Archive for Northern Ireland

The Myths of UK-Ireland Trade

Posted in Finance, Politics with tags , , , , on August 20, 2019 by telescoper

It is clear now that the UK Government’s strategy on Brexit is one of economic aggression towards Ireland.  Senior Brexiters seem to think that threatening to put up barriers to trade with the Republic will frighten it and the European Union into abandoning the rules of the single market and customs union.

As well as being morally repellent this strategy is also extremely stupid, as is based on a complete misconception of the state of trade between these two countries. For example, one prominent Leave campaigner and former Minister of State recently claimed that 90% of Ireland’s trade is with the UK. That may have been the case in the 1950s but it is certainly not the case now.

In fact, according to the latest figures, only about 11% of Ireland’s exports in goods go to the UK and this figure is falling rapidly. The largest export destination for Ireland within the EU is actually not the UK, but Belgium (11.65%) with Germany just behind on 8.56%. Overall the EU accounts for about 49% of Ireland’s exports; the largest other contribution is the United States on about 29%.

Contrary to popular myth, Ireland’s exports are not dominated by agriculture and food. By far the largest contribution is from chemicals and pharmaceutical products many of which go to Antwerp for onward distribution and/or further processing. This accounts for the large trade figure with Belgium.

Another fact worth mentioning is that while Ireland overall has a healthy trade surplus overall (it exports more than it imports; see above Figure), its trade balance with the United Kingdom is actually negative (i.e. the UK exports more to Ireland than it imports). In 2018, UK exports to Ireland were worth £38.3 billion; imports from Ireland were £21.9 billion, resulting in a trade surplus of £16.4 billion with Ireland. Ireland accounted for 6.0% of UK exports and 3.3% of all UK imports. Ireland was the UK’s 5th largest export market and the 9th largest source of imports. The UK has recorded a trade surplus with Ireland every year between 1999 and 2018.

Brexiters have frequently used the argument that, since the UK has a negative trade balance with the EU, the EU needs the UK more than the UK needs the EU. It’s a wrong argument, of course, but it’s interesting that the Brexiters don’t apply it to Ireland.

There’s no question that the `No Deal’ Brexit which I’ve regarded as inevitable from the outset will disrupt the Irish economy, or at least parts of it, and in the short term, but I agree with the Irish Times analysis from some time ago and a more recent article from the FT that it will cause far greater damage to the UK.

In the longer term, when the UK is out of the European Union I’m sure its trade surplus with Ireland will quickly disappear as Ireland finds alternative (and more trustworthy) trading partners. Irish businesses are already eliminating British companies out of their supply chains and it seems likely that if and when the hard Brexit arrives, Irish customers will be increasingly disinclined to buy British products.

The UK seems to be hoping that some sort of deal with Trump’s America will help it out of the economic hole it has dug for itself, but remember that the UK currently has a trade surplus with the USA. The Americans will be keen to eliminate that during any future trade negotiations.

The really important thing however is not the overall effect on the economy but on the problems it will cause for communities either side of the British border in Ireland. The recently-leaked documents from Operation Yellowhammer make it clear that the UK government `expects a return to a hard border in Ireland’. The implication of this is stark: the UK government is planning to renege on its obligations under the Good Friday Agreement, which is an international treaty.

If it goes ahead and does that, then it may be that the economic effects of leaving the single market and customs union are small potatoes compared to the price that will pay for becoming a rogue state. I can’t see the United States, with its approximately 40 million citizens of Irish descent, being keen to support a British government that is so obviously seeking to bully Ireland especially, as seems sadly likely, British actions spark a return to violence in the North.

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Hands off the Good Friday Agreement!

Posted in Biographical, Politics with tags , , , , , , on February 22, 2018 by telescoper

 

I’ve been watching with increasing alarm the concerted attempt that certain extremist `Brexiteers’ have been trying to make a case for scrapping the Good Friday Agreement that came about in 1998 after decades of violent conflict in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.  These reckless fools think that derailing the peace process is a price worth paying for their ideological obsession with rejecting anything that involves the EU, in this case the Customs Union that allows an open border between the Republic of Ireland (whose future lies in the vibrant and outward-looking European Union) and Northern Ireland (which will remain shackled to the corpse of the United Kingdom, at least for the time being, until the creation of a united Ireland…). Not surprisingly, Irish politicians and the Irish are incensed about the reckless statements being made by some UK politicians.

Incidentally, the Good Friday Agreement was supported by simultaneous referendums in Northern Ireland (71.1% in favour) and the Republic  of Ireland  (94.4% in favour) ; a majority of the NI electorate also voted against leaving th European Union.  It’s strange how selectively some people are prepared to accept `The Will of the People’…

Anyway, just as a reminder of what is at stake, here are three examples based on my own experiences of what things were like before the GFA, when I lived in London (which I did for about eight years, between 1990 and 1998). During that time I found myself in relatively close proximity to three major bomb explosions, though fortunately I wasn’t close enough to be actually harmed. I also concluded that my proximity to these events was purely coincidental.

The first, in 1993, was the Bishopsgate Bombing. I happened to be looking out of the kitchen window of my flat in Bethnal Green when that bomb went off. I had a clear view across Weavers Fields towards the City of London and saw the explosion happen. I heard it too, several seconds later, loud enough to set off the car alarms in the car park beneath my window.

This picture, from the relevant Wikipedia page, shows the devastation of the area affected by the blast.

