When members of the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army took up arms and proclaimed an Irish republic on Easter Monday 1916, they sought, first and foremost, an independent nation based on the political equality of all its citizens. But they also believed that independence would put an end to the economic dismemberment that British rule had visited on the country to such devastating effect over the previous centuries.
Following the closure of the Irish parliament and the country’s forced incorporation into the UK in 1801, Britain imposed a vicious form of ‘free trade’ designed to strangle Ireland’s nascent manufacturing industry lest it come to rival that of the English mainland. Ireland was doomed by successive Acts of Parliament to remain an agricultural adjunct to British industry, growing wheat to feed the laboring masses in Liverpool, Manchester and London, whilst its own, increasingly pauperized, population lived on a precarious diet of potatoes.
The Great Famine of 1849-52 was the result: despite a blight of the potato crop on which the vast majority of Irish survived, Irish wheat continued to flow to England, and the liberal government closed down the soup kitchens in accordance with the inhuman doctrine of laissez-faire and ‘self-help’. By the time the famine ended, the population had been reduced by a quarter, with one million starved to death and a further million fled to America. Freed from the depredations of British rule, the rebels believed, Ireland would undoubtedly be able to lift herself out of such debilitating levels of poverty and suffering.
Indeed, even the industrial development that did later occur was strictly limited to the protestant-dominated counties in Ireland’s Northeast. And although Belfast had, by the dawn of the twentieth century, become a hub of the UK shipbuilding industry, the sectarian policy of both employers and unions ensured that it was only protestants (the descendants of British colonial settlers) who were employed there, and never the indigenous (Catholic) population – a fact seemingly whitewashed out of modern British accounts. As one republican told me when I visited the City recently, “although the Titanic was built just down the road, as far as we were concerned, it might as well have been built on Mars”.
Despite briefly taking control of the Irish capital, the Easter rebels were soon overwhelmed by British troops and after six days, the uprising was over. Despite surrendering, sixteen of the rebellion’s leaders were then executed by the British, including one – James Connolly – who had to be strapped to a chair in front of the firing squad due to his injuries.
Despite the suppression of the rising, a mere six years later independence was achieved. But it was not the unified republic for which the rebels had fought. Following the Irish war of independence of 1918-1921, Britain finally negotiated a partial withdrawal; but it made sure it clung on to the wealthiest, and only industrialised, region: the ‘six counties’ of Ulster, which were to remain part of the UK.
The decline of Ulster’s shipbuilding industry, however, began in the 1960s following the growth of air travel and competition from abroad. Since then, Northern Ireland has been largely portrayed, in a twentieth century reboot of the ‘white man’s burden’, as a drain on the British economy which the British government has been selflessly bearing, at great cost to its own interests, solely for the good of the region’s inhabitants. The implication is that the Irish economy would be insufferably bogged down by having to take responsibility for the six counties of Ulster, and only a ‘great power’ like Britain is able to keep the region afloat. Uniting the country, so the narrative goes, might satisfy the deluded fantasies of a few zealous ideologues, but the price tag would be plunging living standards for the Irish people.
A detailed academic study published last week, however, has blown this colonial mythology out of the water. The report, entitled Modeling Irish Unification, was overseen by Dr Kurt Hubner, director of the institute of European Studies at the prestigious University of British Colombia in Canada, and concludes that “Political and economic unification of the North and South would likely result in a sizeable boost in economic output and incomes in the North and a smaller boost in the [South of Ireland].” To be exact, the authors of the study calculated that the combined economies of Northern Ireland and the Republic could grow by over €35 billion over eight years if they reunified.
The UK’s Financial Times wrote that “If the economy of Northern Ireland adopted the Republic’s tax regime and the euro, the resulting productivity increases and lower cost of trade could cause the province’s economic output per head to rise by as much as 7.5 per cent, according to the report, which was compiled by academics in Canada and Europe. Northern Ireland would benefit disproportionately because of the “catch-up effect”. In other words, it would open up an economy that is effectively closed, since most of its trade is with the rest of the UK, while living standards are lower, the report says”.
Indeed, the report is particularly damning on the impact of British rule on living conditions in the North: “The economies of Ireland north and south are interlinked and interdependent, but they are not aligned,” it says, adding that Northern Ireland “has relatively low living standards, inward-oriented industrial policies, high levels of output in low value-added sectors, a small private sector, and an overreliance on the public sector”.
These findings echo other recent reports that underline how Northern Ireland has gone from being the wealthiest to the poorest part of Ireland since being torn from the rest of the country in 1922. The FT notes, for example, that “the republic’s economy grew 7.8 per cent in 2015, while the North’s shrank by 0.8 per cent in the third quarter of last year.” And a recent report by the Rowntree Foundation has revealed that around one fifth of the population live in poverty, “with significantly lower employment and levels of pay hindering attempts to address poverty”. It also found that average weekly pay was around £20 lower today than a decade ago for all but the wealthiest, with the low-paid even worse off than this. Such are the fruits of British rule in Ulster.
One might have thought that the Canadian report, representing the first rigorous academic study of the economic impact of unification, and with findings that so clearly fly in the face of the ‘established wisdom’, ought to have been headline news in the UK.
After all, it has certainly been taken seriously by experts in the field. Marcus Noland, Executive Vice-President and Director of Studies at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, for example, called Modelling Irish Unification “an important, timely examination of the economics of Irish unification, applying state-of-the-art modelling techniques to the issue at hand. The modelling work illustrates a variety of channels which are likely to be at play in the Irish case and concludes that Irish unification would be economically beneficial to both parts of the island, especially for smaller, poorer, Northern Ireland.”
Michael Burke, meanwhile, economic consultant and former Senior International Economist at Citibank in London, said that “The issue of the benefits of a unified Irish economy are unfortunately largely overlooked. This paper goes some way to correcting that and will help develop discussion in this neglected area.”
As far as the British press is concerned, however, it can stay neglected. In fact, the only reference I could find to the report in any British newspaper was the story quoted above in the Financial Times (famously dubbed by Noam Chomsky ‘the only paper that tells the truth’, designed, as it is, to provide its wealthy readership with accurate information to guide their investment decisions).
As for the rest, they have apparently been too busy mocking the SNP over the devastating impact of low oil prices on the Scottish oil industry which, it is claimed, would make independence untenable. This, of course, fits in much better with the prevailing British media narrative on issues of self-determination, which essentially boils down to a chauvinistic claim that ‘these impudent nations could never survive without us’. The truth, of course, is that the Easter rebels were right: it is surviving with dignity within the UK that is fast becoming the real impossibility.