Following on from the landslide Conservative party electoral win and the inevitability of Brexit, this saying, that the half-crown is more powerful than the crown, may make a return to the forefront of Northern Irish politics. Historically, an argument supported by Unionists and some non-Nationalists for Northern Ireland remaining in the UK is the economic strength of the UK compared to the Republic of Ireland. The question must be asked post-Brexit if will this still be the case? Will NI’s nearest neighbour, the ROI, now be a more attractive partner than the UK?
Will NI now find itself in a situation where, because of the deal negotiated by Boris Johnson, it is closer to the ROI than it had been previously. NI will have a very different Brexit than the rest of the UK. The Brexit deal Boris Johnson has negotiated keeps Northern Ireland more economically aligned with the EU than with the UK.
This is most apparent with the customs checks that will occur as goods enter NI. These checks will happen regardless of whether goods are travelling to the ROI or NI. While on a day to day level most people won’t notice this difference, this is, in actuality, a significant change. To put it simply , in terms of trade NI will no longer be economically in sync with the rest of the UK. It will instead be an almost separate entity. There may be more visible ramifications of this change than this, on the face of it technical, change might suggest. Simple differences between NI and the rest of the UK will occur, trivial things that won’t be immediately apparent. From goods produced in Northern Ireland being labelled to match EU regulations, to the level of VAT being set to EU levels, because of Boris’ deal, NI will now be more economically linked to the ROI than it was before.
Where economics goes politics inevitably follows. Ulster is at cross-roads. It can embrace this newfound closeness, or it can resist change. The British government themselves seem to be endorsing this new closeness. Johnson’s Brexit deal calls the customs checks an “All-Island Regulatory zone”. The question must be asked if this closeness with the south is a good or bad thing. The simple answer is, it is indeed good.
From an economic point of view NI is already heavily dependent on the South. NI presently exports £3.2 billion worth a year to the ROI, meanwhile it imports £2.2 billion worth. Worryingly, from 2017 to 2018, NI saw a 20% decrease in trade with GB. This trend of dependence on trade with the ROI is especially pronounced with Northern Irish owned businesses. It is multinational business which conduct most of NI’s trade with GB. Ulster’s family firms, the small to medium businesses which are the lifeblood of the community, trade mostly within and between both parts of Ireland. Does it not make sense in the wake of Brexit for NI to cultivate and enhance its relationship with the ROI when the economy of NI so clearly benefits and is reliant on this relationship.
For the rest of the UK, Brexit is a gamble. No-one truly knows whether or not it will work out. There is a distinct possibility that it will be a failure. The operation Yellowhammer dossier leaked less than six months ago highlights how, among the political cognoscenti, there are real fears of economic decline in the wake of Brexit. If this is the case then Northern Ireland too will suffer. The Republic, meanwhile, appears to be a prosperous stable nation. Gross National Income statistics, which are a version of GDP figures but with multinational tax avoidance euros stripped out, indicate that the ROI is at least as prosperous as the UK. The ROI has had tremendous economic growth and stability since it decided to abandon its version of parish pump self-sufficiency, and embrace global markets in the early 1960s. There have been bumps along the road of course, but those who talk of the Irish property crash and bailout of 2008 often forget the UK’s bankruptcy and International Monetary Fund bailout of 1976. For NI to embrace a closer alignment with the ROI is simply an each way bet for the prosperity of NI.
The possibility of a border-less Ireland with economies totally interlinked is very real. NI has the opportunity to take part in the creation of a New Ireland. Not a united Ireland. Not a corporate takeover or merger of the north by the south, but a New Ireland, where the inhabitants of this Island can come together to create new institutions, new relationships and new dispensations.
Olcan McSparron is a 22-year-old final year History & Politics student studying at Queen's University Belfast. From North Belfast, he is interested in politics across the globe. Olcan has predominantly studied international political issues at QUB and is therefore keen to now write up opinions on local issues.