The other two came in quick succession. First, a large bomb exploded in London Docklands on Friday February 8th 1996, at around 5pm, when our regular weekly Astronomy seminar was just about to finish at Queen Mary College on the Mile End Road. We were only a couple of miles from the blast, but I don’t remember hearing anything and it was only later that I found out what had happened.

Then, on the evening of Sunday 18th February 1996, I was in a fairly long queue trying to get into a night club in Covent Garden when there was a loud bang followed by a tinkling sound caused by pieces of glass falling to the ground. It sounded very close but I was in a narrow street surrounded by tall buildings and it was hard to figure out from which direction the sound had come from. It turned out that someone had accidentally detonated a bomb on a bus in Aldwych, apparently en route to plant it somewhere else (probably King’s Cross). What I remember most about that evening was that it took me a very long time to get home. Several blocks around the site of the explosion were cordoned off. I lived in the East End, on the wrong side of sealed-off area, so I had to find a way around it before heading home. No buses or taxis were to be found so I had to walk all the way. I arrived home in the early hours of the morning.

 

Does anyone really  want to go back to experiencing this kind of event on a regular basis? If  the UK government is persuaded in its weakness to ditch the Good Friday Agreement then there is a real risk of that happening. And if it does, those calling for it will have blood on their hands.

 

 

 

The Days of the Double Bind

Posted in Biographical, Literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on December 5, 2017 by telescoper

The last few days I’ve been trying to deal with the sort of apparently insoluble problem usually called a double bind, similar to the logical paradox which provided the central plot device of Joseph Heller’s classic novel Catch-22. I’ve seen this particular double bind happen to so many colleagues from abroad wanting to work in the United Kingdom that in a sense it’s quite reassuring that the same thing happens in much the same way in other countries too, specifically Ireland.

The problem facing me is that I need to find somewhere to rent temporarily in Maynooth until I can find longer-term accommodation (i.e. by buying a house). As convenient as St Patrick’s College is as a short-term residence, it’s not somewhere I would want to live for weeks and months. The trouble is that in order to secure private rented accommodation you need to prove that you are able to pay the rent, which generally means having a bank account. On the other hand, in order to open a bank account you need to have proof of an address. No address, no bank account and no bank account, no address.

This is not exactly the same as Heller’s Catch-22 (which is basically that an airman can’t be discharged from military service on grounds of being insane because his wanting to be discharged from military service means that he can’t actually be insane), but it belongs to the same broad class of logical quandaries where there appears to be no solution.

Although it’s quite intimidating to be put in a seemingly impossible position, Robert M. Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance offers a way out: you just need to `unask the question’, and proceed in a way that denies the (binary) premises on which the conundrum is based. Engaging in a bit of lateral thinking, calling on the assistance of influential bodies, and employing a bit of gentle persuasion you often find that what look initially like hard rules turn out to have a surprising degree of flexibility.  Anyway, to cut a long story short, and with fingers crossed, I should have my bank account and place of residence both sorted out before I return to Cardiff on Thursday.

For me of course this isn’t anything like a life-or-death situation. I have been around long enough not to let bureaucracy get to me. Things like this seem very serious at the time, but there’s always a way to resolve the, usually because there are still some reasonable people in the world. And I am lucky. I can cope with the uncertainty and frustration of being in a double bind as I have resources to fall back on if there are problems. It would no doubt have been more difficult had I just arrived in the country as a recent graduate with no savings. I’ve seen many others at all kinds of stages in their career go through a similar impasse and, though it’s troublesome, such things invariably sort themselves out in time. Still, it’s nice to get such things settled sooner rather than later.

Thinking about this as I listened to the radio this morning, I was struck by another, much larger, more important, and slightly more complex, paradox. That is the inability of the UK government to find a solution to the Irish border problem in the Brexit negotiations. In essence, the nature of this pickle is that the EU insists (as it always said it would) that there should be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. That is possible if the UK leaves the EU but seems to require that Northern Ireland  remains in  the Single Market and Customs Union in some form. However, the PM has insisted that the United Kingdom must leave the Single Market and Customs Union. Moreover, the Democratic Unionist Party, which is propping up the Conservative government, insists (as it always said it would) that Northern Ireland should not be treated differently from the rest of the UK. If cast in these terms, there seems to be no solution to the problem.

Incidentally, and I now digress, here is a map showing the Four Provinces of Ireland, together with the current border:

These are historical divisions and nowadays have no political or administrative role, but I think the map is interesting because it shows, if you didn’t know it before, that: (a) the current Irish border does not coincide with the boundary of Ulster; and (b) the most northerly point of the island of Ireland (Malin Head  on the Inishowen Peninsula, in County Donegal)  is in the Irish Republic, not in Northern Ireland. Maynooth, incidentally, is in Leinster.

Anyway, I think the current stalemate over the Irish Border is the inevitable outcome of one of Theresa May’s `red lines’ which seem to me to make a negotiated settlement impossible a priori. The only option for the Prime Minister seems to me to be to frame the problem another way. One way of making progress would be to abandon the red line on SM and CU membership. I don’t think that will happen as it would look too much like an admission of failure. Another way to do it would be to use gentle persuasion to get the DUP to shift its position. That is more likely, but will prove costly in both political and financial terms.  The best way to unask this particular question is, of course, to abandon the Brexit project altogether. I’m not going to quote odds, but the possibility of the United Kingdom remaining in the European Union is increasing by the day. That won’t affect me directly very much, as I’ll be remaining in the EU come what may.