Belfast Telegraph

'Republic can't really afford united Ireland now, but if they could get Northern Ireland into a semi-detached position then perhaps they could move into a full united Ireland in 10 or 20 years...'

Economist Dr Graham Gudgin talks to Lindy McDowell about moving to Northern Ireland as a boy, working with David Trimble, and why there's a solution to the border issue

Dr Graham Gudgin is one of the UK's leading economists and one of the country's most vocal Brexiteers.

He's the chief economic adviser of policy exchange, described as the most influential think tank on the centre right. He is honorary research associate at the Centre for Business Research at the University of Cambridge and visiting professor at Ulster University. A former head of the NI Economic Research Centre, he also worked as economics adviser to former First Minister David Trimble until 2002. Here he talks Brexit, its implications for the border, and why he believes the Republic can't afford a united Ireland.

Q. Where do you come from originally?

A. I was born in Aberdeen. My mother Ethel was Scottish and my father Harold was in the Royal Air Force, so we moved around all over the place. My first school was in Singapore - in all I went to 10 different schools. But we lived mainly in the north of England.

That made it very easy moving to Northern Ireland because there are a lot of similarities between the people in both places. My father was a sergeant so he was what you'd call skilled working class. I was born immediately after the war, part of the baby boom, and at that time there was the great housing shortage for the next 10 or 15 years.

For much of the time I was in primary school we actually lived in a caravan. A family with four children in a caravan about seven metres by two metres. Yet I remember it as a very happy childhood. But it must have been fairly congested, particularly for my mother.

Q. So how did you end up in Northern Ireland?

A. I was a grammar school boy and I did quite well and got to university and - the usual thing for many - I was the first person in my family ever to go to university. I found it all very new and rather different. By the mid-Eighties I was at Cambridge University, in economics, when Margaret Thatcher cut our funding. I think we were a bit too left-wing for her, so I had to find another job. I was headhunted by a firm from Northern Ireland.

The Economic and Social Research Council was setting up the Northern Ireland Economic Research Centre and they were casting round for someone to run it. It was the only research institute in the UK that wasn't part of a university and the reason for that was they wanted to avoid in-fighting between Queen's and the University of Ulster. So they decided to set it up as independent of the two. I think it turned out to be a very good idea in that we were outside all the politicking that you get at a university. I liked Northern Ireland very much. I always have, right from the beginning.

Q. Did you have any concerns about coming to live in Belfast in 1985?

A. The only difficulty was that I was married with children: David, then aged 14, and Emma, who was 12. Because of my own experience of moving schools I don't think moving the schools of a teenager is a great idea. We went to talk to Methody and they were very good.

We were very lucky and we were able to get the children in. I always tell people that when we moved my son from his comprehensive in Cambridge to Methody, we found he was a year behind in maths. We both sometimes laugh about sitting on the ferry coming over to Northern Ireland doing algebra trying to catch up. What is very nice is that even now with David and Emma in their early 40s in London, most of their best friends are still Methody people.

It was a good move for them. That was the thing that concerned me most. As long as the school worked out. Northern Ireland with its very good schools came up trumps. My wife Lynette was a primary school teacher and she worked in several schools in Northern Ireland.

Her first school was in Tandragee and her last one was in Larne. She always liked it.

One of the schools she worked in was in Poyntzpass and she loved that - a very rural school. We still have a house in Northern Ireland and spend a lot of time there. Our two youngest granddaughters Sophie, who's eight, and Lucy, four, love it too. They're what you'd call 'wee dotes'. We've another granddaughter, Nell, who's 11 and has just passed her exam to go to one of England's few remaining grammars, and one grandson, Ben, who's now a teenager.

Q. How did you end up working with then First Minister David Trimble (now Lord Trimble)?

A. I was with the Northern Ireland Economic Research Centre from 1985 to 1998. After the Good Friday Agreement and the Assembly was going to be set up, David Trimble was casting around for an economic adviser and somebody must have mentioned my name so he rang up and said would I be willing to do this.

I was very happy to help so I went up to Stormont in 1998. You'll remember we then had that very strange period when the IRA wouldn't give up their guns so the Assembly didn't meet for nearly a year. So for that first year I was just really finding my feet but I didn't really have a proper job to do. I stayed there until 2002. I found it fascinating. A really interesting period when I learned a lot. They are very different worlds, the world of politics and the world of an academic research centre. Before that I'd helped set up the Cadogan Group. We tried to write about economics from a fairly academic point of view but very much from a pro-Union point of view. I think that's why David Trimble approached me - he must have known we were pretty well disposed.

But I was never a member of the UUP. I never joined the party and David Trimble never suggested that he wanted me to. I think that was perhaps quite helpful as well because I didn't get mixed up in party in-fighting. The UUP were always very good to me. I was always welcome at any private meetings, briefings of the First Minister and so on and nobody objected to the fact that I was not a member of the party. That said, not everybody was welcoming, I think, of having academics around. Very few people go into politics to take advice from academics. But for me it was a very good experience and very good for learning about the politics of Northern Ireland.

Q. And a very good grounding for the current Brexit debate?

A. It is because I've got that political background and I don't say as many silly things as people in England often do about Northern Ireland. Sometimes I'm talking to senior journalists in London and I find out they've never even been to Northern Ireland.

When people are talking about the border - I know about the border. I've walked along quite a bit of it. I fully remember what it was like back during the Troubles.

