Adams arrest shows vulnerability in Northern Ireland’s rebirth

Belfast Northern Ireland Peace Wall

Coming ahead of EU parliamentary elections, Adams’ arrest shows the situation that hampered the Northern Irish economy for decades is still fragile.

When Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams was taken into custody by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) on April 30 in relation to one of the more notorious crimes of Northern Ireland’s Troubles – the 1972 murder of Jean McConville – Irish nationalists thought the motive was very clear: to discredit Sinn Féin ahead of European elections.

Whether it was or not, there is something else about this episode that stands out: Even 15 years after the Easter Peace Accords that (mostly) ended the political violence in Northern Ireland, the entire political and legal landscape is still coloured by the conflict. Northern Ireland’s economy has the scars to prove it.

McConville, a single mother of 10, was accused of acting as an informant to the British government during the most violent part of the Troubles. The men who carried out the attack made no effort to disguise themselves, yet none of the witnesses (including McConville’s children) would testify for fear of retribution. Such is the story with much of the activities of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and its counterparts the Ulster Volunteer Force between the 60s and 90s.

Gerry Adams, who is the face of the peaceful, socialist, Irish nationalist party Sinn Féin and a member of the Republic of Ireland’s Dáil, has long has been rumoured to be have been a member of the IRA during the Troubles – accusations he always denied. After a Boston College oral history of the Troubles was subpoenaed by the PSNI, Adams was held for a week having been accused of ordering McConville’s murder.

As with every event in Northern Ireland, there are two distinct explanations. One is that he was justly questioned in the light of new evidence of a terrible crime. The other is that unionists wanted to discredit Sinn Féin, which is on track to win at least 3 seats in the European Parliament.

The event is a reminder that although the Troubles are over, Northern Ireland remains an unsettled territory. Its regional parliament at Stormont is led in a power-sharing agreement between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party, but a low-level cultural (and sometimes violent) conflict still endures. A few are killed each year, and the working class Protestant and Catholic communities still live on opposite sides of a Peace Wall. One in 10 residents has post-traumatic stress, the highest rate in Europe and higher than in Lebanon and Israel.

The Troubles stunted Northern Ireland’s economy, making it among the poorest areas of the British Isles, and ongoing skirmishes are keeping Northern Ireland down. The imaginary line dividing Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland marks a 40% difference in cost-adjusted per capita GDP. Northern Ireland’s cost-adjusted per capita GDP is more than 25% lower than the United Kingdom.

At the heart of Northern Ireland’s economic problems are things bigger than the Troubles: decline of heavy industry and London’s business dominance within the UK. But while other regions of the UK have been able to revive themselves in the face of similar obstacles, the cultural conflict and its consequences still stand in the way in Northern Ireland.

Low labour productivity is one symptom of the Troubles, which accelerated brain drain for 40 years. Workers across the Irish Sea in Great Britain and just across the border in Ireland are much more valuable. On top of that, Belfast is much less attractive to multinationals than London and Dublin – London for being a global business center and Dublin boasting preferential tax laws. This has certainly been one reason Northern Ireland, whose economy is still 10% smaller than in 2007, has felt the Great Recession more than other parts of the British Isles.

There are signs that the Northern Irish economy is recovering from the three-fold blow of the Troubles, the Great Recession, and low productivity. Tourism is growing now that the immediate danger of terrorism has subsided, especially with outdoors and golf enthusiasts. It is also becoming a centre for television and film production, with Game of Thrones being just one of several shows filming in and bringing jobs to the area.

Any continued development of these industries will be heavily dependent on how situations like Adams’ play out. With the strongest unionists and nationalists still on edge, political decisions stand to continue threatening a fragile balance of competing interests. Not until these tensions are genuinely smoothed over – which may only come as a generation that never knew the Troubles comes of age – will Northern Ireland be able to address all of the other issues that hamper its development.


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Categories: Europe, Politics

Author:Alex Christensen

Alex Christensen focuses on the impact policymaking has on the economy. He previously was an economic policy analyst at Minnesota 2020, a non-partisan think tank based in St. Paul, Minnesota. As the Hirsch Undergraduate Fellow at the Center for New Institutional Social Sciences, he analyzed how political institutions impact the development of wind power across the OECD countries. Alex is currently studying for his MSc in Economics at the London School of Economics, where his thesis examines the connection between monetary policy and equity prices. Previously, he graduated magna cum laude from Washington University in St. Louis with a degree in economics and political science.


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