Any sensible democrat would support, not oppose, EU

“I know it would make me worse off, but I am against the EU because I am a democrat” is a frequently cited Leave argument.

Like most Leave arguments, it is utter garbage.

And it is utterly hypocritical. We live in the UK – a country whose Head of State is hereditary, whose upper house of parliament is appointed (in ways not really aligned to the public’s votes), whose Prime Minister enjoys an absolute majority having attained just 37% of the vote, and whose corridors of power are disproportionately filled by people who went to particular schools. This is scarcely a beacon of liberal democracy. It is funny how few of these excitable “democrats” propose leaving the UK

The EU is vastly more democratic. Its Council consists of Ministers from democratically elected national governments; its Commission consists of appointees from democratically elected national governments approved by its Parliament, and said Parliament is directly democratically elected in the second biggest global election there is. The EU is gridlocked on many occasions, such as over refugees, not because it is not democratic, but precisely because it is!

Furthermore, in a world where we use Chinese-made phones developed in America to listen to Swedish music apps while driving German cars requiring Saudi Arabian oil, a vast number of decisions which affect us are made in boardrooms, or dictatorships, or committees over which we have no say whatsoever beyond the market – a market which spectacularly fails when oil causes wars or lending causes banking crashes. The notion that we deal with all of this by pretending globalisation does not exist and building walls (under the propaganda of “national interest”)to confirm this denial of reality is not democratic. On the contrary, it simply leads to political disunity in the West, thus handing more power to the banks, corporations, committees and vast undemocratic countries like China, Russia and Saudi Arabia. That is the inevitable outcome of said “democrats'” lunacy.

If any of these suddenly enthusiastic Brexiteers had long records as “democrats” supporting Lords reform, changes to the way honours are given out, or even just a new electoral system for the Commons, I would begin to believe them. They don’t.

Actually, they don’t want to leave the EU because they are “democrats”; they want to leave because they are “nationalists”. Underlying it all is a fanciful, ludicrous and often xenophobic notion that somehow automatically the British (ahem, English) do democracy and Johnny Foreigner doesn’t – when all the above evidence demonstrates beyond dispute that it is the UK’s democracy which is obviously outdated and flawed.

The EU, meanwhile, has welcomed in countries emerging from both fascist dictatorships and communist regimes and secured for them representative democracy backed by free trade. No other project in human history has expanded democracy faster and to more places than the EU has. It is a remarkable achievement – and a profoundly democratic one!

I am a democrat. That is precisely why I support reform of the UK’s institutions and it is precisely why I supported the EU’s eastward expansion. And it is precisely why I will be voting REMAIN.

UK media’s referendum coverage is a disgrace

There is a widespread view across the UK that the referendum campaign is boring (and even pathetic) because people have neither facts nor reliable information. That is where the (broadcast) media are supposed to come in.

With the odd exception, however, the media’s coverage has been a disgrace. Focused as it is on personalities rather than on issues, and on the narrow interest of the political bubble rather than the very real social and economic consequences of the forthcoming vote, the media have failed us utterly.

BBC Newsnight last night was just the latest pathetic example. Who the hell cares what Chris Patten has to say about Boris Johnson?!

What a washed up politician who lost his seat a quarter of a century ago has to say about a buffoon who can’t even do his own shopping is totally and utterly irrelevant. It is not going to help pay the grocery bill if prices go up, or help young people’s education if they cannot move freely across the continent, or keep us safe if we cannot share intelligence! Nor does it speak to the EU’s great accomplishments of spreading democracy southward and eastward, clearing roaming charges or growing per capita income faster than anywhere else in the Western world; nor indeed to its unquestionable failings around the refugee crisis or even the pure unnecessary nonsense of maintaining institutions in Strasbourg.

The obsession with Conservative politicians is disgraceful because fundamentally it speaks to laziness. It is much easier to do a cheap interview for a cheap quip than it is to do proper research into the issues which really matter to people. Politics in general is covered like a soap opera of traded insults and mini-scandals, rather than the exchange of ideas and assessment of governmental competence that it is supposed to be. Worst of all, the media clearly has not considered that our future inside or outside the EU is not fundamentally a political issue at all, but a socio-economic one.

