KYRAN FITZGERALD: Martin McGuinness: The politics of pragmatism

Former British PM John Major with John Hume and Martin McGuinness. Pic: Maxwells

Economic pragmatism played a huge part in Martin McGuinness’ transformation from IRA leader to peace-seeking statesman, writes Kyran Fitzgerald.

What part did economic pragmatism play in the transformation of Martin McGuinness from IRA leader into that of Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, committed to the path of peace?

Quite a lot, one suspects.

Last June, the Sinn Féin leader delivered a speech in London just ahead of the June 23 Brexit referendum, in which he cautioned about the dangers of a vote in favour of a British exit from the EU. He warned that the cost of Brexit to the Northern Irish economy would be around €1bn a year.

The agricultural sector would lose out to the tune of €325m while a two-thirds reduction in immigration to the North was also in prospect, with resulting serious negative impacts on economic output.

This is a speech that could have been delivered by his fellow Derryman, John Hume, who devoted his career to building up the economy of his native town right from the days in the mid-1960s when he helped to found the local credit union.

As an MEP, Mr Hume built contacts in Europe while simultaneously amassing friendships in Washington, in particular among senior Democratic party connections which would stand him in good stead, particularly after the peace process kicked off and the Clinton administration took up office.

The SDLP leader was a driving force behind hotel and retail projects in the town and by the late 1980s, Derry was viewed as a forerunner when it came to the politics of reconciliation.

Mr Hume was not alone in this regard. Important roles were played by people such as the businessman and community leader Paddy Doherty, who spearheaded the Inner City Trust which has helped retrain unemployed people.

The great feather in Mr Hume’s cap is the Seagate project, landed by the city against some serious competition, in 1993. The SDLP politician was also responsible for the Derry Boston Ventures initiatives as he sought to plug into Irish American contacts.

More than 1,300 are employed by Seagate in Derry. A real concern must be whether this linchpin can be sustained. As far back as 1965, Mr Hume, then a teacher, was among those pressing for the establishment of a university in the city. Education has turned the key to many career doors in Irish lives.

Back in the early 1990s, then US president Bill Clinton’s decision to provide Gerry Adams with a visa led to a transformation in the relationship between Sinn Féin and Irish America, previously viewed almost exclusively as a source of funds for the armed struggle.

The range of contacts between the Sinn Féin leadership and Americans expanded greatly and the nature of such contacts was fundamentally altered following the appointment of George Mitchell, the former Senate Majority leader as Mr Clinton’s economic envoy to Northern Ireland.

The conclusion of the Belfast Agreement, followed within a couple of years by the traumatic events of 9/11, led to a further alteration. The attacks on the World Trade Center hit Irish America extremely hard.

What has followed has been a remarkable transformation from the days of the Troubles.

In the run-up to that conflict, the economic depression in nationalist communities such as Derry and Strabane played a key role.

What is less recognised is that, between 1969 and the early 1990s, the gap in living standards between the rival communities actually grew.

According to Kathleen Lundy, writing in the Notre Dame Journal of Law Ethics and Public Policy in 2001, from 1980 the rate of unemployment actually grew faster among Catholics than among Protestants.

In large part, this was due to the fact that the great majority of the 40,000 security jobs were filled by those from the majority ‘religion’. This was despite the enactment of the 1976 and 1989 Fair Employment Acts prohibiting discrimination in employment on religious grounds.

In 1995, 57% of the population were considered to be Protestants, but this group accounted for just 42% of the unemployed.

As Mr Mitchell put it, “for many years, violence and fear settled over Northern Ireland like a heavy unyielding fog. The conflict hurt the economy so unemployment rose ... in a deadly cycle of escalating misery.”

As Ms Lundy puts it: “The United States’ realisation of the economic impetus to peace is the most tangible reason the latest peace process advanced to yield the Good Friday Agreement.”

Prior to Mr Mitchell’s involvement, American and European friends of Ireland were already playing a key role in this regard.

The North received £240m under a special EU Peace and Reconciliation package, with £40m more being paid by the International Fund for Ireland.

The carrot was dangled. Mr McGuinness was won over to the politics of pragmatism. Since those days, the North has enjoyed many of the dividends. Its tourism sector is buoyant yet its economy remains seriously unbalanced and now Brexit brings with it a new set of threats.

True, the unemployment rate has dropped from its 1986 peak of over 17% to around 6% while growth in GDP is being recorded at a very modest pace (2% in 2016 though perhaps just over 1%, this year).

While unemployment is down, it remains at 15% among 18- to 24-year-olds.

At the same time, construction firms complain about a shortage of skilled labour as the sector ramps up to tackle a growing housing shortage.

A shortage of migrant labour could hit sectors such as farming, hospitality, and healthcare while further hitting the region’s ability to attract mobile investment.

The Brexit vote has been followed by a sharp dip in inquiries from foreign investors.

Northern Irish exporters depend heavily on the EU market and now the prospect of a hard border looms as talks between the UK and the remaining 27 EU member states get set to commence.

Looming over all of this is the huge reliance on Westminster subsidies estimated at around £10bn a year.

It is hard to believe that the pragmatism espoused by Martin McGuinness over the past decade or more can remain unchallenged in an environment of potential economic meltdown.

Levels of anger could soar in nationalist communities if cutbacks are implemented in a post-Brexit economic panic.

An experiment has commenced. Will we witness an explosion in the laboratory as the mad scientists of the Tory right fumble with their bubbling test tubes?

Will the pro-investment strategies promoted by the departed Deputy First Minister come to be seen as little more than a passing phase in the tangled history of Northern Ireland?

Will economic pragmatism give way once again to the politics of protest and economic populism.


Five things for the week ahead with Des O'Driscoll.Five things for the week ahead

From Liverpool’s beat-pop to Bristol’s trip-hop, Irish writer Karl Whitney explains the distinctive musical output of individual cities in the UK, writes Marjorie Brennan.Sounds of the City: The musical output of individual UK cities

As landlords’ enclosures of villages and commonages during England’s industrial revolution drove landless countrymen into the maws of the poet William Blake’s “dark Satanic mills”, a romantic nostalgia for the countryside began to grow.Damien Enright: Great writers took inspiration from walking

Take no risks, ‘do all the right things’, and you’ll lead a comfortable, but dull, existence. ‘Living dangerously’, on the other hand, yields ‘highs’ of excitement usually followed, alas, by pain andRichard Collins: Live fast and die young or last up to 500 years

More From The Irish Examiner