I am writing this from a wonderful little former fishing village called Glengarriff, an hour and a half’s drive from the gleaming new Cork international airport. The economic success of Glengarriff is a good way of explaining why the DUP-Tory deal is so important to Northern Ireland, which for many years has struggled to keep up with the infrastructure improvements in the south. Today, while Belfast splutters, there is nothing less than an economic revolution going on in the south, thanks to European Union funding and a tourism boom that saw 2016 break all records. House prices in the south are now rising by €2,000 a month.
Back in the 19th century, when the first little inns opened in Glengarriff, the area was so impoverished that almost every donation to help build the local church of the Sacred Heart – where I attended a friend’s wedding – came from former migrants who had fled the Irish famine to move to a better life in America. The local residents had no money for building churches. Until the EU funding came along, the area was economically deprived and reflected how the north of Ireland was the economically superior. Now it’s booming as Cork becomes a cultural and tourist mecca; and hotels are full.
Historically – and this is crucial to realising why the DUP-May deal is likely to be rock-solid and stable – this goes back to before partition, when around 70 per cent of the industrial productivity of Ireland was generated from the greater Belfast area, including North Down, North Armagh and South Antrim. As Irish historians note, most of this production benefitted the British market and became a factor in partition, with a clear economic advantage going to the Irish in the north.
In last few decades, while the heavy industry of the north is in decline, development in the south – thanks to the EU funding and the Irish tourism miracle in places like Glengarriff – has largely reversed the master-servant dynamics of the north-south economic divide. The Belfast area now only produces about 15 per cent of Ireland’s total output as an island. No wonder the DUP want to maintain a “soft border” and also want VAT for tourism reduced to five per cent so that the north can better compete for tourist cash with the south.
While the DUP may have a reputation for cold chequebook politics, one needs to understand the historical context. To grasp the political psychology of the Northern Irish – and especially the DUP – one needs to know the complicated historical dynamics of the economic relationship between the north and south of Ireland.
With so much of the north’s political and national identity being tied up with an almost mythological belief in its economic superiority – not unlike in Germany and Italy, where the industrial wealth of the country has come from the northern industrial heartland – it’s hardly surprising that the DUP have tried to squeeze as much cash as possible to help the north keep up with their newly prosperous cousins in the south.
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