It is this failure to research the issues at stake properly which leads to the other nonsense of the campaign – namely that claims from each side are automatically afforded equal legitimacy. Actually, they should be assessed against the facts and anyone stating a blatant mistruth should be derided for so doing. Not all opinions are equally legitimate – some are informed by reason and evidence; others, well, aren’t.

And that is all to leave aside the fact that all the main players in the media’s soap opera are men. Is that not shameful?

All over the world now, from Trump to Hofer, we are seeing the rise of people who can manipulate the media easily because it refuses to be informed and refuses to tackle nonsense. The crisis in democracy across the world, in other words, is partly the responsibility of the media. The results could be very frightening.

“How many languages do you speak?”

In the same way an astronomer hates being asked how many planets there are in the Milky Way, a linguist hates being asked how many languages they speak. It is one of those questions which seems straightforward, but is in fact nightmarishly complicated.

Let us even leave aside the really tricky question of “What is a language?” and focus solely on national languages in Western Europe. How many does anyone speak?

Personally, I speak only one language natively, namely (British) English. English is of course an oddity in Western Europe because, as a fundamentally West Germanic language with a dramatic French-Latin overlay, it has no obvious sister language. Whereas anyone who can read Danish will have a reasonable chance also with reading Norwegian, or anyone who can read Spanish with Portuguese, there is no such partner for English. So native proficiency in English gives you English and, realistically, nothing else – a total of one.

I studied Germanic Linguistics, lived in Germany briefly both as a child and a student, and visit German-speaking Europe annually. Thus, I speak German fluently and with a reasonably native accent – but definitely not to a level of native proficiency. Most German speakers take me to be Dutch (as Dutch is closely related and Dutch people all seem to speak everything!), but almost never mistake me for German. This means I can speak and write grammatically accurately (and generally, but probably not always, idiomatically), and I can read and understand more or less anything proficiently (although, as with anything, if the topic is unfamiliar there can be problems). Notably, I find things that happen in German easier to explain in German, and I occasionally dream in German – some people’s definition of fluency. But I am most certainly not native – so still only one native, but let us say two fluent.

Now it gets really tricky. As a minor subject I studied Spanish, which meant I lived with a family in Andalucia for five months. Immersion is the best way to learn a language in the sense of coming to understand and speak it reasonably fluently, so I certainly was fluent in spoken Spanish (even reasonably colloquially, at least at the time). However, I read very little and my writing would no doubt still have been littered, even after the five months, with minor grammatical errors (notably, mistakes around things like prepositions which may be glossed over or just mumbled in speech, or choice of wrong tense, or the odd wrong gender). I have visited Spain only very infrequently this century, and continue to read very little Spanish, hence my use of the past tense with reference to my former relative spoken fluency. A bit of time back in Spain or Latin America would no doubt help, but it takes me a while to tune in (even, say, for series like Narcos) and even then I by no means pick up every word. So I was never as fluent even in speech as I was in German, it is arguable whether I was ever fluent in writing, and I am only getting rustler. How do you count that one? Not native (so, still one), not really fluent (so, still two), let us call it broadly “proficient”?

Then there is French, and now it gets very confusing! I never stayed with a French family (nor indeed in France) for more than two weeks, but I did study the language to A-Level, and in a subsequent course. Thus, I definitely find it easier to write French accurately than Spanish, but almost impossible to speak it at all idiomatically (far less colloquially). My technical vocabulary is probably greater in French than Spanish, but some more basic household words are probably missing in French but not in Spanish. Of course French, even at the best of times, is extraordinarily difficult for foreigners to pronounce! So, is my French better than Spanish? In some ways yes; in others, no. I would say that, overall, my Spanish is marginally better, but it is hard to calculate. So let us cop out and call it “proficient” too.

Now, the real chaos starts. As a fluent speaker of German with a degree in Linguistics, I find another West Germanic language like Dutch (and Afrikaans, but let us stay in Europe) relatively easy to read, and in many contexts also to understand. I have glanced at a few “Teach Yourself” books, so would have some written and spoken proficiency, given German gives you such a head start anyway. Of course, opportunities for use are scarce, given the vast majority of Dutch and Flemings speak fluent English (and often German). So where on earth does that fit? Er… “limited proficiency”?

