What is an integrated Irish economy, anyway?

Following on from yesterday’s introductory post about the Southern economy, I have a question that I have never had a clear answer to anyway: just what on earth would an all-Ireland economy look like?Whatever did happen to the fantasy of an all-Ireland economy? Since the recession kicked-in politician after politician in the South has lined-up to bang the drum for shopping locally. Crossing the border, in particular, has become an act of treachery, at least according to some more swivel-eyed government ministers. I was stunned to find myself agreeing with Ben Dunne, but when he waded-in on this issue I wanted to shout his comments from the rooftops. In a nutshell, Dunne said:

– The North of Ireland is still Ireland
– The prices in the South are 20–30 per cent higher – it’s not minimum wages, rents or VAT that’s the problem, it’s retailers ripping people off
– Southern retailers: stop whining and lower your prices

Unionists might want to take issue with the first point but I assume we can all agree on the latter two.

There is nothing new in people heading North. When I was a child in the 1980s my entire extended family did most of their shopping for high-value items in the North. The fact that they had Northern connections probably made this easier but I rather doubt it was an unique experience.

The bizarre complaints by the government are obviously an attempt to shore-up the economy through consumption but do they also represent something more noteworthy? Such as, the abandonment of the ‘unity-by-economy’ strategy beloved of Fianna Fáil, the SDLP and, latterly, Sinn Féin.

Shopping is only the most visible expression of economic activity and economics do matter. Does anyone remember the old trope that “the South couldn’t afford the North, even if it wanted it”?

During the week I spoke to a Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) spokesperson for an article I was writing on the British-Irish institutions set-up in as part of the peace process. The TUV spokesperson expressed some interest in the institutions but compared them unfavourably with the North-South bodies, arguing that, unlike the British-Irish bodies, they “deal with economic matters because it is a very short step from economic integration to total political union – but as soon as a power becomes devolved it automatically comes under the ambit of the North-Southery established by the Belfast Agreement.” (1)

The day-to-day reality for many of is that the border is an irrelevance, at least when it comes to matters like commerce. As someone who disapproves of politicised shopping, whether in the form of cod-nationalism or supposedly ‘ethical’ activity, I am glad about this. (2) But even if ‘North-Southery’, as the TUV fears, is genuine, what does it mean in economic terms? How can two polities share an economy other than in the sense of trading with one another? Smuggling has always been a big issue in Ireland, even moreso now with tax hikes on fuel and cigarettes, but surely it is unavoidable due to the fact of the border?

Jason Walsh is the editor of forth magazine

(1) British and Irish baloney, Jason Walsh, forth, November 20, 2009
(2) For my money, shopping is apolitical because it is largely passive activity that is located at the wrong end of the production-consumption spectrum. See: Content producers of the world unite!, section three ‘Giving up on production’, Jason Walsh, spiked, August 11, 2009