Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Pitiful Rivalries

By David G. Young

WASHINGTON, DC, July 11, 2000 --  

When thousands of anti-Catholic members of the Orange Order marched through the city of Drumcree in Northern Ireland on Sunday, the world was given a vivid reminder of the province's violent past. Unionists displayed provocative signs and T-shirts, and police lined a parade route demarcated with razor wire to prevent conflict with nearby Catholics. Though no violence was reported along the route, a car bomb exploded north of town, thankfully without injuries.1

Since the early 1970s, when British troops were sent to the province to quell rising violence, over 3,000 people have been killed in a low-grade conflict between Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists.2 Violent incidents have continued even after a cease fire signed in 1994, as the Catholic Irish Republican Army and its political wing Sinn Fein have balked at disarmament conditions demanded by unionists and the British government.

While relatively little has changed in Northern Ireland since the outbreak of the conflict, the external world has undergone a revolution that undermines the most heartfelt beliefs of the combatants. In 1970, Ireland was one of the poorest countries in Europe. Its agricultural economy, conservative society, and backward traditions struck fear in the eyes of economically superior Protestants in the North. They feared being absorbed and overwhelmed by the republic, with its larger population and higher birthrates. Irish Catholics, who provided much of the labor that powered the economy of Ulster, demanded a piece of the economic pie, self-determination, and a nationalist union with the Republic of Ireland.

The Ulster economy hasn't changed much in the past 30 years. Northern Ireland still possesses the heavy manufacturing and shipbuilding industries that once were considered a gem, but the rest of the world has surpassed it to make it an eyesore and an economic liability.

Change has been far more evident in the Irish Republic. Considered one of the poorest countries in Europe a generation ago, the Irish economy has grown at an annual rate of over nine percent for the past five years. 3 American computer companies like IBM, Intel, Gateway, Dell, and Motorola have invested heavily in Ireland, revolutionizing the economy and creating one of the most prosperous societies in Europe.4 Not only has the Irish Republic's high-tech economy surpassed the rust-belt north, but its per capita GDP adjusted for purchasing power is now larger that of Great Britain as a whole. In 1998, Irish GDP adjusted for purchasing power was $22,832, compared with $21,559 for the United Kingdom.5

If this seems to be cause to make Irish nationalists giddy, think again. Over the same period of economic growth in the south, the national barriers that separate the Irish Republic from the United Kingdom have been eroding. As members of the European Union, citizens of both countries now carry the same passport, enjoy the right to live and work freely within each other's borders. And while the United Kingdom has thus far opted out of the adopting the Euro -- Europe's common currency -- it is likely only a matter of time before this remaining barrier between the countries tumbles down.

Thirty years and thousands of deaths later, the Irish nationalists have not only failed to return Northern Ireland to the motherland, but they have actually witnessed the reunion of the entire country with Great Britain.

Both sides have utterly failed to meet their separatist objectives. In the process, they have made themselves a poor backwater in an increasingly prosperous and open world. Since the conflict has become irrelevant, all of the tragic deaths have been in vain. This is a lesson that often gets lost in the day-to-day reporting about car bombings and peace negotiations, and it's a shame. People around the world -- from Kosovo to Indonesia to the West Bank -- should be aware of the lessons of Ireland.


1. The Washington Post, Northern Ireland Protestant March Ends Peacefully, July 10, 2000

2. Encyclopedia Britannica, Northern Ireland since 1922, July 2000

3. Irish Industrial Development Agency, July 2000

4. The Economist, May 17, 1997, "Green is Good"

5. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), PPP GDP Figures, 1998