Belfast Telegraph

Matthew O'Toole: For the first time since partition, the leadership of unionism has become clearly decoupled from economic reality

The DUP has offered nothing close to a credible explanation for why it championed Britain's exit from the EU, or why it continues to enable its most zealous adherents, says Matthew O'Toole

Boris Johnson with DUP leader Arlene Foster
Boris Johnson with DUP leader Arlene Foster
Sammy Wilson

By Matthew O'Toole

You don't hear much about Milne Barbour these days. A scion of a Lisburn linen dynasty, he later served as one of Northern Ireland's earliest commerce ministers. Barbour also played a minor role in the debates which ultimately brought Northern Ireland into being.

As president of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce at the time of the Ulster Crisis in 1911, he was a spokesman for the robust industrial opposition to Home Rule.

Perhaps it is no surprise that we hear little of him: he represents a strain of unionism that has been endangered in Northern Ireland politics for some time. Pragmatic and practically minded, on the lookout for commercial advantage - and generally minded to be empirical, to prioritise evidence over impulse. The dominance of religion and identity in Irish - especially Ulster - history often occludes the economic forces that act upon individuals and nations.

Barbour and others like him voiced concern that a Home Rule parliament in Dublin would be dominated by the agrarian interests which had become inextricably linked to nationalism since the days of Parnell. Moreover, they feared - or claimed to fear - protectionist measures being erected by nationalists which would ultimately close off vital British and imperial markets to northern industry, which was responsible for the large bulk of economic activity on the island.

These fears may or may not have been correct; an all-Ireland Home Rule parliament was never established. It is, however, true that once De Valera became leader of the Irish Free State, he did pursue both protectionist and agrarian interests.

He refused to continue repaying land annuities - the loans given to Irish small farmers to buy land - to the British as stipulated in the Treaty, a continuation of the land politics of the 19th century.

This escalated into a tit-for-tat trade war between Britain and the Free State and helped to harden further the recently created border.

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It would be foolish and disingenuous to think the primary reason for the partition of Ireland was economic.

But it was not irrelevant, and the arguments of the northern business community were at least in the empirical and material.

They have an obvious echo today in the Northern Ireland business community's near-universal concern over Brexit and their support for the backstop, which aims to keep the border open and a semblance of north-south co-operation viable. Moreover, they eye an opportunity. Northern Ireland is one of the least economically dynamic parts of these islands and its performance would be even worse without the most generous Whitehall subvention received by any UK region.

The reasons for economic under-performance are complicated and multi-generational, but there can be little doubt that the strangeness of the place - its history of conflict, divided social structures and separateness from other markets, whether by sea or border - are not inducements to growth.

Yet the backstop, a policy designed to protect Northern Ireland because of that strangeness, could have the unintended consequence of turning that strangeness into competitive advantage.

Geography and history can make Northern Ireland feel semi-detached from its two main markets, but the backstop could turn that on its head: Northern Ireland would have preferential access to both the UK and EU after the UK leaves.

This, sadly, has become neuralgic for many current unionist politicians - particularly those in the Democratic Unionist Party, who first supported Brexit and then enabled successive Governments to pursue the sharpest possible break from the European Union.

Strangely, the logic of anti-Home Rule unionists 100 years ago - that political union has economic ramifications - is denied in 2019. The DUP has consistently talked up so-called "alternative arrangements" touted by Brexiters, a hodge-podge of technological wheezes that are not yet ready and the imposition of a vast bureaucratic burden on businesses that trade across the border.

"The solutions proffered add complexity and costs that will make business in Northern Ireland less competitive and in some cases unviable," said Retail NI in a statement when the Tory backbencher-led Alternative Arrangements Commission published their final report last month. Business groups have mostly rejected alternative arrangements as being in any way deliverable for years to come and almost universally supported the backstop deal negotiated by the last Government.

Their support for that deal was met with disdain from the DUP, at least in the form of Sammy Wilson - a former finance minister and economics teacher, no less - who accused them of "dancing to the tune" of the Northern Ireland Office.

There is a deeper challenge for unionism here and it is the decoupling of its political leadership from empiricism and economic reality.

For perhaps the first time since the partition of Ireland, the biggest party in unionism finds itself clearly and publicly on the opposite side of a major debate to most parts of the business community - and, even more remarkably, the Ulster Farmers' Union, which also supported the backstop deal.

There is little credible economic analysis that forecasts the UK being better off as a result of Brexit, but there is none whatsoever that says Northern Ireland would be better off. Zero. Anywhere.

Northern Ireland is uniquely exposed to the risks and poorly placed to take advantage of the imagined opportunities.

The DUP has offered nothing approaching a credible explanation for why they championed this cause, or why they continue to enable its most zealous adherents.

Indeed, some of their other big ideas for the Northern Ireland economy reveal more identity anxiety than serious policy-making. I worked in the Treasury in 2011, when the Northern Ireland Executive, at the DUP's urging, negotiated a cut to Air Passenger Duty (APD) in Northern Ireland to match the lower rate in the Republic.

Not unreasonable on its own terms, but it was matched by a quixotic effort (with the help of public money) to protect a single, uneconomic air link between Belfast and New York, which later folded anyway.

The hard, empirical truth is that Dublin Airport is a highly successful and growing air hub, with lots of links to North America - not to mention the convenience of immigration pre-clearance. And, I'm afraid, it is on the same small island as Northern Ireland.

Undeterred by this attempt to use economic policy to subvert geography, some in the DUP have even gotten on board with Boris Johnson's flirtation with building a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Leaving aside the question of whether this is the best way to spend £20bn with Northern Ireland's healthcare in its current state, I would direct enthusiasts to what happened the last time Johnson championed an exciting bridge. The London Garden Bridge project was abandoned before a brick was laid, but at a cost of £43m to the taxpayer.

This is not the hard-nosed empiricism of unionist self-image. It is notable that Simon Hamilton, the DUP's less identity-focused (and Brexit-sceptic) former economy minister has gone to work for Belfast Chamber - the same organisation from which Milne Barbour railed against Home Rule a century ago.

But a century ago, identity unionists were a clear majority in what became Northern Ireland. That is no longer true and will probably never be again.

For the Union to endure, new "empirical unionists" will need to be created. The opposite is happening.

  • Downpatrick-born Matthew O'Toole was Brexit spokesperson in Number 10 Downing Street until 2017. Before that, he worked at the Treasury. He now writes about British and Irish politics

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