Then, as a proficient speaker of Spanish and maybe French, there is an obvious window to Italian and Portuguese. I now visit Italy relatively frequently, find I can get by for everything from ordering meals to discussing football, and have attained a government qualification in it online; however, there are still major gaps in vocabulary (which I often just have to guess) and grammar (I am fine in the present tense but past and future are a little trickier). I used to visit Portugal and find Portuguese easier to read (it looks closer to Spanish than Italian) but harder to understand (it has a certain slushing sound which means “tuning in” for someone familiar with Spanish takes a while longer than it does with Italian – oddly, I find this a particular difficulty with European Portuguese, but less so with Brazilian). I would claim, therefore, what we may call “limited proficiency” in Italian, but would currently claim nothing for Portuguese aside from the potential to attain it some time.

Then, there is Scandinavian. Scandinavian languages are Germanic, but the split with German/Dutch happened even earlier than it did in the case of English. They still look more like German not only because they did not have the French-Latin overlay that English had, but also because they did have a German-Dutch overlay (mainly technical trading and transport terms in the late Middle Ages from “Low German”, a West Germanic variety somewhere in between the speech of Vienna and Amsterdam). I have had the opportunity to visit the Nordic countries regularly, particularly Denmark, both for business and pleasure, over the past decade. As in the Netherlands and Belgium, it is impossible to practise the spoken language (as the locals all speak English). However, as a regular reader of Danish in newspapers and websites I do have some reading proficiency, which vaguely applies also to Swedish, and even some written ability, but almost no spoken capability whatsoever (like French, Danish is in any case notoriously difficult to pronounce). So, er… let us not claim those at all, but no doubt some would!

How many languages to I speak? No idea. But three thoughts:

  • just like anyone can learn to drive a car, anyone can learn a language given determination and the right links/tools;
  • beware of some of the outlandish claims some people about the number of languages they really speak; and
  • if you do embark on a linguistic journey yourself, recognise that the quest for perfection will never truly be fulfilled but is very, very addictive!

New Executive promises “omnicrisis”

“Omnishambles” was a word popularised by The Thick of It, and now we have the looming threat in Northern Ireland of the “omnicrisis” after the Executive appointments.

As with the election itself, the DUP was the undoubted winner. It may feel it lost the Finance Ministry (no doubt that was pre-agreed), but it got that Chair and otherwise all the Ministries and Chairs it would have wanted.

For Sinn Féin, this will be a rocky road. It has shown no interest in government at all, preferring still to moan about those making the decisions than make any itself. It will be able to reduce corporation tax, raise rates and close hospitals; it will not be able to mitigate welfare reform, support Irish language schools or acts, or oversee Casement or Magee expansions – and it has yielded all planning and development policy in return for Infrastructure, a department in which almost everything is already decided years in advance. On top of that, it has put its star player in as Minister for Austerity. This is the worst piece of negotiation since the Dutch swapped New York for Suriname.

Neither is it a good thing that the average age of Ministers is 41. Some would not even have the experience to get an interview for a quango appointment. Seriously. Running a government department is a tough job, requiring budgetary knowledge, people management skills and policy development experience. People aged 41 (I am 39) have not even had half their professional career yet. When it comes to such roles, experience needs to be respected.

Throw in a Minister with responsibility for the arts who believes in creationism, a Minister with responsibility for the environment whose party generally denies climate change, and a Minister with responsibility for Health whose record in office consists of doing things directly contrary to the business case, and it is already an alarming picture.

Justice was perhaps most ridiculous of all. Any prospective Justice Minister would have been wise to agree a five-year budget, legislative programme and set of reforms in advance, in the knowledge that any of these is in practice now subject to DUP approval (given it has the numbers to petition anything and has both the Chair and Vice Chair). It appears Independent Claire Sugden did not do any of this. Thus addressing paramilitarism, bringing down peace walls and reforming prisons falls to someone who rarely attended the Assembly during the last mandate and has no leeway even if she had experience – a DUP delegate, in other words. And when budgets get tight over the coming five years, as we already know they will, whose budget does she think they will cut first…?

