A Return to Normalcy? – A southern perspective

On the assumption that UK Ireland, EU, and US relations are once again beginning to resemble what used to be regarded as normality, how can we expect those relations to evolve in the future? The Brexit fever in England seems to have broken and a more pragmatic and competent PM appears to be in charge.

Of course, some nods to Brexit orthodoxy may still be required to keep the Brexit ultra wing of the Tory party on board, chiefly in the form of clampdowns on illegal immigration, and tax cuts for the wealthy “to promote growth”. Great play will be made of some EU era regulations being canned and new opportunities in the Pacific rim being pursued. But beyond all the spin, what really has changed or is likely to change in the near future, and particularly in relation to Ireland?

Firstly, normal inter-governmental co-operation and pre-consultation through diplomatic and political channels will once again become the norm. The British and Irish governments may not entirely agree on everything, but those differences will be thrashed out behind closed doors, minimised as far as possible, and spun to resemble a common front. Megaphone diplomacy will once again become the reserve of the Jamie (Bin Lidin) Bryson’s of this world.

This means that, whatever the DUP decide to do, the response to the two governments will be muted, low key, non-dramatic, and tacitly agreed. There will be no border poll because neither government wants one. The still functioning East-West strand 3 institutions of the BGFA will be emphasized. The protocol will be quietly and efficiently implemented behind the scenes. If the DUP continue their boycott of the institutions, the absurdity of the DUP blocking the Assembly and Executive from exercising their new oversight and consent powers will be highlighted.

However much the DUP may shout and complain, beyond some lip service, their concerns will be increasingly marginalised and ignored in Westminster. Even their former allies in the ERG will turn their focus onto more electorally rewarding topics like immigration, cutting red tape, and promoting “global Britain” – by which they really mean little England, and particularly the ‘Home’ counties. The long post 1984 tradition of promoting political slogans which appear to say the complete opposite of the reality will continue.

Northern Ireland will not fare well in the budgetary allocation of resources by Westminster. No mainland party has any seats to defend there. It will simply slip off the first page of the agenda. The excitement of Brexit will once again give way to the Slough of Despond, the depressing reality of economic decline, bureaucratic stasis, and the usual mutual blame games to distract and divert. It will, of course, be everyone else’s fault. David McWilliams has a depressing litany of just how far N. Ireland is falling behind on just about every measure of life expectancy, healthcare outcomes, educational attainment and economic development.

But there will also be green shoots. The Irish economy will continue to grow and be desperate for skilled workers and homes to house them in. Some Irish companies may choose to locate new investments in N. Ireland or in the border regions to take advantage of cheaper housing costs and more available labour. UK companies requiring easy access to the Single Market may consider investing in N. Ireland if the political situation appears to stabilise. The UK may re-join the Horizon research funding programme. Even educational exchange programmes like Erasmus could be extended beyond the current May 2023 termination date in N. Ireland.

But who will lead and direct these processes? The political vacuum created at the heart of N. Ireland by local dysfunction and Westminster disinterest will continue to be a drag on N. Ireland’s economic development. Why pay much higher corporate profit tax rates in Fermanagh than in Leitrim, and when the Executive and Assembly aren’t even siting to strike a lower rate?

Why invest in N. Ireland when you have perhaps the World’s most successful foreign investment attraction body (the IDA) attentive to your every need just south of the border? Costs in Ireland may be high, but productivity is through the roof. The regulatory system is predictable and stable, and industrial unrest in the private sector is almost non-existent. Unionisation is now almost the preserve of the public and professional sectors.

The problem with unionism isn’t that it is protestant, used to discriminates against Catholics, or seeks closer ties with Britain rather than Ireland. Although the historic consequences of discrimination may still be evident, and the scars deep, that problem has been largest addressed by reforms in recent decades. The problem is that unionism hasn’t been very good at putting bread on the table for it own people, never mind anybody else. Increasing reliance on ever greater Barnett subventions is a very risky strategy when Britain too, is beset by relative economic decline.

Far from casting a greedy eye on N. Ireland’s political sovereignty, the Dublin establishment don’t want to touch it with a barge poll. Economic cooperation and perhaps even integration, by all means, but who wants the hassle of having political responsibility for running the place when it could put Ireland’s own growth, prosperity, and peace at risk? I doubt even a Sinn Fein led government would change that – for all the lip service that would be paid to not forgetting our northern brethren.

It remains a convenient foil for the Irish political establishment that all responsibility for the fate of N. Ireland can be laid at the door of the British government. Keep paying the Barnett subventions, keep taking our lectures on what you should be doing, and make sure you don’t harm any of our economic interests, could sum up the Dublin establishment’s policy agenda nicely.

And so long as England is willing to play along, even if only out of imperial guilt, all is well and good. We don’t want another Brexit on our hands, now do we? Let’s hope the English don’t wise up any time soon. Fintan O’Toole is worried that they might.

A return to normalcy will suit the Dublin political establishment just fine. Even better if the DUP continues to set itself up to take all the blame for northern dysfunction. Northern parties blaming each other is so much better than them blaming Dublin. Taking the high moral ground while tut tutting at the behaviour of others is almost the national sport. Every movie needs a bad guy, and thank you very much, DUP, for agreeing to take on that role.

Now where were we? Ah yes, the housing crisis. The Irish Times didn’t publish my letter below:

A Chara,- History may record that last Tuesday [when the government announced an end to the tenant eviction ban] marks the day when the coalition government finally lost all claim to being a government with the interests of renters and the propertyless at heart, and a new and very different government became inevitable after the next election.

There may be a problem with some private landlords leaving, and few new entrants joining the rental market, but that could have been dealt with by exempting all new properties entering the market from the eviction ban. Existing tenants deserve some security of tenure in a situation where their only alternative may be homelessness.

Miriam Lord struggles to come up with a name for the vague set of measures the government proposes to offset the effects of the end of the eviction ban (It’s properly daft.ie as the baby Greens wail against their leader’s betrayal, Oireachtas, 7th. March). Can I suggest some grandiose title like the Áras an Uachtaráin Framework Agreement (AUFA) modelled on the recent Windsor Framework Agreement between the UK and the EU?

It will doubtless be of considerable consolation to those evicted and homeless that their needs are a concern at the highest level and that they can pitch their tent in the grounds of the high and mighty. It is, after all, the historic seat of the Lord Lieutenants of Ireland who presided over the mass eviction of tenants in famine times. Get AUFA my lawn could be the new slogan for a government programme to re-house the homeless. – Is Mise,

It doesn’t pay to mock the Dublin establishment too much – if you want to be published by the Irish Times. Hopefully Slugger won’t mind!

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