Global crisis Derry and the case of Irish unity

The world’s worst recession for 80 years began with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008. As the ripples spread around the world, it took one taxpayer funded bail out after another to save the entire financial system from collapse.

“In Europe the financial crisis evolved into the euro crisis,” according to ‘The Economist’ magazine, and six years on “the recovery remains feeble”.

Bankers contributed to the disaster. They thought they were the first people in history to make something go away by ignoring it, i.e. risk.

It caused enormous hardship in many countries. It has also set back the time-scale for the re-unification of Ireland.

Almost a century on from partition, Derry and Strabane have the highest unemployment rate in the North. In percentage terms it’s twice as high as it is in Antrim and Newtownabbey. And we’re seriously behind all the rest of the island when it comes to transport infrastructure. Of course, that’s not all down to partition but the point I’m making is that we’re not living in a thriving ‘country’; some sort of unionist nirvana. And, up to 75% of the North’s entire economy depends on the public sector life support machine.

The Celtic Tiger years in the Republic held out hope that more and more northerners would see how successful Irish self-government was. You just had to cross the border to see the brave new world emerge in front of your eyes. It left us far behind. Then, the crisis in the public finances damaged that world and set back that hope.

Unionists took it as confirmation of their mistaken assumption that independent Ireland hadn’t worked. It’s hard to dislodge a myth when it takes hold in the collective psyche. That’s why Scotland’s Alex Salmond, who used to hold the Republic up as an illustration of what self-government could achieve, was forced to go quiet about Ireland. What a shame that was; it helped the Scottish ‘better together’ campaigners to get away with scare tactics. They were helped along by rich but disgraced bankers giving people lectures on bogus economics.

So, the global crisis came at the ‘wrong’ time but the Republic has retained its strong industrial base and the Celtic Tiger looks set to roar again. There is no industrial base here; no British Lion set to roar or even purr.

Self-government in the 26 counties, after a slow start, has been highly successful. That came as a surprise to me at college as, in northern ignorance, I too had bought into the myth. The fact is that we’re not “better together” with the UK. Prior to independence, per capita gross domestic product (an accepted measure of economic prosperity) in the six North Eastern counties of Ireland was more than twice as high as it was in the other 26. That position has been reversed.

Tragically, the global crisis made it more difficult for many to see the light. That’s the challenge we face.

Incidentally, the case for re-unification would be helped if nationalists could resist spinning the arguments. We should be frank. Yes, there would be a painful period of adjustment as social welfare and health care arrangements were brought into line. In the longer run, we’d be fine. If the Germans could do it; so can we.