“Even if we could clean up our own murky waters, and not be seen as a chasm of dysfunction and smuggling”

So back in the real world, there’s Brexit. Newton Emerson’s piece from last week’s Irish Times is well worth reading into the Slugger record (whilst so much that gets written about Brexit these days is not):

In Northern Ireland, some business and political figures have expressed the hope of becoming a post-Brexit bridge between the UK and the EU.

An outline of this structure has been glimpsed in the proposal, currently being examined by EU officials, for Northern Ireland to become an autonomous customs territory modelled on Hong Kong and Macau.

Pascal Lamy, a former director general of the World Trade Organisation, made the same suggestion two weeks ago, also citing China’s special autonomous regions.

However, given the inability of the current political leadership to walk in a straight political line for longer than 12 months at a time…

Is there some way Northern Ireland could become a link between the EU and the UK, as Hong Kong in particular has been between China and the rest of the world?

The short answer is no, but the reasons are worth exploring.

Hong Kong’s status as a bridge has always been overstated – China was essentially a closed country for the first 30 years after the second World War, forcing Hong Kong to develop as a manufacturing powerhouse in its own right.

That phase of Northern Ireland’s history is behind it.

When China began opening up from the early 1980s, Hong Kong did function as a bridge but only because Beijing chose it for this purpose, establishing a special economic zone on its side of the border and expanding a small fishing village into an industrial city of 10 million people.

Does even Leo Varadkar have such ambitions for Dundalk?

Hong Kong soon saw its new bridging role as natural, exclusive and permanent. However, as China kept opening up, foreign trade and investment began to bypass it and the city’s global ambitions were sidelined.

Hong Kong’s critical advantage today is as a place where laws are obeyed and contracts honoured, providing a safe place for foreign businesses to dip their toes in Chinese waters.

Most territories that promote themselves as a bridge or a gateway offer this promise of a crossing from risk to reliability. It is laughable to imagine Northern Ireland fulfilling a similar function.

Even if we could clean up our own murky waters, and not be seen as a chasm of dysfunction and smuggling, which end of our bridge – the EU or the UK – would we portray as comparatively dodgy?


Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty