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Ireland’s Belt & Road Initiative

EU border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland
Written by John Wilson Foster

Prof Foster likens the Republic of Ireland’s subsidies for Northern Ireland institutions to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Like China, Ireland is seeking political influence towards its aim of absorbing Northern Ireland.

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he Arts Council of Northern Ireland has announced that the government of the Irish Republic will fund “all-island arts investment projects” to the tune of £6.4m. These will include turning the historic Bellaghy Bawn in Seamus Heaney’s home town at a cost of £4m into “a cross-border residential facility for writers to work and interact”. As a literary critic and author of The Achievement of Seamus Heaney (1995), I am bound to find this news cheering.

However, funding from the Dublin government’s Shared Island Initiative (SII) goes far beyond investing in arts and cultural infrastructure.  Belfast and Cork city councils will share £77,000 initial funding for dockland development.  Belfast City Council will apply for further money to build a new bridge across the River Lagan from Sailortown to the Titanic Quarter and the Sinn Féin-dominated Council’s application will be a shoo-in. BCC has already received £30,000 of initial funding to work jointly with Cork City Council on a rooftop solar heating project, the aim of which is as unimpeachable as that of the Bawn writers’ retreat: through renewable energy technology to help decarbonise the cities by reducing dependence on fossil fuels.

Dwarfing these investments is the £38m that will be provided to the University of Ulster to expand their Magee campus in Londonderry. New buildings, an increase in enrolment of students from both sides of the border, a link-up between UU and the Atlantic Technical University in Letterkenny over the border are what this investment intends to accomplish.

From 2020-2022, over £165m was allocated from the SII fund while £451m is ringfenced for joint North-South projects between 2020 and 2025.  According to an August 21 article in the Belfast Telegraph  by Paul Gosling, author of A New Ireland: A Ten Year Initiative (2020), there are proposals to improve the Belfast-Dublin rail connection, reopen the Londonderry-Portadown line with an onward connection to Dublin, and improve the A5 Londonderry to Dublin road, though these are not listed on the SII website.

Although the UK’s £10bn annual subvention to Northern Ireland will remain the essential guarantee of Northern Ireland’s financial viability, the SII will allocate a billion euro (£865m) until 2030 for cross-border projects in health, education, the environment, transport, tourism, sport, culture and civic society to interconnect Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Should everyone in Northern Ireland, unionists and nationalists alike, welcome these injections of Irish euro into Northern Ireland? If they are strictly economic benefactions, yes.  If they are solely to advance reconciliation between North and South, yes.

And if the Initiative’s ostensible aim of strengthening the Ulster economy is solely to help Northern Ireland be a going concern (something I and others have called upon republicans to get behind and that Sinn Féin has never sincerely done), again yes.

There is one essential litmus test. Is the Initiative a way of advancing the cause of a united Ireland?

To begin with, the overreach of the ten-year Initiative announced by then Taoiseach Michéal Martin in October 2020 turns a green light to deep amber.

Some of the various sectors of Northern society are to be joined up with their Southern counterparts to their mutual benefit. But some are assumed to have intrinsic deficiencies that need taken care of.  Gosling, ex-advisor to the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, tells us that the Irish government is very concerned that too many NI students are leaving for university in Great Britain, that NHS waiting lists are too long, there aren’t enough childcare places in NI, transport infrastructure is weak, and that the Republic aims to fix all this.

If this concern is true, this is hackle-raising to a unionist. These are internal matters for the UK and the UK alone. For example, NI students when they go to a mainland university are going to another part of their own country and it is no business of the Republic’s. The NHS is very nearly synonymous with post-war UK. No UK government is inviting itself into the Republic to help remedy any of the multiple problems that beset Irish society.

In the context of this ambitious Initiative, it is important to remember that when we say “cross-border” (a phrase like “across the sectarian divide” that stirs warm feelings in script-writers), we allude to connections between two independent nations, the UK and Republic of Ireland. But in practice these projected connections lessen the sovereignty only of the UK, not that of the Republic. No UK government is invited into the Republic to help remedy any of the multiple problems that beset Irish society.

We are told that the Good Friday Agreement (1998) mandates activities of these sorts. What an Agreement for all seasons it is! No wonder Martin in his announcement hails its “genius”. But under “Economic, Social and Cultural Issues” in the GFA, it is the British government alone that pledges to promote economic growth and strengthen “the physical infrastructure of the region”. There is no mention of the government of the Republic doing this. To imagine that the “broad policies for sustained economic growth” can be broad enough to involve the Republic by implication or stealth is to give the unionist imprimatur to the Agreement a whole new interpretation.

