Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Economic determinism

Chekov has made his contribution to the Union 2021 series.  While reiterating his opposition to Unionist Unity and his theme of integration into national politics he places a strong emphasis upon economics.  He declares:

"If Northern Ireland can be made to work economically, then it will work politically...If instead the focus is on economic achievement, contributing to the politics and culture of the UK and ensuring that Northern Ireland is a desirable place to live for everyone, then support for the Union will flourish. If we are seen to pay our way, then mainland resentment at our addiction to subsidies will die away."

Making Northern Ireland better economically is a no brainer regardless of the perceived political benefits for Unionism or not.  It is what needs done.  The budget cuts pretty much remove choice in the situation as well.  The idea that we fix the economics and we fix the politics has its attractions.  However, for a number of reasons I remain dubious that it will prove so straighforward.

This is not a new idea.  It has had a number of previous incarnations.  The reforms in the 1960's had an economic underpinning as O'Neill insultingly explained:

"...if you give Roman Catholics a good job and a good house. They will live like Protestants because they will see neighbours with cars and television sets; they will refuse to have eighteen children. But if a Roman Catholic is jobless, and lives in the most ghastly hovel, he will rear eighteen children on National Assistance."

Arguably under direct rule, the expansion of the public sector and equality laws and protections had a similar underpining.  The result of this was the massive expansion in the Roman Catholic middle class in Northern Ireland.  Yet this economic improvement did not result in any shift away from communal voting patterns.  The nationalist vote grew throughout and ultimately plumped for the more virulently nationalist party.  There were undoubtedly other factors at work but the point is that economic advancement did not counterbalance or overwhelm those other factors.  Have attitudes changed sufficiently now that it is strong enough?

There is also a short-medium term tension in the transformation of our economy.  This will involve some reduction in our public sector. If you have been a beneficiary from the expansion of the state you may well be a loser in its retreat.  This pain from transformation may feed resentment rather than build acceptance and support. 

The polling data about Catholic support for the Union is probably a demonstration of the level of 'economic' Unionism.  Yet this is not new either. It is probably a demonstration of basic practicalities rather than a heart and mind won.  From voting patterns it seems they express the same aspiration as before.  This does lead you towards Christopher Montgomery territory but his argument should be considered as ensuring realistic expectations rather than justification to abandon the idea. 

The growth of the Unionist vote is perfectly possible (with three easily identifiable groups for growth - working class Prods, minority ethnic communities and Catholics).  Many of the goals civic Unionists argue for are not the anathema to other Unionists that they imagine.  Their impatience for development and innovation is not necessarily a bad trait (but as an impatient person I'm biased on that.) However, growing Unionism is a generational task.  There are no short-cuts or cheap tricks.

The consolidation and growth of Unionism is a means to their goal.  If Unionism puts its intellect and resources to this generational task then it will become the clearly predominant political force in Northern Ireland. 

In the meantime, our means of building relationships with the GB body politics is to do interesting things with devolution, including potentially on the economy.  The predominant school of thinking at the moment is that ideology is a secondary consideration to delivery  This is the era of policy wonkery, Unionism needs to get good at wonkery. 

Ulster as a beacon of excellence within the United Kingdom should be the goal combined with a Unionism that has demonstrated growing and new electoral support.  This will be the best foundation for re-integration into national politics.


Chekov said...

Ulster as a beacon of excellence within the United Kingdom should be the goal

I certainly don't disagree with that.

Frank said...

The London Assembly eats more cash.