What will the all-island corporate tax rate mean for loyalists?

What has this news about London finally preparing the way for an all-island approach to corporate tax rates got to do with loyalists marching in circles outside a chapel in north Belfast? Precisely because the two have no relationship, it’s a question that loyalists need to address.

Though many north Belfast residents will see nothing amusing about a bunch of uniformed marchers congregating outside their chapel while playing anti-Catholic songs, the pictures of grown men parading around in tiny circles should worry the bandsmen most of all. Where such marching once represented a show of force, in today’s post-Good Friday Northern Ireland it’s barely a show of farce.

Not so long ago news of any type of all-island planning would have brought Paisley, followed by his intra-tribal rivals, thundering through your television denouncing “abandonment” before threatening a “response’” from the massed ranks of loyalists. Today, far from representing an agenda imposed on unionists, all-island thinking about corporate tax rates is led by unionists.

To Peter Robinson’s credit, his and Martin McGuinness’ persistent lobbying for a corporate tax rate equal to the Republic’s may be close to paying off. But paying off for whom?

Robinson’s ‘new Northern Ireland’ project presents a contradiction for loyalists: Attempts to stabilize the north’s place in the UK by developing a more modern, innovative and competitive economy require an embrace of globalization and a loosening of clientelist traditions; though potentially rewarding and exciting for Northern Ireland’s well-educated middle class, the emergence of this economy is set to leave the working class, particularly its loyalist sections, increasingly marginalized, excluded and abandoned.

Attempts, epitomized by the forthcoming harmonization of corporate tax rates across the island, to steer Northern Ireland away from a subsidized, state-orientated economy can only accelerate the loss of traditional routes to decent employment opportunities for the relatively under-qualified.

Since there are higher rates of educational achievement and thus higher rates of upward mobility within the nationalist sections of Northern Ireland’s working class, loyalist communities are finding space to march forward ever more squeezed, literally and metaphorically. The psychological impact of ‘losing’ traditional parading routes may soon be augmented by the increasing absence of traditional routes to decent jobs paying decent wages and pensions.

As Northern Ireland prepares to take baby states from entitlement and dependency towards a more modern economy, loyalists, having long fought unionists’ battles, are entitled to ask: Where are the unionist leaders fighting for the Protestant sections of the working class?

The days of mass loyalist ‘show of force’ spectacles have been discarded by a unionist elite who have readily swapped any pretenses about Northern Ireland being as British as Finchley for the chance to compete in the global economy with the England, Scotland and Wales on totally unequal, all-island terms.

“We’re British, but our economy is Irish!” may prove an intriguing and effective slogan in various international Chamber of Commerce boardrooms in the years ahead but whether you label harmonized all-island corporate tax rates as “competition” or “cooperation” with the Republic, where in this all-island planning are needs of loyalists being considered?

As no serious strategy exists to build an education system capable – or even interested – in equipping working class communities for the demands of a less subsidized and more globally competitive (and vulnerable) economy, loyalists are disproportionately likely to face a future cut adrift from an well-educated Northern Irish middle.

Many argue that inward investment can only help the “whole community” but this entirely ducks the nature of the economic challenge facing Northern Ireland, particularly its least educated citizens. As James Forsyth rightly points out, “The current situation where public spending [in Northern Ireland] accounts for more than three quarters of GDP and the median salary in the public sector is £9,000 higher than in the private sector is simply unsustainable.”

Attracting private sector inward investment is a belated attempt merely to offset the pending public sector job losses and the devalued wages of those that survive.

Should a harmonized all-island corporate tax rate attract new jobs to Northern Ireland, these new opportunities will be largely out of reach to workers with low qualifications; workers who will disproportionately come from loyalist communities. It doesn’t have to be this way but without rethinking the education system, that’s the road we’re currently on.

Advocates and defenders of globalization are often accused of misrepresenting and overselling the “trickle-down” benefits of more open, more competitive economies – the type of economy a synchronized low corporate tax rate is designed to encourage. Yet globalization’s advocates rarely make any pretense about the negative impact on traditional working class job sources; instead, they candidly argue that citizens of western economies face a stark choice: private sector ‘high-end’ middle-class jobs, or bust.

MAs are the new BAs, at best. Frankly, “if you’re blue collar, you’re f*#ked” was the summary one World Bank economist recently offered this blogger.

Consider, for example, the retail and customer service industries. If you’re reading this in a coffee show or a shopping center, take a look around. It’s not long until the waiter taking your order or the teller ringing your purchase will be replaced, if they haven’t been already, by digital self-service technology. Low skilled jobs are less secure than ever before.

Yes it’s commendable that Robinson and McGuinness are pursuing to build a more modern Northern Ireland economy, but where is the strategy for investing in working class communities to ensure that they are equipped to participate in the more turbulent times ahead?

The real crisis facing loyalists, in particular, has little to do with traditional marching routes and everything to do with creating new routes to full participation in the unforgiving Northern Ireland economy that unionist leaders are about to remake along all-island lines.

Strategic Communications Consultant, located in Washington, D.C.