The Republic’s chutzpah is frankly astounding. Gosling reflects Dublin’s thinking when he confides that the trick is to get all this done “without unnecessarily annoying unionists” who are the only flies in the ointment of this marvellous scenario. The obstacle is “tribal politics” – not highly justified constitutional suspicion, which is what it is, but just crude unionist atavism standing in the way of all this warm progressiveness.

Martin calls the Initiative “game-changing”. So what’s the game?

Well, Martin, of the Fianna Fáil party, recently chastised the Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris for finding unhelpful Varadkar’s prediction that he will see a united Ireland in his lifetime. Varadkar was echoing what his Fine Gael colleague Simon Coveney, a thorn in Brexiting Britain’s side, said a few years ago.  Says Martin: “Since the New Ireland Forum, we in the Republic have always articulated our aspiration to a united Ireland”. None of these politicians recognises their predictions (they are not mere innocuous-sounding “aspirations”) as significant micro-aggressions or would admit that the Initiative and the predictions are soulmates. The predictions are attempts at self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Initiative’s play is an attempt at what American footballers would call an end-run around the unionists. And around London, though London apparently doesn’t care. The Republic’s business minister Neale Richmond champions the Initiative to interconnect economically the island because he “aspires” to a united Ireland. It’s a safe bet that every member of every major party in the Republic thinks alike: yes to interconnection and to its chief end, Irish unification.

The northern economy is to be strengthened in order to make the inevitable unification a fusion of something more like equals. Have Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt signed up to this scenario?

The ten-year Initiative is Ireland’s Belt & Road Initiative. Via investment and trade, China’s B&RI aims to interconnect countries and regions in pursuit of a Chinese-led globalism. The SII appears to be its island-sized scale-model.

The SII will invest while all-island trade will develop in the wake of the Windsor Framework which impairs the Union and will subtract a growing portion of NI-GB trade from the NI economy and transfer it to the EU. The ulterior motive of the B&RI is, of course, Chinese political influence around the globe to counter that of the United States. Just as (in miniature) the Republic surely hopes with its Initiative to counter GB influence in NI.

Moreover, I’m quite sure all members of the Dáil regard the island at present as one country, two systems. When the CPP succeeded the UK in Hong Kong governance, they quickly set about fashioning one country, one system to which they had always aspired. Just as they scheme to get Taiwan back, in the teeth of 74 years of separate development. Or in the cases of Northern Ireland and the Republic, 101 years. The irredentist memory is a long one.

When I read of the Initiative, I was taken back to 1994 when Canada lifted its ban on Gerry Adams’ coming into the country. The Vancouver Board of Trade hosted a Q & A with Adams and a local panel and I was invited. An expatriate Fianna Fáil stalwart, who travelled often to Dublin, narrated to me in Vancouver during the Q & A the likely sequence of events as he claimed constitutional nationalists in the Republic saw them.

First we unify tourism, he said, then agriculture, energy, transport and telecommunications – the soft economic targets and infrastructures. Then we go for the sturdier structures and agencies, consent and cross-borderism in the same breath. Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin grow intimate, Fine Gael and Labour recede. The British don’t want you, but we do, he said (a sentiment that is ghoulish to unionist ears). We’ll keep 70 seats warm for you in the Dáil. The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland will be the first unionist party through its portals. I told him it was fantasy and he chuckled at my naivety.

As he saw it, it was not to be the Sinn Féin/IRA way but the Fianna Fáil way and the Shinners would finally come on board.  Was his take prescient? If the Initiative were to proceed and expand, a border poll may not even be necessary to achieve an ensnaring unification. The Sinn Féin clamour for a Doomsday border poll might come to seem old-fashioned, divisive and unpredictable A successful, open-ended Initiative would rob Sinn Féin of the vengeful poll result they dream of as a party historically wedded to rout and rupture – in short, a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael end-run of a clever kind.

Since the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 then, Irish government involvement in Northern Ireland has been recruited to one end.  And so far, there is no pushback from the UK, that seemingly doesn’t seem to mind if another country (or the EU) has increasing influence in part of its own jurisdiction.  From the Republic’s perspective, the envisaged political dividend from the  unfolding economies of Ireland North and South – unification and Northern Ireland’s severance from GB – might appear more winnable than anyone thought before the Framework and the Initiative.

The question is what the response should be of those who wish to remain the Britons they are and free of an Irish republic.

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About the author

John Wilson Foster