Q. In terms of Brexit do you think the Irish border question can be solved?

A. Absolutely. I think the problem has just been exaggerated out of all proportion for political reasons that people will recognise. If you want to keep a promise of having no border infrastructure and not stopping anybody on the border, that's quite technically possible without any of this nonsense about Northern Ireland staying in the customs union - staying in the EU essentially. You've no need to take just my word for it. The EU's own expert on customs, a Swede called Lars Karlsson who was formerly head of the World Customs Association and deputy director of customs in Sweden, was asked by the European Parliament to do a study on the Northern Ireland border.

He said it's quite possible in his view - the technology is there - to have a border without any physical infrastructure, not even cameras if you don't want them. He said it had been trialled in Sweden and found to work. He said the head of customs in England and indeed the head of customs in Dublin have all said yes, it's quite possible. But for their own reasons the EU and Dublin are quite uninterested in this.

Nobody in Northern Ireland, including DUP supporters, wants to be stopped at the border. The idea of having no infrastructure comes from the fear that even though there may be relatively few dissident paramilitaries they might want to shoot up cameras and more worryingly would try to attack police officers or other staff maintaining the cameras.

Unfortunately in the documents on this I think the British Government have worded it very badly in their rush to try to get on to trade talks. They promised too much really. What we know is that Brussels and indeed Dublin never give up any gain on this.

If something is badly worded they try to set that in stone.

Q. You believe that Leo Varadkar is playing a political game?

A. Yes, I do and there is reasonable evidence for this because there was a sharp change in policy in Dublin between Enda Kenny and Leo Varadkar when he took over in June last year. Under Enda Kenny there was a lot more co-operation going on.

For instance, Enda Kenny had civil servants looking at the role of technology on the border, he was quite willing to solve the problem with technology and there were meetings between Northern Ireland civil servants and Dublin civil servants that were kept fairly quiet. They weren't totally secret but they were kept quiet. Arlene Foster tells me that Enda Kenny was very good at keeping her in touch with any meetings he went to in Brussels.

But once Leo Varadkhar took over all of that stopped. He told the civil servants they mustn't work on electronics, they mustn't meet with the northern civil servants, so he's taken a much harder line on this. He's been trying to push for the UK or at least Northern Ireland staying in the single market. And why's he doing that? Some people think he's cuddling up to Sinn Fein, thinking about the next election.

There have been some leaked emails which suggest that Fine Gael are now much more friendly towards Sinn Fein than has been the case previously. That's one thing. But I'm afraid I'm a bit of a cynic about this - that the Dublin solution to this problem should be the suggestion that Northern Ireland becomes a semi-detached part of the UK. I just roll my eyes and think: 'Well, of course they would'. When they're interviewed on British media, it's a case of butter wouldn't melt in their mouths and of course their desire for a united Ireland has absolutely nothing to do with it. I think from a nationalist point of view it would be quite convenient. They can't really afford to have a united Ireland - if Northern Ireland voted for it now it would be a big difficulty for them because of the economics of it. But if they could get Northern Ireland into a semi-detached position then perhaps they could move into a full united Ireland in 10 or 20 years which might suit them quite well.

If you say that to politicians they will absolutely deny it. But I assume something of that sort is in their minds. I do get calls from unionists saying they're concerned that we're drifting towards a united Ireland. But I'm not pessimistic about that. I don't see any evidence Northern Ireland is up for grabs.

Q. You've been vocal not just in the Brexit campaign but in defending Brexiteers who've been labelled racist and stupid. Have you experienced personal abuse?

A. Myself and Professor Robert Tombs here at Cambridge - we were utterly fed up with this idea that everybody who had any education or who had a few brain cells would obviously oppose Brexit. We knew that wasn't true.

We knew there were a lot of professors in Oxford and Cambridge who would support Brexit. We've also set up the website Briefings for Brexit where we've had High Court judges and academics write articles. It's worked.

One of the most heartening things for me is the number of emails I've had from people right across the country who tell me how fed up they were that they were being called racist and stupid. It's true that the huge majority of academics are pro-Remain. People say to me: 'Gosh, you must be brave being pro-Brexit in Cambridge'.

But I have to say that no one has ever said anything offensive to me. So in a personal sense it hasn't cost me anything. For younger people, it's different. Young people have approached us and told us that while they're pro-Brexit they don't feel able to be identified for fear it would affect their career prospects. Some ludicrous things have been said to them. We had one young person who was told by his professor - who was Jewish - that people who had voted Brexit were the sort of people who sent his relatives to concentration camps. It's absurd. I've been shocked by the fightback against what was a democratic decision. What we have in the UK now is a very divided society.

In Northern Ireland it's maybe nothing new to live in a divided society. But this is something new for England and it's difficult to see how it will end up.

Q. How do you think the Prime Minister has handled the Brexit negotiations?

A. I do think Theresa May has handled it very poorly, but she was dealt a difficult hand. I'm not as critical as many people would be. She's sticking to it and she's trying her best.

Q. Your main reason for supporting Brexit?

A. The key reason I support Brexit is that I see the EU moving towards a United States of Europe. The question has to be - do we want to be a state or an independent country?

It's hard enough to negotiate a way out now. Think how much more difficult it would be as that progressed in 10 or 20 years. However difficult Brexit is now, it must be done.

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