Can all-Ireland politics catch up with the all-island economy?

It looks like Bertie Ahern is going to come out of the Irish election on course to become the first Taoiseach since De Valera to serve three consecutive terms.

It’s perhaps worth recalling in what was a bad election for Sinn Fein and Gerry Adams in particular, that Adams has done one thing even De Valera tried and failed to do, namely won a seat in West Belfast for Sinn Fein. This fact perhaps demonstates one of the lessons of this election, the existence of an enduring political disconnect between northern and southern nationalism, that has yet to be overcome.

In Belfast in 1918, De Valera’s Sinn Fein suffered a defeat at the hands of Joe Devlin’s nationalists that arguably shaped De Valera’s, and subsequently Fianna Fail’s, approach to electoral politics in the north.

In Dublin in 2007, Adams’ Sinn Fein suffered a setback which clearly raises the question, where now for all-Ireland politics?

I have tried to analyse the case for a united Ireland in terms of a simple choice facing the north between British dependency and Irish democracy.

Dependency is the inevitable consequence of the North’s status within the United Kingdom. Key economic decisions reflect the interests of the City of London and the south-east of England, interests that often diverge widely from those of other regional economies, Northern Ireland most of all.

The North’s necessarily marginal status within the British political system means that rather than reconsider those policies, the British state prefers to subsidise economic failure with income transfers and an enlarged public sector, creating a vicious circle of dependency.

As a result, day-to-day politics is less about building a sustainable economy, and more about securing and allocating resources from Whitehall. This type of Patronage Politics has developed in the other devolved regions of the UK. However, in the North, it both reinforces and is reinforced by the sectarian divide, creating another vicious circle of sectarianism.

By contrast, in a united Ireland, the North would be part of a functioning Democracy. Both communities in the north would be too large for either to be systematically excluded from power in the Republic’s political system. The existence of a Northern nationalist community might become something of a moot point. Northern unionists might find they would exercise more power by participating fully in the Oireachtas than through power-sharing at Stormont.

The south would not be in a position to provide UK style patronage, but the North needs to break away from that patronage to build a sustainable economy anyway. The convergent interests of the two Irish economies means that the government of a united Ireland would be in a much better position to deliver the policies to achieve that.

After all, the rise of nationalist parties looking to the Irish model in other regional economies of the UK, demonstrates that patronage politics is in something of a crisis even in Britain.

In the article where I first made the dependency/democracy argument, I suggested that patronage politics presented particular dangers for nationalists.

This patronage relationship is the essence of unionism, but that does
not mean it has only been applied to unionists. When nationalists,
often with good reason, urge the British to pressure or persuade
unionists, they are competing for British patronage. The extreme of
this tendency is the view sometimes expressed that a united Ireland
will be made economically viable by a continued subvention from the UK
Treasury. (North’s choice between dependency or democracy)

It seems to me that one of Sinn Fein’s big problems in this campaign was that it succumbed to the dangers of patronage politics. Presenting a wish list with statements like ‘people have rights’ and ‘the money is there’ maybe the only possible approach when you are trying to get concessions out of an NIO Minister.

It’s not the way to convince people in the Republic, who can remember the lavish promises of the 1970s and the penury of the 1980s, that you deserve to hold the balance of power in running their economy with their resources.

Michael McDowell called Gerry Adams on this in their TV debate, and the bitter truth for SF supporters is that he was right to do so.

Stephen King in the Irish Examiner said: "It’s one thing blasting the British taxpayers’ subsidy but you would
hope Sinn Féin would be more careful with Irish people’s hard-earned

King is an Ulster Unionist and former advisor to David Trimble, who has now gone to the spiritual home of patronage politics, the House of Lords. Yet his critique of Sinn Fein involved an explicit acceptance of the limitations of the North’s patronage politics and of the Republic’s economic success.

The Northern Ireland Executive levies no taxes. It doesn’t determine
its own spending. It has no role whatever in foreign affairs or
defence. It still has no responsibility for policing and the
administration of justice. And there are a whole range of issues it is
expressly prohibited from legislating on.

There might be fancy titles and long limousines and a very
grand setting but the Northern administration bears closer relation to
a county council with attitude than a national parliament. (Irish Examiner, via Nuzhound)

It is perhaps significant that even this unionist critique resorts an argument in what are or ought to be, republican terms. The core republican idea is self-determination, we ourselves make our own decisions and control our own resources.

The irony is that at a moment when the case for an all-Ireland economy based on that principle has never been stronger, the only all-Ireland republican party should have suffered a setback.

The post-mortem on Sinn Fein’s performance is already underway. One suggestion is that the party blurred its left identity by dropping its demand for an increased rate of corporation tax. That, I think, would be exactly the wrong conclusion to draw.

There is plenty of scope for more equality in the Republic, but it can’t be achieved by ignoring the need to create economic resources. A retreat into only emphasising spending issues would not be a move to the left, but towards the kind of patronage politics the British state is most comfortable with.

A higher corporation tax rate would not necessarily deliver a higher tax-take for the Irish Government. Indeed, the principle beneficiary might well be Gordon Brown and the British Treasury.

