Belfast Telegraph

A nation once again?

Sinn Fein trumpeted 2016, the Easter Rising's centenary, as the year Ireland would be re-united. But 2014 is more crucial to the Republic's future, argues Henry McDonald

Remember 2016? It may not have happened yet, but already this future year's significance is fading away. Up until recently it was the target date for mainstream republicans in their new non-violent struggle to fuse the two states on this island.

In order to calm the fears and suspicions of their base, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and a host of other leading Sinn Fein figures held up the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising as the year - finally - when some form of Irish unity would be realised.

Their argument appeared to be that as the southern half of the island's economy grew and grew, its reach would extend across the border. A wealthier, more affluent, confident Republic would, through vast infrastructure projects and business enticements, make partition redundant.

Even before the Republic's spectacular financial crash and the ensuing recession, there were giant question marks over this theoretical project.

For a start, the two states on the island were, and more crucially will remain, in different currency areas. The south is locked into the euro while the north will be, for the foreseeable future, in the more flexible and nationally sovereign sterling zone.

In addition, Northern Ireland was and is as heavily dependent on the public sector as East Germany used to be while the Republic was being held up as the neo-liberal, low capital-taxation model for the rest of the EU.

Those vast structural differences now have become exacerbated in the post-credit crunch era. In spite of George Osborne's brutal ideological assault on the public services throughout the UK, Northern Ireland will continue to rely heavily on the state sector to fulfil most of its socio-economic needs over the next decade.

There is another target date the vast majority of people in the Republic are looking towards as a means not of national reunification, but rather national survival: 2014.

The EU has given Dublin four years to put its financial house in order. Brussels emphasised this just 24 hours after Osborne's Comprehensive Spending Review.

And to underline its power of Irish national decision-making, the EU Commission issued a warning that only they could give Brian Cowen's administration permission to extend the 2014 deadline in order to buy the Irish economy more time.

The Irish trade union movement and the respected Dublin-based Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) have both warned that the EU imperative that the Republic must balance the books within four years will cause so much pain as to tip the country into a depression.

In a cosmic piece of irony, the unions and the ESRI have suggested that a less-damaging target date would be 2016 as it would spread the pain over six rather than four years and lessen the impact of rapid cost-cutting and tax-raising.

So even then in the year the country will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Rising, they will have - if the EU and Dublin Government agreed to this demand - only just about got some semblance of sovereignty back.

'Permission' is the critical word here because it indicates that national sovereignty in the eurozone is curtailed and contingent on the calculations of accountants and economists working for the European Central Bank in Frankfurt. If the EU Commission plays hardball with the Dublin Government, no matter of what political make-up, it could lead to a potentially catastrophic showdown between Brussels and Dublin.

In these circumstances, the Republic could be forced to apply for the type of financial aid package that Greece needed to save itself for national insolvency, where German taxpayers effectively rescued Athens and Angela Merkel became the de facto Greek finance minister. At worst, a future Dublin Government could even be forced to follow Jim Callaghan's path to the IMF's door for a global financial dig-out.

Even before any of these doomsday scenarios were to occur, the Republic's sovereign decision-making is already coloured by the dictates of the EU. If the Commission sticks by its position, then programmes agreed between the democratically-elected Government in Dublin and the unions this year - known as the Croke Park Agreement - may have to be junked. The ESRI actually admitted as much in their report last week.

The insistence by the EU that Ireland ruthlessly drives down its national debt does not correspond with the national wage agreement Cowen's Government hammered out with the public sector.

In the global capitalist economy, all nations' policies are restricted and bound to the whims of unelected markets, credit agencies and speculators. This is an unsatisfactory, anarchic and ultimately undemocratic way in which most of the world operates. But it is a system which the Republic for a while thrived and prospered within until its internal contradictions brought about the worldwide crash.

So, remember not 2016, but rather 2014. For it is the latter year which will prove to be the more critical in terms of the Republic's future.

The illusion of fusion by 2016 is giving way to harsh economic reality. The south can, and probably will, turn their economy around within the next four to six years.

Some of its fundamentals are basically sound - particularly its export-based hi-tech sector, which has continued to grow jobs during the recession.

However, while they engage in this Herculean task to meet the demands of the masters of the euro-universe expect nothing of substance other than rhetoric about 2016 being the year of national unity.

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