The future is more unpredictable than ever

Economist David McWilliams says we could have a united Ireland by next year. “Wouldn’t that be something for the 1916 heroes to digest,” is his rhetorical question. But unionist commentator Alex Kane says, “…unity is unlikely anytime soon – and I do mean a very, very long time.”

Is there anyone daft enough to get excited or depressed by these predictions? That’s the thing about commentators and especially economists. They’re good at analysing events but they’re useless at predictions. You could say we’re all in that boat. None of us know what’s ahead. So it is with politics and economics. They’re driven by events – many of them unexpected.

One hundred years ago, in the summer of 1915, Patrick Pearse issued his famous call to arms at the Glasnevin funeral of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, but few knew a rebellion would come within nine months. Most thought Ireland was heading for limited Home Rule as soon as the war was over (the legislation had already been passed in London). Instead, rebellion in Dublin and British reaction to it sparked-off a chain of events that destroyed the Irish Parliamentary Party and led to war with Britain. Commentators hadn’t seen it coming. That’s how it is with many big events in history, but at least in 1915 most people knew where Ireland seemed to be heading.

Now the future seems completely unpredictable. We’re adrift.

It’s difficult to understand what longer-term strategy, if any, our larger nationalist party, Sinn Féin has. For obvious reasons the party can only take one step at a time. It can’t spell-out how it sees the future, ahead of establishing if the Tories will cough-up more money. We know David Cameron and Theresa Villiers will be desperate to avoid Stormont collapsing on their watch. At the last moment, they may find enough money down the back of the Downing Street sofa to save Stormont.

At this stage, it looks unlikely. There’s no more money, they insist. Meanwhile, Martin McGuinness says, “There is no more room to manoeuvre, no more savings to be made”. So both sides have dug themselves into a hole.

Matters may come to a head by October.

Beyond that, Sinn Féin’s strategy for Ireland’s future can’t depend on what McGuinness calls, “the most disengaged” of “any of the British administrations we have dealt with”. As the party’s name implies, Sinn Féin needs its own, home-grown strategy, not one that depends on London.

Post 1994 ceasefire the hope was that changing demographics here in the North would take care of the problem in good time for 2016. Now, despite David McWilliam’s recent prediction, that looks wildly optimistic even though there’s already a Catholic majority in the school age population, according to the 2011 census. On the other hand, unionist commentators like Alex Kane take comfort in what he calls, “soft nationalism which clearly wants nothing to do with Sinn Féin’s vision of unity”

The problem is that we don’t know if there’s a plan to advance that vision. Does it all hang on getting into power in the south? Apart from that, how does the party see things developing here in the North if Stormont falls?

We don’t know. We know remarkably little. The rudderless drift is dangerous and the suspense is hard to endure.