The decision to drop the policy could have been handled better, but the decision itself was a vital one.
It brought Sinn Fein into line with the consensus, north and south, about the way forward for an all-island economy.

Sinn Fein could and should have acted earlier to put itself at the head of that consensus.  If the party had taken the Enterprise brief at Stormont, it would have been a Sinn Fein Minister leading the calls for a corporation tax cut on behalf of northern industry, instead of the DUP’s Nigel Dodds. Such a move might even have strengthened the party’s economic credibility in the Republic.

At first glance, the call for a corporation tax cut might seem like a typical piece of patronage politics. It isn’t, for a number of reasons.

Demands for British public spending strengthen the patronage relationship, because they make the North more dependent on decisions by Whitehall about how much to spend and for how long.

By contrast, the call for a tax cut puts the emphasis on the creation of the North’s own economic resources. Rather than a demand that can be met within the patronage relationship, it is a demand for the breakdown of that relationship.

A corporation tax cut would make Northern Ireland more competitive relative to Britain. In those circumstances, its unlikely that Britain would be willing to continue subsidising the North’s public spending. Indeed, under EU rules, the North would arguably have to assume fiscal autonomy.

If the North could get to this stage, it would have converged enough economically with the Republic to make a united Ireland a much more practical prospect.

The campaign for a corporation tax cut arguably represents the biggest divergence between the North’s economic interests and those of Britain since the free trade agitation of the Volunteer movement that paved the way for the United Irishmen in the eighteenth century.

Where is the all-Ireland politics today that can match that all-Island economic potential? Both Fianna Fail and the SDLP arguably have some of the right policies, but neither party has shown any inclination to take the political risks involved in creating a movement that can maximise that potential by contesting elections on both sides of the border.

Until that changes, Sinn Fein’s all-Ireland project remains the only one that can harness the political opportunities being created by the all-island economy.  Nevertheless, the recent election underlines the task the party faces in overcoming the legacy of patronage politics.







6 responses to “Can all-Ireland politics catch up with the all-island economy?”

  1. kensei avatar

    Excellent analysis. I think the one element you are missing is that the patronage politics is actually the other side of the coin to the grievance politics Northern Nationalism has grown from. Without any serious power in the North, or any hope of getting it, Nationalism is left necessarily appealing to outside influence in order to make any worthwhile change. It becomes a habit, and continues even when it isn’t necessary. For example, the removal of funding for the West Belfast Festival. Unfair, but the attitude is to complain and put pressure on the British Government to restore funding, rather than taking the attitude that they could make work on their own.
    I think this is the only serious weakness SF have in the North. If the SDLP (or FF, or combination) started pushing a more independent attitude, and attacking SF for appeals to patronage, I think it would have a resonance that would lay punches on SF that Northerners haven’t managed for a decade now. Northern Nationalists look to the South with a bit of pride and the obvious attitude is that we can do it too.

  2. Tom Griffin avatar

    Northern Nationalists look to the South with a bit of pride and the obvious attitude is that we can do it too.
    I think one of Sinn Fein’s problems has been reconciling that feeling in the north, with the more critical stance required to appeal to their urban working class constituency in the South, particularly in Dublin. Perhaps the corporation tax u-turn was an example of that.
    It ought to be possible to reconcile the two, but it would have required a more adroit performance than they managed in the event.

  3. kensei avatar

    I don’t think it should be too difficult to do. There is distinction between the criticism of the present situation and offering alternative policies that are aspirational and that should play the same North and South.
    Far more damaging was the whole “Ready for Government” schtick, which basically translated to “We’ll jump into bed with FF’. Why support an opposition party that is going to prop up the government? SF should be focused on replacing Labour as the primary Irish voice of the Left rather than getting into government at the earliest opportunity.

  4. Tom Griffin avatar

    Maybe they should have played it more like the Greens, but I think it would have been concealing the inevitable reality that they were always going to be ready to deal with Fianna Fail.
    Either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael was going to come out of this election as the core of a Government, and I’m not sure if Sinn Fein could have credibly claimed to be indifferent to which one it was.

  5. kensei avatar

    “Either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael was going to come out of this election as the core of a Government, and I’m not sure if Sinn Fein could have credibly claimed to be indifferent to which one it was.”
    I think they could have. The line to take is something like
    – that you are focussed on getting you own manifesto implemented, and that you are prepared to consider working with anyone under a variety of arrangements if that gets it done. The way to get it done is to increase your own number of seats.
    – Point out that there are some ideological similarities with Labour, preferably similar policy and it’s not you ruling it out. Call them on potentially failing the section of society both parties claim to represent. Could equally point out problems if the PDs were involved in an FF coalition. This at least will push the issue back to the other parties and generate media coverage.
    – State you wouldn’t want to prop up a rejected government but there are a lot of potential outcomes and it’s up to the electorate.
    – Make a point about the election not being about FF or FG but the direction of the country.
    A little plausible deniability goes a long way. Tying themselves to FG didn’t help Labour, anyway.

  6. Tom Griffin avatar

    That was probably the right approach, but I’m not sure how plausible it would have been, especially as from what I’ve sen of Kenny, he comes across very much as a Bruton Mk II.

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