, but in much simpler contexts). And how you can assert “other continents seem to have a better historical record than Europe” beats me.

  2. Yes you are right. The dominant nation model is flawed. But what’s better? Extermination of the minorities is rather more difficult than it used to be. Not really an option. So how to keep them on board?

    The situation in Scotland in the 1950’s was that Nationalists scored less than 1% of the vote in Westminster elections. So there is no long standing tradition of separateness north of the border. The reason for Scottish disaffection stems from poor economic policies which has led to too much imbalance. Too much concentration of wealth towards the SE of England. There’s now a northern England disaffection too. I’m not sure just what that will lead to. But the cause is the same. Neoliberal economic policies. The loss of Ireland in the WW1 period and the 20’s was a somewhat different matter. I’d put that down to the mind-boggling stupidity of the British ruling class at the time. Many of whom would have been Scottish!

    On the question of historical record. Europe is where nearly all major wars have originated. France and Germany, supposedly two most civilised European countries, regularly have invaded each other. The UK has usually been sucked in too. Whereas Argentina and Brazil, for all their faults, seem happy to mainly restrict their rivalry to the football field. There was just the relatively minor Cisplatine War in the 1820’s.

    1. I think there is a real problem with the nation state. The problems with Ireland and Scotland may have been made terminal by incompetence from the British government (that’s certainly the conventional wisdom about Ireland in 1916) – but the gulf between the centre and the periphery makes such blunders almost inevitable. I think the British military policy in Ireland was quite popular in England, and British politicians who might have known better weren’t trying very hard. A further problem is the government killing off constitutional checks and balances to consolidate power – as has happened in Russia and Turkey. The EU is an attempt to restrain such problems, though whether it is up to the job is another matter. But I think that is one reason why the EU remains popular as an institution, even in places like Hungary where there is a lot of conflict between the government and the EU. In Britain we have some reason to be more confident in our institutions.

      On Europe and war I was thinking of the continent’s record post 1945. Not a spotless record, of course – there was Yugoslavia and the Ukraine war is ongoing, and before that Hungary 1956 and Czechoslovakia 1968, and NI and the Basques. Still the period 1914-1945 was terrible, I have to admit. But other continents have their troubles too. The war between Japan and China, and the wider Pacific war, was terrible enough. I suspect low population density has a lot to do with the relative lack of international wars in south America, though internal wars remain a blot (Argentina’s dirty war for example; Brazil’s military regime was pretty awful too – and a lot of horrible things went on in central America). North America’s record since the US Civil war is pretty good, it does have to be admitted – though the Americans used their armed forces to kill people in pretty much every other continent other than Antarctica.

  3. “The Ulster Protestant working classes are as entrenched in their anti-Catholic attitudes as ever”

    I’m not sure if this is really true. But let’s leave that pessimism to one side at the moment.

    If you live in London, or to a lesser extent, Manchester or Birmingham, you’ll be probably working alongside people who aren’t from those parts. They’ll have moved there for the job. But, if you live in Derry or Belfast, there’s much greater chance of you not having a job to begin with. But if you do have a job the chances are that nearly everyone of your co-workers will be from that locality. Hardly anyone voluntarily moves from the mainland to Northern Ireland. The usual pattern is for able young people to move in the opposite direction.

    Even in the 60’s when there was full employment in the UK the situation in NI was dire. There were areas in the Bogside where it was considered normal for unemployment to be a permanent rather than a temporary situation. The only remedy was to emigrate. This naturally created a breeding ground for resentment and sectarianism.

    NI is of course part of the UK currency union. A key responsibility of the government of any currency union is to use its fiscal powers to equalise the economy so that its not overheating in one area creating high inflation, and running so cool in another that such depressed conditions exist. There no real cost. Govt can spend what it like in depressed areas without causing high inflation.

    It’s never going to be possible to use economics to completely remove the contentiousness of where any a particular national boundary is drawn. There’s either a divide between the six counties in NI and the rest of Ireland or there isn’t. There’s no compromise possible on that.

    But it is possible to create the economic conditions that will enable most people to come to terms with the border. If they have a job, and if they see their children can find jobs they’ll go along with it. They’ll have better things to do than march with the paramilitaries. People will move to Northern Ireland to live. It’s a beautiful place. Who wouldn’t want to live there if there were the right economic opportunities? New people will bring new attitudes.

    It would be good if the EU could be part of the solution. It could make the border less relevant. But, when it comes to promting policies of fiscal equalisation they are far far worse than even the very worst of Westminster governments.

    1. Interesting point. It has been very much part of the Washington Consensus that economic prosperity is the key to sorting out problems of nationalism. But I thought the British government had poured money into NI over the years? Certainly the public sector has been a very big employer. As you know I think a lot of economic problems go much deeper than the management of aggregate demand, and that’s been a big problem in NI. There is a big cultural dimension to the NI working classes which reinforces economic exclusion – there is a sort of vicious circle going on. I wonder how much they do not want to participate in the wider economy because it means mixing with Catholics? They certainly don’t want their children mixing in schools.

  4. ” I thought the British government had poured money into NI over the years?”

    Your use of the word “poured” suggests that you don’t really approve of the necessary process of fiscal equalisation that needs to occur in any currency union.

    If government spends new money in a depressed area, on infrastructure , health, education or whatever, it will invigorate the local economy. That new spent money will end up either being saved, by whoever chooses to hang on to it, will be spent and respent. If none of it is saved then all the new money will end up back with the taxman and the government’s deficit will end up no different to what it was previously.

    But that could still be true even if the government was overdoing it. They could be spending so much that wages and house prices etc would be soaring. There’d be a large surge in the population. So the neoliberal way of looking at it isn’t the right way to look at it. We can still have a deficit if Govt spending is too low and a surplus if it is too high. (Relative to the level of set taxation.)

    So has the government overdone it in Northern Ireland? Are wages, house prices etc too high there? Are the dole queues way too short?

    1. My phrasing reflects a puritan streak which dislikes the spending of money for its own sake, rather than direct achievement. I don’t seriously think that the British government should not have done it. My point is that this fiscal transfer has not been particularly successful – though the province would have been much worse off without it. The Irish Republic has achieved better growth rates over time with a much more conservative fiscal policy – though the noughties boom and bust remains a black mark there. Successful currency unions don’t always mean massive central government transfers. The Swiss federal government is tiny; India’s federal government is also quite weak; and even in China most of the fiscal action is by the provincial and local governments. The US federal government is also quite small by European standards, if you exclude military spending, which is not a particularly flexible method of fiscal transfer. I think that devolution of political power is a critical ingredient – though this has run into trouble in NI too.

  5. “My phrasing reflects a puritan streak which dislikes the spending of money for its own sake, rather than direct achievement.”

    Yes of course it does! That’s the problem for nearly all politicians and government economists too. They are looking at Government spending and income by taxation revenue in the same way as their own personal spending and income. It’s household economics.

    From the Government’s POV the spending isn’t a question of ‘let’s not spend so much now so we’ll have a bit more to spend in the future’ as it is for you and I. It is, or should be, let’s not spend so much now because the economy is already at full capacity and we might cause too much inflation. Or, its let’s spend a bit more now so we don’t have workers wasting their time doing nothing and businesses going out of business for lack of orders.

    So you need to also consider that the Puritans didn’t like idleness!

    Of course it’s not just a question of keeping the economy running at full capacity. It can be at full capacity making things that aren’t really needed. Like having too much of the available capacity devoted to military production, for example. So, I agree with a previous comment of yours that it’s not just about having sufficient aggregate demand. It has to be the right type of aggregate demand. We’re never all going to agree on just what that might be, though!

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