The crises are already obvious. Health will run out of money and require it from Justice leaving the police further underfunded; the DUP will act spitefully towards everything from shared housing to the Irish language; Sinn Féin will in response block the reduction in Corporation Tax; past inquiries (e.g. NAMA, Kincora) will be pushed to one side; all while moves to introduce marriage equality and liberalise abortion law will be blocked. The Executive will be utterly incoherent.

Hence, the promise of the “omnicrisis”.

By the way, folks, remember: you voted for this. Other candidates were available…


NI Tories/Labour need allies

I wrote on the morning of the count that the NI Conservatives and the Labour Representation Committee would receive only a handful of votes between them. So it proved.

There are no longer any excuses. The Conservatives had a funded office, the Prime Minister at their conference reception, the London Mayor visiting in the run-up to the election, a cabinet minister on the campaign trail with them, a proper canvassing operation and a complete set of posters and mobile billboards. The Labour Representation Committee also had a significant media profile and (apparently) a huge local membership from which to draw campaign support.

This is not to be disrespectful. On the contrary, it is hugely admirable that people would put such time and effort into a cause in which they clearly strongly believe. However, just look at the outcome. They are offering something no one in Northern Ireland wants.

It is time, once and for all, to accept Northern Ireland is not the English Midlands. People who would naturally be drawn to the Conservatives and Labour in England (a markedly declining number even there compared to a generation ago) already have a political home here.

For a long time, Conservative and Labour members have criticised the arrangement, insofar as one exists, between the Liberal Democrats and the Alliance Party. However, they should now consider seriously if this is not the precise model they should be following.

Because late on polling day, a Conservative was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly. His name was Philip Smith and he was elected in Strangford. He was, of course, labelled “Ulster Unionist”. He had recognised, quite sensibly, that if you want actual influence over health, education and infrastructure policy in Northern Ireland, the Conservatives here simply do not offer a vehicle. He was, of course, far from the only one – most Ulster Unionists elected earlier this month would be Conservatives in England.

The Alliance/Liberal model is quite simple. Both parties are independent, but are members of the same European umbrella group and agree not to contest elections against each other. On that basis, it is permissible while being a member of one also to be a member of the other – but not compulsory. Thus Alliance Party members may, if they wish, seek to influence the direction of the Liberal Democrats at UK level by joining them; likewise, some Liberal Democrats with an interest in Northern Ireland join the Alliance Party’s external association. The parties are fully separate, but individuals may choose membership of both.

This is not a million miles from the SDLP/Labour arrangement. Again, they have a common European designation and indeed SDLP MPs take the Labour whip (a step beyond the Alliance/LibDem relationship). Presumably, again, individuals may be members of both as they do not contest elections against each other.

The Conservatives and Ulster Unionists have a historically complex relationship of course, culminating in many people’s minds in the “UCUNF debacle” (a debacle which, by the way, yielded 12,000 more votes than the combined Conservative-UUP vote this month). Nevertheless, even a cursory glance at their voting record would tell you that Tom Elliott and Danny Kinahan are, to almost every intent and purpose, Conservative MPs. There is simply no point in another Conservative (for “another Conservative” is what it would be) standing against them, potentially nicking a couple of hundred votes and handing the seat to someone else. Jim Nicholson, of course, remains a part of the Conservative group in the European Parliament. For a Conservative in Northern Ireland, the route to elected office – at any level – is already via the Ulster Unionist Party.

Disallowing NI Conservatives from running for election in Northern Ireland would appear harsh, but actually it would be advantageous to them because the likes of Philip Smith would not have to give up their membership in order to run for office electably as an Ulster Unionist. Allowing Ulster Unionist members, if they so chose, also to be members of the Conservative Party would allow them to participate in UK-wide policy making, strategy and vote in leadership elections. Indeed, there would be no need for Conservative Associations in Northern Ireland to disband – they would continue to play a role within the UK-wide party. Objectively, the advantages of such an arrangement clearly outweigh the disadvantages – indeed, it is almost certain that the outcome would be members of the Conservative Party becoming MLAs in Northern Ireland, something which is currently an impossibility.

