Desire for an invisible border led inexorably to the NI Protocol
There is a phrase that has cropped up recently in the context of the ongoing controversy about the Northern Ireland Protocol and it is “the all-island economy”.
Supporters of the Protocol talk about the importance of protecting the “all-island economy”, but what is this “all-island economy” and where did this concept come from?
It’s been floating around for some years, mostly just under the surface, but the usage of it increased in 2019 during the Brexit negotiations.
When Boris Johnson visited Leo Varadkar in Dublin in September 2019 they held a Press conference and Varadkar was determined that there had to be a Northern Ireland “backstop”, because “we must protect the burgeoning all-island economy”.
It was a fulsome phrase. According to Varadkar, there was not merely an “all-island economy”, there was a “burgeoning all-island economy” and it had to be protected.
So, when did it emerge? One of the earliest appearances of the phrase was 25 years ago, on August 1, 1995, when Dr Martin Mansergh, of Fianna Fail, delivered the Frank Cahill Memorial Lecture in west Belfast.
The title was “Path to an All-Island Economy” and the lecture was in memory of Irish republican Frank Cahill, brother of the notorious Provisional IRA leader Joe Cahill.
A few months later, in December 1995, the Irish Management Institute, based in Dublin, organised a conference in Belfast on the economic potential of the island of Ireland.
The conference was sponsored by KPMG and Independent Newspapers and a report in the Irish Independent commented that it would draw an array of “corporate and academic power rarely seen” in Ireland.
The promotional material explained that it had “its genesis in the ideas of Sir George Quigley, chairman of the Ulster Bank, on whether the whole island could become a vibrant economic zone”.
Sir George, who died in 2013, had been a senior civil servant in Northern Ireland before moving into banking and business on both sides of the border.
Irish nationalists and republicans welcomed the concept. They could see its political potential and said that an “all-Ireland economy” was good for the “political process” and a step towards an “all-Ireland state”.
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams gave it his endorsement when he addressed the assembled Northern Ireland Chambers of Commerce in February 1998 and newspaper reports at the time noted that it had already been advocated by Sir George Quigley.
The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC) was set up in 1999 under strand 3 of the Belfast Agreement, also known by some as the Good Friday Agreement, as the successor to the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, which was set up under the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. It has its own staff and meets several times a year.
In February 2006, the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference requested a comprehensive study on the all-island economy.
The 36-page report was published in October 2006 with a foreword from Peter Hain MP, the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, and Dermot Ahern TD, the Republic’s Foreign Minister.
It set out a vision for collaboration between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic in most aspects of life. It talked about collaboration, but was really about incremental integration, although that was not explicitly stated.
Throughout 2006, Sir George Quigley was still promoting his vision of an “all-Ireland economy” and the following year Padraic White said that, “The concept of an ‘all-island economy’ has become embedded in political and official discourse.”
Martin McGuinness also spoke about it at a Uniting Ireland conference in Londonderry and said: “I believe in moving forward inexorably towards an all-Ireland economy. Sir George Quigley has been at the forefront of that argument.”
There is nothing wrong with mutually beneficial co-operation, but there is a lot more to the concept than that.
It is also about alignment, harmonisation and convergence between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, something that soon leads to divergence between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
After pursuing that agenda for 25 years, pan-nationalism and its European Union allies were determined to protect it and preserve it.
An invisible border was sacrosanct and the result was the Northern Ireland Protocol. This problem has been a quarter of a century in the making.
The term “all-island economy” may appear innocuous — perhaps even vacuous — but today we can see the outworking of it in the creation of an internal border within the United Kingdom.