In an age in which we’re abandoning free trade for protectionism, dumping the ideal of global commerce in favor of a weird brand of nationalism, it may be worthwhile to throw in an example of the power of business and profit to create peace — and how it could be thrown into reverse.
Belfast is, maybe oddly, one of my favorite cities of the Old Empire. Its rainy, cool year-round; a bit scruffy. The streets are gritty, the pubs over-warm, serving fish and chips and corned beef and cabbage in equal amounts.
Belfast City Hall bears an amazing resemblance to buildings of similar purpose throughout the U.K. and the former empire; bigger, older than many, but the same grey, slightly moldy edifice that represents the administration of the British Empire throughout the world.
In comparison with cosmopolitan Dublin, capital of the republic of the south, Belfast is a bit of a backwater — still sporting fading murals of IRA and UFF/UDF heroes. Rubble from the “troubles” still lies on the ground of the vacant lots that suddenly appear near the Shankill road, which still splits — with a gigantic wall topped with barbed wire — the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods of the capital.
In a visit several years ago, I journeyed to the headquarters of Sinn Fein, but took a quick detour to the Protestant neighborhoods by taxi.
The driver joked, “There are now more Catholics on this side of the road than ever in the history of Belfast.” “What?” I asked. “I thought the division was total?” “No”, he said, “at least not by religion.”
Confused, I said that I had thought that religion was the heart of the division in Ulster. “No,” he said, “the Catholics that live here are from Poland, and they get along just fine.”
The Poles had come — at Northern Ireland’s invitation — to work in the newly burgeoning economy created by conditions under the EU. The point he was making so effectively is that religion is only part of the story, and that, only on the surface.
The Birmingham 6… Omagh… Bloody Sunday. Swapped happily for Euros and growth.
Going to a pub in Northern Ireland can be a weird experience for an American. All serve stout of one sort or another, and are decorated with patriotic bric-a-brac favoring either the Unionists or the Republicans. But there is rarely a single “public house” on either side of the Shankill that does not sport a portrait of American President Bill Clinton. Why? It is at least in part because of Bill Clinton, representative of a solid American foreign policy effort now mostly forgotten in the U.S., that the people of Northern Ireland stopped killing each other.
The “Good Friday Accords” were a landmark agreement between the viciously warring Unionists (mostly Protestant Irish who favored union with the United Kingdom) and Republicans (mostly Catholic supporters of Irish independence or Union with the Irish Republic). Thirty brutal years of civil strife had sapped it all of real political meaning, but the horror continued until exhausted leadership, coupled with honest American brokerage, brought it to a shaky end.
As the U.K. became closer to Europe in the European Union, Northern Ireland slowly became less British and more “European” — the border between the Republic and the British North disappeared. Trade helped win what bullets could not: Real peace.
But now the whole delicate edifice is threatened. Not by nationalism in Northern Ireland, but by the ridiculous manifestation of nationalism in Britain itself.
While “Brexit” — the pending departure of the U.K. from the European Union — has had many deleterious effects across the U.K., nowhere is it more destructive than in Northern Ireland.
Ireland is the only place in the U.K. where there would suddenly be an actual border, re-established by restrictions brought on by the exit of the U.K., between the U.K. and an EU nation. The same protectionist policies would apply to the Republic of Ireland as would apply to Malta. Trade between the Republic and the North could, for the first time since the 1998 agreements, run up against a closed border. For the first time, anti-EU politicians are talking of scrapping the Accords – or altering them unrecognizably. Renewed hostility has emerged, though not to the point of blood.
There are hopeless moments when one wonders if perhaps Adam Smith — and William F. Buckley — may have had it right. Leave nationalism to the side and let free trade work its magic. When leadership does not rise to the occasion, perhaps profit motive can.
R. Bruce Anderson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Dr. Sarah D. and L. Kirk McKay Jr. Endowed Chair in American History, Government, and Civics at Florida Southern College in Lakeland.