Nor is such an arrangement even particular to Northern Ireland. Across Great Britain, the Labour Party and the Co-operative Party have a not dissimilar arrangement, enabling the latter representation it otherwise would lack, while saving the former campaign expenses it would otherwise incur.

I do not expect either the local Conservatives or Labour representatives will listen to a word of this. They would do well to note, however, that the national party in each case is probably having thoughts not dissimilar to those outlined above. Politics is the art of the possible. Those striving for the impossible generally get ignored. It’s a brutal game.

Why NI’s future must lie in Europe

It is no surprise that the referendum campaign has been uninspiring, negative and often ludicrous. They generally are.

What about some positivity?

I think one case for Northern Ireland’s place in Europe is simply this:


The photo is important, because it shows clearly something often referred to, would you believe, as the “Blue Banana” (no laughing at the back, Boris!)

The colours on the map broadly indicate rising population density (red), falling (blue) and stable (gold) over the turn of the century, and the “Blue Banana” matches the latter.

The “Blue Banana” is a corridor which runs northward from the Milan-Turin area in Italy, past Munich, through Frankfurt, up to the Ruhrgebiet (Dortmund-Essen-Duisburg etc, also touching Cologne and Düsseldorf), on to Holland (Amsterdam-Rotterdam) via the Channel Ports to London and arguably now further to Dublin.

In this corridor, income (no matter how defined) is considerably above even the Western European average (often double); thus, economic opportunities in Europe are concentrated within it; transport flows are planned to go along it; investment is attracted to it; and it is therefore a magnet for skilled labour (and ambitious people generally).

The corridor explains why London has advanced so quickly economically compared to Paris or Berlin (which fall outside it); why relatively conservative Bavaria has become Germany’s richest state; why northern Italy is so much more prosperous than the south; and so on. It is an upwards spiral – skills are attracted to the corridor which means governments invest in it which means skills are attracted to it which means…

At the very northwestern tip of the corridor, assuming (as I would) that you know include the Dublin Region within it, lies Greater Belfast.

I have written before about how the focus of all efforts on our island, North and South, should be in the Eastern Corridor. In terms of ground transport, we should be planning higher density road and rail structures even than we have (and certainly no more gap junctions); in terms of aviation, Dublin and Belfast Airports should be cooperating perhaps under a single authority; in terms of investment hubs each jurisdiction should deliberately harmonise tax arrangements to maximise investment flow into and along the Belfast-Dublin axis; in terms of planning, a jobs creation and skills strategy focus aimed at growing global industries should apply across the area regardless of jurisdiction; noting all the time that investors may in fact be attracted by a choice of jurisdictions in which to locate (other Euroregions, such as Copenhagen-Malmo or Vienna-Bratislava, already do this). Externally, it means both Dublin and Belfast have an interest in encouraging the English “Northern Powerhouse” to ensure the “Blue Banana” extends through Manchester-Merseyside via Birkenhead Port and Manchester Airport to Ireland’s East Coast.

Ultimately the point is this: the “Blue Banana” corridor has nothing to do with sovereignty and everything to do with cities cooperating for maximum mutual benefit to attract skilled labour and attract new jobs to deliver perhaps the highest standard of living in the world. It is a cooperative as much as a competitive thing.

Far from making ourselves peripheral to that reality, we should be embracing it and becoming more and more part of it. Remaining in the EU to maximise cross-border potential in all our interests is just the start.

Quick note on Austria

I wrote this about Austria two weeks ago, and today has seen an astonishingly close Presidential Election watched with interest across Europe.

A few points.

