1 December 2013 Edition
Breaking the Berlin Wall Breaking the Border
European United Left – Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) European Parliamentary Group – Conference on planning for Irish reunification
‘We tore down the Berlin Wall brick by brick but that is only one barrier. You also need to break down mental walls’
ECONOMISTS, MEPs, academics and representatives from across the European Union came together at the EU Parliament in Brussels on 12 November to discuss Irish reunification and lessons from the experiences of mainland Europe, particularly the breaking down of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany.
‘Reuniting Ireland: Lessons from Europe’ – hosted by the European United Left – Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) European Parliamentary Group – heard contributions on planning for Irish unity, with a particular focus on ensuring such a transition went smoothly in economic terms.
Opening the event, GUE/NGL President Gabi Zimmer, an MEP for Die Linke of Germany and who herself grew up in the previously divided nation of Germany, said:
“The project of EU integration is all about bringing people together and breaking down borders.”
She gave her own opinion on the partition of Ireland:
“Driving from Derry to Dublin, I have seen that there is still a lot of work to be done to remove the Border in Ireland. There is an urgent need for cross-border infrastructure – something that the EU should prioritise in its structural funding.”
But she also warned:
“We have seen how the Irish ‘Celtic Tiger’ did not benefit everybody. How can we ensure that those who managed the ‘Celtic Tiger’ for their own economic benefit do not try to abuse a process of Irish unification for their own financial benefit – against the interests of the majority of the people?”
Professor Christa Luft, who served as Economics Minister in East Germany in 1989 and 1990, gave her experience of dealing with reunification. Outlining the importance of having a grounded and fully-costed economic plan, Professsor Luft said that, due to the belief that German reunification was decades off as the Berlin Wall actually fell:
“Long-term policies and resilient economic calculations, potential savings and synergies of the cost of reunification did not exist.”
This short-sightedness resulted in serious economic problems. This was compounded by the fact that, instead of a union, the area of the former East Germany was simply forced to accede to basic law of West Germany. Despite this, she says, hardly anybody anywhere in Germany would like to see the nation redivided even though there are still economic deficits which need to be addressed.
“We tore down the Berlin Wall brick by brick but that is only one barrier. You also need to break down mental walls,” she said in relation to attitudes between East and West.
Cypriot MEP Takis Hadjigeourgiou spoke of his own interest in Irish history, saying, as part of the Good Friday Agreement, the people of Ireland has the right to pursue the reunifiction of their country.
“We Cypriots have a very stong feeling of kinship with Ireland. Not only that we faced the same imperial power of England, but we are too an island nation. Today, with millions of families that struggle to makes ends meet in Europe, people continue to experience war – an economic war. We need to expand people’s right to change their fate and this will only happen if the democratic forces of the Left in Europe can take power.”
• 1990: MONAGHAN/BERLIN
His fellow Cypriot MEP, Vera Polycarpou, said the British used the same divide and rule tactics in Cyprus to retain large strategic military bases on their island. She outlined the problems faced in Cyprus due to the illegal occupation of the north by Turkey and she expressed solidarity with Ireland.
“We are united in struggle against the artifical divisions of our countries,” she said. Echoing experiences in Ireland, Vera said talks between political leaders and rapprochement between both Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot communities is key. Progress in one aids the other, the MEP said.
She added that EU support and funding for cross-community and youth events is a very important part of that progress, as is EU financial support for renovations in the city of Nicosia – Europe’s last divided capital – in preparation for reunification.
Conor Murphy MP called on the Irish Government to produce a Green Paper on Irish unity with the authority and resources to examine in-depth what processes and challenges there are and what measures can be brought about to assist in reunification.
He also spoke about the need for a Border poll on Irish unity within the lifetime of the next Assembly in the North of Ireland, and said setting a date for such a poll would allow for a proper discussion on what a united Ireland would look like — and it is his belief that the argument for unification would be very persuasive.
Ruth Taillon of Ireland’s Centre for Cross-Border Studies outlined the work which needs to be done to deal with the legacy of partition in Border communites:
“Many of the problems that affect the Border region can’t be tackled without cross-Border co-operation. The Border communities have been increasingly isolated because of the conflict and suffered economic decline because of the disruption of the economy and the breaking up of towns and their natural hinterlands.”
• Dr Gerard McCann, Senior Lecturer in European Studies and Geography at Queen's University Belfast, and Conor Murphy MP
She said the Centre for Cross-Border Studies wants to see a targeted approach to aid the Border region, highlighting how such a region cannot compete at attracting foreign direct investment and therefore indigenous businesses must be supported.
Dr Gerard McCann, Senior Lecturer in European Studies and Geography at Queen’s University Belfast, described EU support for peace building, cross-commmunity and voluntary organisations as incredibly important.
“The involvement of the EU in the Peace Process, North-South integration, and the development of business and the voluntary sector has been unprecedented. It goes across the communities and across the island. And it really has underpinned the process at this point.”
He added, though:
“There should be more focus on North/South projects rather than Catholic/Protestant projects. The drive towards religiosity in terms of funding has not been helpful.”
Economist Michael Burke described how the growth of the economy of the South of Ireland since independence and the massive increase in living standards, long eclipsing that of the North, was down to the ability of the South to decide its own fate in economic matters while the North relied on exports to Britain.
“Unionists were told ‘If you stay with the British Empire you’ll be better off.’ But from the facts we can see that they were sold a big fat lie,” he said.
“They’re worse off, the whole community of the North is, and that’s a pattern you see in relation to colonial possessions right across the globe.
“Speaking from a purely economic perspective, I would say that if people want to change their living standards for the better, the best way of doing that would be to get rid of the Border and reunify the country.”
• Economist Michael Burke and Ruth Taillon of the Centre for Cross-Border Studies
“Yes, reunification is an enormous step forward, but to really benefit from it what’s really required is that the new political and economic system that arises from the dissolution of both states either side of the Irish Border is one where investment has to be directed. Relying on big firms, as happened in Germany, simply doesn’t work.”
Wrapping up the conference, Sinn Féin MEP Martina Anderson said it is extremely important that Cyprus and Ireland learn from the German experience. She said the way that West Germany subsumed the East was something which should be avoided here, and instead a merger should be based on an equal basis decided by all the people of Ireland.
Martina said the Irish Government has abjectly failed to promote or seek international support for reunification yet, despite this, interest and support across the EU is growing.
Busting the myth that reunification would be bad economically for Ireland, Martina spoke of the waste of money due to the duplication of separate health, education, agriculture, tourism, infrastrucutre, tax, currency and legal systems on the island:
“Those who continue to oppose reunification premise their argument on the basis that a new and united Ireland is not economically sustainable and is completely reliant financially on British state subvention,” she said. “This argument relies on what can only be described as ‘guesstimates’ from the British Government. We do not know the amount of revenue accrued from taxes, including Corporation Tax and VAT, from businesses located in the Six Counties who pay their taxes through their headquarters in England.”
She also noted that tax currently raised in the North of Ireland flows across the Irish Sea to the British Exchequer used in funding Britain’s illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, maintaining the British royal family and their many state buildings, along with funding museums and other public buildings in England. In a reunited Ireland, this tax money would obviously be retained and used for the benefit of the people of the island.
Pointing to Scotland – which will hold a referendum on independence next year – she noted how previous claims from the British Establishment that an independent Scotland could not survive economically were debunked by the Scottish Government who proved that their economy actually produces a surplus.
She said it would be “very foolish” to take British Treasury figures for the North at face value.
“We believe – politically, economically and socially – that it makes sense for us as an island to operate as a single unit. That said, we also know we have a long way to go.”