The Blanket

States of Failure

Ciarán Irvine

There are 4 models for the long-term governance of Ireland that seem to have at least some significant support at present amongst commentators, politicians and the public on all sides of the existing religious, social and political divides. They are:

Permanent retention of existing status quo
6-County Independence
26/6 Federal Model
Unitary 32-County State

There is also of course Éire Nua, but support for this is very limited and anyway falls outside the purpose of this article. I will return to Éire Nua on its own merits at a later stage. Joint Authority, when mentioned, is always placed in a temporary, transitional context towards models 3 or 4 and so can be discounted. I concentrate on these four at present for one simple reason: they all have the same fatal flaw.

Every one of the above models assumes a 19th Century style centralised State (or States) on the island. By this I mean that in each and every case the current model of an entire territory being ruled politically and economically from one central location. All power and decision making is concentrated in Dublin or Belfast (or both). This is, of course, the “way it’s always been done” - at least since the 17th century. It is also entirely the wrong way to do things for a wide range of reasons. Recent articles by myself have mainly concentrated on the historical/cultural reasons why centralised government is wrong for Ireland. I turn now to more prosaic socio-economic and geopolitical reasons.

It is a truism that hardly requires further explanation that at present economic activity and wealth (and hence population) are overwhelmingly concentrated around Belfast and Dublin. This is a direct result of the concentration of political power in these locations. When the people who make all the legislative and economic decisions are in one place, they naturally tend to concentrate more on the issues of that location. Lobbyists for various sectors flock to the area to better exert influence. Economic clustering effects take hold, meaning that new companies will set up or invest in the locations where other similar companies - and hence a pool of already-skilled workers - exist. Labour flocks to the area from outlying regions, and a feedback loop is created that sucks ever more power, wealth and activity into the one location.

When allowed to continue over decades we end up with the situation we have today - rural depopulation, poverty and deprivation; dying rural towns; a decaying social and cultural fabric across huge areas of the island. Indeed even without the Unionist mismanagement of Old Stormont it is likely - probable - that the area west of the Bann would still be economically deprived. The various Dublin Governments since Partition had no such ideological grudge against the ironically named BMW (Border, Midlands and West) regions of the Republic, yet the very same processes were in effect and have had the very same results.

And this concentration of activity is not just bad for the depopulated outlying regions. The traffic congestion, housing problems, urban poverty - with attendant drug abuse and crime - that excessive urbanisation brings in its wake cause huge problems for the populations of Belfast and Dublin. In Belfast the added dimension of tribal conflict is only exacerbated by the ensuing competition for space and facilities in a crowded urban environment.

And in the last year we have seen in Dublin that in the long run such over-crowding eventually drives away the economic activity. Negative factors of congestion, rapidly rising costs of living and doing business, crime and the general attitude of harassed and stressed city folk eventually outweigh the positive infrastructural and labour-availability issues - not to mention the tourists. Dublin is now seen as an unattractive place to work and run a business, and as a consequence the Celtic Tiger is beginning to look decidedly mangy. Belfast’s own unique problems will only reinforce these effects.

Then there is the corruption that centralisation brings in its wake. The endless parade of Tribunals in Dublin Castle and the appalling cynical manipulation and neglect of working-class communities in Belfast stem from the same centralised system. With unfettered sovereign power as in the Republic the temptation to abuse that power to line your pocket has obviously been too great for many politicians to resist. When all that matters is the 6-county-wide sectarian headcount in Stormont, politicians are free to ignore the problems of local communities as long as they throw the proper shapes in the Assembly against “the enemy”.

The only people that gain from all this are the people running the whole dysfunctional mess. This is democracy in the 21st century?

