Celtic Tiger’s Hunt for Territory

Since partition in 1921, the Irish border has economically, politically, and culturally divided the island. Despite this, cross-border relationships have formed and evolved. Governments have a strong hand in promoting or denouncing said evolution, with development funds and projects historically being the most effective and visible means. However, as Brexit disrupts the status quo, private funds are gaining influence over the cross-border relationship. This article will analyze the implications of economic fluctuations on Northern Ireland’s political stability and the subsequent ramifications for British politics.

A Frontier in Transition

For roughly the first 75 years of the border’s history, the Irish and UK governments determined the border’s cultural climate. In the 1960s, civil servants covertly cooperated across the border on developmental projects, and people on both sides of the border peacefully interacted. After the Troubles began, development funds shifted to militarization, and the border became a source of tension and otherness.

The European Economic Area’s formation changed everything. Freedom of movement allowed people and ideas to flow freely throughout the island, leading to demilitarization. In the 1990s, Ireland experienced an explosion of wealth and funding from around the world. This influx of spending was dubbed the Celtic Tiger due to the similarities between Ireland and the Asian Tiger economies. The border has become less significant as Europe has economically integrated, to the point that, at the time of writing, there are no checkpoints between the two nations. Without an official government presence checking who is crossing and for what purpose, Irish people from the North and South are able to interact with one another more freely. This has had political effects, as can be seen in the geographic split of the Brexit vote in Northern Ireland, where every county on the border voted to remain and those further away voted to leave.

There is potential for Ireland and Northern Ireland to openly cooperate on development. The EU had an extremely influential voice in encouraging this process, as seen in Interreg’s investment in the region’s infrastructure. When the economic boom of the Celtic Tiger went bust, peace remained in Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement is a part of the Tiger’s legacy, as was the border’s triviality. The tradition of cooperation fostered by Ireland, Northern Ireland, and the EU instilled those values into millions of citizens throughout the island. However, Brexit seems to have brought many fears back into question.

Tigers Returning to Ireland?

The threat of a hard border in Ireland brought back many latent worries. However, Brexit and the Protocol have brought with them a positive: they’ve put Northern Ireland back on the map. The endless trade discussions and political grandstanding have publicized Northern Ireland on a global scale. It turns out this is pretty good for investment. 

Invest NI reports that this is an opportune time for investment. Post-Brexit, Northern Ireland provides unique access to markets in the EU and services in the UK. Despite pro-Britain Unionists harboring doubts about Brexit’s benefits, given how it prompted discussion of Irish unification, the publicity has been good for business. The hottest job openings are in high-skill services, positions largely unaffected by the Northern Ireland Protocol. These jobs present unique economic opportunities for firms with business in both the EU and UK. With Northern Ireland having the UK’s lowest employment rate, job opportunities provided by private firms are especially attractive. 

Not wanting to be outbid, Ireland has committed billions of euros in cross-border development. The republic is still devoted to fraternal relations and mutual growth, but influential investment isn’t just about who writes the largest check. Development is just as much about what the money says. UK companies relocating to Belfast send a very different message from Ireland spending on transit infrastructure. Investing in transit says that Ireland wants interconnectivity. Firms bringing jobs and businesses to Northern Ireland show that investors see a profitable future in the way things currently stand.

What’s most concerning here is that the actions of investors are taking on political dimensions. This economic activity is a direct result of the current political climate. Firms can leave should political winds shift, which is a real possibility. Unlike governments, businesses are under no obligation to support local economic or political wellbeing. If the political landscape shifts and Northern Ireland becomes unprofitable, the firms will exit and leave the region hobbled both economically and politically. Politicians create the environment in which private enterprises can develop, but those businesses, in turn, reflect the government’s success. Northern Ireland’s political balance is mercurial and fractious. An exodus of businesses leading to a steep economic downturn would likely encourage extreme political actors to attempt to seize power. 

Many Northern Irish residents think that the prospect of a border poll would prompt politically motivated violence to return to the region. Essentially, it appears the mindset is, as long as they let sleeping dogs lie, the worst aspects of the Troubles will stay at rest. A sharp economic downturn would likely bring the already teetering popularity of the Northern Irish government crashing down, potentially encouraging a border poll. Regardless of the results of such a poll, the prospect of reunification could encourage extreme groups to try and push the result one way or the other, especially if the current political establishment looks economically weak.

Forecast

Private investment in Northern Ireland is likely to continue. The region has been working hard to cultivate these new relationships and shows no sign of stopping. Northern Ireland’s special status will likely change in some way, as few residents are happy with the Northern Ireland Protocol as is. However, such a change is unlikely to completely upend the current status quo. If private money shapes post-Brexit culture in Northern Ireland, then the region will lose governmental accountability over the cross-border relationship. The political status quo benefits from keeping the region in calm disagreement. Nothing changes if the people of Northern Ireland do not overwhelmingly favor either reunification or a hard Irish border. If one option or the other becomes significantly more profitable, then businesses will likely voice support for it. 

The prospect of Irish reunification is an oft-discussed but extreme solution to Brexit problems. Northern Ireland is the only constituent region of the UK to have an explicit path towards independence, namely the Good Friday Agreement.

In the context of wider British politics, independence is discussed more openly and frequently in Scotland, but that is a harder road politically for Scots than for the Northern Irish. That said, if Northern Ireland leaves the UK, Scotland arguably has more power over the rest of the Kingdom. Scotland would make up a larger percentage of the UK economy and even if independence was unlikely, they could potentially use that leverage to bargain for more power. Losing regional influence like this does not bode well for the UK. With Northern Ireland being the most economically deprived region of the UK, economic considerations hold great sway.  This threatens to tip the UK’s already teetering internal stability. 

Categories: Economics, Europe

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