  1. Austrian Presidential Elections use a run-off system, whereby if no candidate receives over 50% of the vote in the election, the top two proceed to a second round (this is similar to France).
  2. Typically the second round, historically, has been between the centre-left Social Democrats and centre-right People’s Party. For the first time ever, neither qualified this time, finishing behind two independents (one of whom, van der Bellen, qualified) and the populist rightist Freedom Party candidate (Hofer, who finished first).
  3. 14% of the Austrian electorate registered for postal votes.
  4. Of the vote cast on the day, Hofer received 51.9% and van der Bellen 48.1%, a lead of 144,006.
  5. However, most projections have postal voters slightly more likely to cast their vote than those unregistered; there are 885,000 of them, and all projections assume just under 700,000 have been validly returned – they are counted tomorrow (and, assuming that is right, would constitute 15% of the total).
  6. Projections, based on the last round and previous elections, can give a profile of who the postal voters are (their age, residence, gender etc) and use that versus the profile of those who actually voted to establish roughly which way the postal votes were cast – notably, it is assumed disproportionately many come from Vienna, where van der Bellen won comfortably, because on-the-day turnout was markedly lower there even than would be expected.
  7. These projections give van der Bellen around 60% of the postal vote, bringing the vote totals almost exactly level!
  8. Main State Broadcaster ÖRF has van der Bellen ahead after postal votes by 2900; but private ATV sees Hofer still ahead after postal votes by 19800.
  9. All we know for certain is it is incredibly close – we should know the final count around 5pm UK/Irish time tomorrow.



NI negotiations almost normal…

It was put to me by one correspondent that the Alliance Party had no mandate even to enter negotiations around the formation of the next Executive with only 7% of the vote.

Which was odd, because as a Nationalist you would think he would have known that the Independent Alliance had just entered government in Dublin with just 4% of the vote.

The confusion? Northern Ireland politics is almost becoming “normal”. This is indeed quite disorientating!

It is quite “normal” for a coalition which wants either to boost its numbers in the legislature or indeed to resolve an internal dispute to seek additional Ministers from smaller parties (or even outside the legislature altogether in many cases). It is also quite “normal” for smaller parties or even individuals to suggest that, if they are to enter government, that government should follow at least some of their policies – getting your policies implemented is the whole point, after all. It is also “normal” for larger parties to speak to a range of smaller parties to establish the best fit, if any. Such is the “normal” flow of any coalition negotiation. (Note that the Executive is now bound by the principles of collective cabinet responsibility, which was not previously the case.)

Some of the talk around Northern Ireland’s process, therefore, has been bizarre. The Ulster Unionists were perfectly entitled, judging that they would not attain the Ministry they wanted as part of the negotiation and that their interests would be better served regrouping and offering a clearer alternative, to announce early that they had no interest in participating. The Alliance Party was perfectly entitled to respond to an invitation, optionally, to join the Executive, and to propose what any Executive it joined might do. The SDLP was perfectly entitled to participate in the policy part of the negotiation and then come to a judgement that it lacked sufficient detail for them to participate and more fully. The DUP and Sinn Féin were perfectly entitled to talk to non-qualifying parties to check if there was enough common ground to justify ceding a bit in return for a larger, more stable coalition.

No one “flounced off”, no one “made demands”, no one “backed out”.

What we saw and are seeing is, of course, very odd. It is called normal politics…

Time running out for reform of Irish Presidential elections

I am not sure it is my place to suggest why the Nationalist vote has now fallen from 41-42% to 36-38% for an entire electoral cycle now, so I am wary of committing an entire blog to the subject. The total of 36.5% of first preference votes and just 40 seats was by far the lowest post-Agreement Nationalist total, despite apparently favourable demographics.

One suggestion I would make is that Nationalist politicians simply are not very good at delivery. An obvious example of this is on votes for President of Ireland.

I note with interest a Bill submitted by Sinn Féin to Seanad Éireann on this subject. However, mere “extension of voting rights” will probably not prove a practical solution given the President’s role within the State.

The Irish Presidential Election is in fact now barely two years away. What will happen is predictable – about two months in advance Northern Nationalists will suddenly notice it is nigh and start moping about how ridiculous it is that they can stand for President but not vote. But what practically will they have done about it since the last time? It requires a little imagination.

My own proposal, which I have shared here and directly with Nationalist representatives (including in Sinn Féin), is for an electoral college system to be introduced. For example, an Electoral College of 17 (elected by STV from European parliamentary constituencies across the island of Ireland plus another three for Irish citizens elsewhere) could itself elect the President by STV. Voting outside the Republic itself would be entirely by post, with ballot papers provided upon production of a valid current Irish passport. There would perhaps even be a Vice President, elected solely by the 11 Electoral College members elected from within the Republic, to carry out specific State functions.

