Belfast Telegraph

Elliott's Ireland barbs partisan and provocative

The Ulster Unionist leader blames all the Republic's economic woes on their split from the UK. But his analysis is misleading and clumsily over-simplified, says Gerard McCann

Given the local reaction to Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond's announcement that he intends to hold a referendum on Scottish independence in June 2014, it would seem for some to have been a bolt from the blue.

The success of the Scottish National Party at the last General Election and their manifesto intentions were there for all to see.

One would assume that the issue has been on the table at the joint British-Irish Council for the past decade or more as a rolling issue and has been a debating point for unionist and secessionist parties across the United Kingdom and Ireland for a generation or so.

The posturing of the past week on both sides of the Irish Sea would suggest that the discussion has not been as intense as it arguably should have been around the sensitive constitutional issue of a SNP-led breakup of the UK.

A dialogue has been ongoing, however, and, indeed, the Edinburgh-London exchange has settled down to the vexed issues of affordability and the effects of systemic economic shock on the Scottish economy if it were to go down the road to independence.

These include the estimated £110bn debt liability that it will inherit (at more than £3bn per year to service), the costs of structural adjustment, a problematic renegotiation of European Union membership as an independent state with a volatile and disconnected economic base, labour outflows and fiscal reorganisation - not to mention a fight over the disbursement of North Sea oil revenue.

With most Scots favouring more devolution, even 'Independence Lite', as some have labelled it, and last week's Ipsos Mori poll registering 38% for and 57% against full independence, the debate has started.

On this side of the water, the reaction has been understandably bi-polar, with Peter Robinson cautioning "it has clear implications for the rest of the UK".

As expected, Martin McGuinness was more detached, offering Stormont Castle for peace talks.

Alternatively, Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott seemed to confuse everyone with his contribution to the debate in the Belfast Telegraph, with a warning that "the constitutional approach of Alex Salmond appears to pose a greater threat to the Union than the violence of the IRA", that the debate is playing on "a 19th century romantic style of nationalism", sidelining the "expansion of the British Empire" and ending with a historically nuanced and rapid-fire reflection on Saorsat Eireann (the Irish Free State) in the 1920s, the eurozone, Iceland, European Central Bank bailouts and dictatorship from Brussels.

While most of the points seemed to be in the heat of the moment, with a particular audience in mind, the recurrent point that seemed to cause most angst, notably within Fianna Fail, was the disingenuous comments about the Irish Republic. The historical revisionism was particularly confusing given contextual comparisons.

The most pressing point that seems remiss in Elliott's economic history of Ireland is in relation to the comparison between Saorsat Eireann and Scotland today. They are obviously worlds apart.

Going into the 1920s, the southern economy underwent a sequence of catastrophic shocks that included military industrialisation and shifts sparked by world war.

At the time of the 1916 rising, one-third of Dublin suffered under public relief schemes and hunger, thousands of public and private properties had been destroyed during the War of Independence, there was widespread infrastructural destruction during the Civil War and recurrent harvest failures in 1923 and 1924.

This is notwithstanding the deaths of tens of thousands from war and disease, increasing refugee flows north and south, emigration at an estimated 33,000 per year, mass troop demobilisation, social and political sectarianisation on both sides of the border, the economic divergence caused by partition and widespread poverty north and south throughout these years.

Saorsat Eireann would be better compared to Belgium or the Netherlands of the 1940s than the assertive, prosperous, peaceful Scotland of today.

The disingenuous points targeted at a bystander (the Republic of Ireland) in the whole Scottish independence debate by Tom Elliott were most awkwardly stated with reference to the current crisis in the Irish economy and a "warning to Scots about what may lie in store", and "having to go cap in hand to Brussels and Berlin".

All members of the eurozone, as with the UK, have suffered due to the global recession, sovereign debt crisis, banking collapse, aggressively neoliberal economic policies and a sustained squeeze on public expenditure. We are all in this boat.

The language used really does not do justice to the complexities of the macroeconomic issues we are all trying to grapple with.

Perhaps when all is said and done on the consultation around Scots independence the lesson from Ireland that could be probably best given was by John Maynard Keynes to Eamonn De Valera at the Finlay Lecture at University College Dublin on April 19, 1933: " ... those who seek to disembarrass a country of its entanglements should be very slow and wary. It should not be a matter of tearing up roots, but of slowly training a plant to grow in a different direction".

Not an argument for or against independence, but a caution against provoking systemic economic shocks and for conciliatory leadership.

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