Do big cats travel?

Bobbie Heatley reviewsCan the Celtic Tiger cross the Irish Border? by John Bradley and Esmond Birnie, Cork University Press, £6.95 pbk

This book, published in association with the Armagh-based Centre for Cross-Border Studies, comprises two essays by the Dublin-based economist, John Bradley, and Esmond Birnie, the chief spokesman for the Ulster Unionist Party on cross-border economic matters.

The authors ask whether, in the age of globalisation, it makes sense for the island of Ireland to trade and seek investment as one unit, and if the north can learn from "the phenomenon of the Celtic tiger." Birnie also raises the question of whether a successfully co-ordinated island economy is possible across two separate political jurisdictions.

So many complex issues in such a short book is over-ambitious.

Much of Bradley's contribution is taken up with the statistical presentation of trade connections past and present, useful data in showing the trend against changing political attitudes, but leaving less space to focus on what should be done, how and why.

Bradley's position is that "... People on both sides of the border" (are beginning to) "accept that there are likely to be mutual gains from more cross-border interactions and co-operation." He favours "removing any remaining barriers and constraints to promoting island-wide growth".

It is true that some industries or firms in the north will gain at the micro level, at the expense of their competitors in the Republic, and vice versa, but where the balance is likely to be is left unexplored.

Similarly the likely net mutual advantages (or otherwise) in terms of national product/income for the Republic and regional product/income for the north are not speculated upon.

Given that two of the north's main wealth-producing sectors, agriculture and manufacturing are fast disappearing, one would have expected more enthusiasm from Birnie for enlarged cross-border trade than appears here.

He is an exponent of the Thatcherite 'free market' school of economics and would prefer it to take place in response to price and profit signals at the micro level, with as little governmental intervention, in the form of institutions and quangos, as possible.

He dislikes cross-border institutions in the case of Ireland for an additional reason -- their potential 'constitutional' implications for the north's UK status. In the main this attitude is expressed sub-text.

He argues that the overall gains for the north from increasing closeness to the Republic are likely to be minimal. Despite the former's deepening decline, as a region of the UK, indicated by its annual drip-feed subvention of around £10bn, he wants no fundamental change in the status quo.

Unionists use this dependency to rubbish the idea that the Republic would be able to carry such a burden in the event of reunification.

However, as Douglas Hamilton explained at this year's Greaves school, nowadays this is not necessarily the case, given the budget surpluses delivered by the 'Celtic tiger'.

To that I would add that the north's overall regional balance of financial flows between it and Britain are not known because of the unavailability of the relevant statistics from the Bank of England and the Exchequer.

What happens is that the British taxpayer provides the money inflow to Northern Ireland to fund the subvention while outward flows of wealth, mainly in the form of commercial rents and profits, accrue to the British investing classes. The wealthy receive and the wage and salary earners pay.

Despite its obvious limitations, Can the Celtic Tiger Cross the Irish Border is a worthwhile introduction to the practicalities of a complex relationship.

October/November 2001

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2002-02-04 23:32:36.
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