In a balanced system, there would be many other regions of the country to which companies could relocate and continue in a more conducive environment. But after decades of neglect, much of the Republic and west of the Bann are even less attractive as either places to live or as places in which a successful business could be run. And so the activity flees elsewhere, mainly at present to Eastern Europe. Of course, this in itself brings up the issue of over-reliance on FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) rather than building up the indigenous industries. But even an Irish-owned company would think twice these days about setting up shop in Dublin…

I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

Another consequence of a centralised state is that local producers have no protection from the ravages of globalisation. Bizarrely, most of the vegetables found on the shelves of Irish supermarkets, north and south, are imported. Why? Because in a centralised system one-size-fits-all, and central governments come under extreme pressure from transnational organisations and global marketeers to rig the game in their favour. If central government caves to the demands of the fundamentalist disciples of the so-called “Washington Consensus” economics, we all must pay the price. There is no last line of defence.

This is quite simply the reason why it is now almost impossible to find locally-produced goods. I am quite young (29), and I can remember a time growing up when everything from most basic foods to round-the-home tools to flowers came from people you knew. Local families were financially supported, in addition to their jobs - by out-of-work family members indulging in various arts, crafts, vegetable gardens and so on. Communities were kept strong (and solvent), local crafts and skills were kept alive, you knew what you were eating, and multinational chain stores for unusual or high-tech goods were never far away if you needed them.

All that has gone, local communities are fragmented, where they still exist in any meaningful sense, many local crafts may already be lost forever. And the young people have no choice, no option, are not even any longer aware of any option, but to make the trek to Belfast or Dublin and sell their lives (or 60 hours a week of them) for a pittance to multinational who may close down at any moment. And people wonder why Ireland’s youth seem, despite increased prosperity, to be more disaffected, alienated and as a consequence angry and seeking escape in substance abuse than ever before. They realise that something has been lost, that this road leads nowhere. But a centralised system offers little hope for change.

A highly decentralized system, on the other hand…

While the transition period would involve much upheaval and change, the end result would I believe be well worth a few years of inconvenience. It is easier - and cheaper - to build 200 houses in 20 towns around the country than to try to build another 4,000 in the monstrosity that is Greater Dublin (now rapidly swallowing Kildare, Meath and Wicklow). Easier - and cheaper - to upgrade water, sewage, electricity, road and telecommunications access for those same towns than to build the folly that is LUAS. When added to strong local government that can make real decisions - including revenue-raising and legislative powers - you have all the ingredients you need to encourage economic activity of all kinds.

A strong local council supporting local producers and crafts, offering incentives to a (sensible) amount of FDI, and maintaining a decent infrastructure would add up to an attractive place to live and work and do business. The vast majority of the populations of our cities come from somewhere else in Ireland, and if only these ingredients were in place I know most of them would return to the region of their birth. After all, living in a vibrant Omagh, Enniskillen, Tralee or Castlebar has got to be better than enduring - for that is all many people do, “put up with” - Belfast or Dublin.

And if such councils had treaty-making powers with foreign governments, and if the central Government had a limited role in only those areas strictly best dealt with nationally - and overseeing equality of opportunity in the local council areas (so that it could not actually enforce the demands of transnational organisations even if it wanted to)….

A pipedream? Not if the political will was there to make the change. It really wouldn’t take all that much organisation and money to rebalance the island and lead to better lives for all Irishmen and Irishwomen (and Irish children!). Unfortunately those who have lived their lives in the belly of the beast, who know nothing but the seduction of unfettered centralised power, will never countenance such a move. Unless they are told to.

By We The People.




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The man of knowledge must be able not only to love his enemies but also to hate his friends.
- Friedrich Nietzsche

Index: Current Articles

11 July 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


In Memory of a Storm Trooper

Billy Mitchell


States of Failure

Ciarán Irvine


Colombian 3 - What Chance of Justice
Sean Smyth

So Many Monuments...

Brian Mór

Lord Alex on the job
Brian Mór


7 July 2002


It Was Our First World War Too, You know

Anthony McIntyre


No To Isolation

Trade And Employees' Unions and TMMOB


The Orange Relic
Sean O Lubaigh

Remember the Dishonour

Davy Carlin

Danny Myers




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