“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?


  • Zack E. Nolan 2

    Mick, I love Newton as much as the next Unionist but you are getting too reliant on his articles, no matter how insightful they appear to be.

    There will be no special status for Northern Ireland. The EU will bend, because Eire needs us more than we need them.

  • Brian Kann

    As often the case, Newton seems to be betraying his own political leanings. The desire common to many Unionists to block off any discussions on special measures for Northern Ireland post-Brexit seeps through here again.

    He has taken the example of Hong Kong too literally: no one seriously thinks the Belfast skyline will soon be awash with dozens of skyscrapers and the city a magnet for international finance. Or that its circumstances, both political and economic, are on a par with pre-handover Hong Kong. A literal comparison is just missing Lamy’s completely, which is the principle behind it, not the Hong Kong situation itself. Northern Ireland could become a sort of specialised trading zone with obvious benefits for the UK, NI and the ROI, particularly given the interwoven and indissociable economies of the latter in various key sectors. Obviously, a lot needs to be worked out, notably the need for maintaining the current EU regulatory convergence, and how Britain’s future post-Brexit arrangements could realistically take account of this. NI for example, could only stand to gain from this by having a clear advantage in certain areas to other parts of the UK, which could go a long way to improving its chronically poor economic performance and prospects. On a basic level, NI is already the definition of a special-area, in that all of its citizens can retain EU citizenship post-Brexit in any case.

    I appreciate any greater links with the ROI and divergence from the UK – even in limited sectors – is a bitter pill to swallow for Unionists like Newton to swallow, but this is one of few realistic solutions that are available following what a lot of them voted for.

    If anyone else has other ideas on how to avoid crippling the North’s economy post-Brexit, then I’m all ears.