This system would allow all Irish citizens to participate in the Presidential Election if they wished (as is normal in other republics); it would allow interested Northerners to participate directly, but would also incur no cost or obligation to disinterested Northerners; and it would ensure that voters within the Republic itself still had the major say (with the potential introduction of a Vice President ensuring no interference  on State functions from citizens not residing within the State). Costs of the election outside the Republic would be met from passport fees. What’s not to like?!

I do not expect anyone to pick up this ball and run with it. One frustrating feature of Northern politicians is they prefer to complain than deliver. However, I do wonder if voters are beginning to tire of this trait…

A nation once again? Don’t put too much money on it…

I am a big fan of David McWilliams, partly because he is a brilliant writer on global affairs, and partly because I view him as something of a role model when it comes to Devil’s Advocacy! From his latest example of both, he rightly earned a place on BBC NI Talkback yesterday.

Mr McWilliams is of course right to say that the UK’s departure from the EU would set in train a domino effect. He is right then to use the word “could” about the outcome of that domino effect, but certainly it makes Scotland’s departure from the UK likelier; in turn, a UK of “England, Wales, and, er, Northern Ireland”, especially outside the EU while Scotland and Ireland were in it, would be a simply ludicrous as well as incoherent construction.

However, there are a few aspects of his Devil’s Advocacy which need challenged (that is the point, after all!)

Let us start with the contention that “income” per head in the Republic of Ireland is €40,000 versus €24,000 in Northern Ireland. Actually, this is GDP per capita, which (as Mr McWilliams knows well) cannot be meaningfully conflated with actual income and (still more importantly) real spending power. Start from wages rather than productivity and then take into account housing costs, and suddenly the picture can differ remarkably. Apparently “poorer” Northerners in fact spend 20% more – on everything from fashion to fancy cars – than their fellow islanders. Far from looking South and saying “Look how much they earn”, they actually look and say “That costs how much?!”

Addendum: the clear discrepancy between Ireland’s GDP and AIC (consumption) figures can be seen here, via Eurostat.

(Let us leave aside that even GDP/head has been higher in Northern Ireland than in the Republic for the majority of the post-partition period, making a mockery of any contention that Northern Ireland’s apparent economic woes are due to the “Union”. They are in fact primarily to do with de-industrialisation in common with much of the northern UK, a situation hardly helped by decades of civil strife )

None of this is an argument in favour of Northern Ireland’s economic model (Northern Ireland is dependent on a £7-£10 billion present from the south of England every year, so there is scarcely an “economic model” to speak of at all); it is an argument that the two economies have now diverged so completely that it will be extraordinarily difficult ever to put them together again.

It is perhaps this more than anything which also explains why Mr McWilliams’ point about demographics is not working out politically as expected, something he chooses to overlook. The Nationalist vote in the electoral cycle to the start of this decade was typically around 41-42%; it has now fallen for an entire cycle to 37-38% and most recently was just 36%. In fact, far from looking South and eagerly awaiting unification, those predisposed to an all-island world view are turning away from Nationalism (and indeed in many cases to leftist parties which would make Northern Ireland even more different from the comparatively much more economically liberal and centre-right Republic).

Thus, it is not just Unionists who are ignoring the claimed “economic incentive” to join up with the Republic, but many of Nationalist background too. That is most obviously because an “economic incentive” does not always correspond to a financial incentive; and also because the two economies are now just unrecognisable from each other and becoming ever more so.

Nor indeed do I believe that (those who are currently) Unionists would ignore such a financial incentive, were one to become obvious – even the Covenant refers to “material well-being”, after all! The issue is that no such incentive is apparent (and if we move beyond assessing income and indeed general wellbeing merely by GDP, it is clear why it is not).

To be clear, absolutely none of this is good news in the case of “Brexit”. Indeed, it only serves to make a chain of events leading to Northern Ireland’s unmanaged and unplanned ejection from the EU and then potentially from a disintegrating UK even less palatable than Mr McWilliams suggests.

This is why no one in Northern Ireland should be taking the “leave” risk – Unionist or Nationalist, financially or economically.


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