Northern Ireland builds a Potemkin village to look good for the G8

A teachable moment in austerity.

Northern Ireland is in a tricky situation. It's hosting the G8 summit in the luxury Lough Erne resort in three weeks time, in the midst of an economic slump which has rendered much of the nearby community of Fermanagh a ghost town. That's not the sort of thing which any nation wants to deal with; it's embarrassing enough when the neighbours pop over and you've forgotten to do the hoovering, let alone when you don't have a fully functioning economy in your rural outskirts. And while George Osborne isn't exactly hiding the fact that the UK is in dire economic straits, the chancellor still wants to put on a brave face in front of Vladimir Putin. So what do you do? Build a potemkin village, of course! The Irish Times reports:

Just a few weeks ago, Flanagan’s – a former butcher’s and vegetable shop in the neat village – was cleaned and repainted with bespoke images of a thriving business placed in the windows. Any G8 delegate passing on the way to discuss global capitalism would easily be fooled into thinking that all is well with the free-market system in Fermanagh. But, the facts are different…

The butcher’s business has been replaced by a picture of a butcher’s business. Across the road is a similar tale. A small business premises has been made to look like an office supplies store. It used to be a pharmacy, now relocated on the village main street.

Hopefully, the Chancellor does, in fact, know that the economy in rural Northern Ireland is suffering somewhat. It's his job, after all. So the Potemkin village is just for the sake of appearances in front of the neighbours. Still, while he's out there, he could learn a thing or two from the Northern Irish Departments for the Environment and Social Development, like how to justify economic stimulus:

All is paid for by so-called dereliction funding. About £300,000 was made available by the Department of the Environment and the Department for Social Development. A second round of funding is expected… The short-term beneficiaries were local builders and painters who were called in for the spruce-up.

But as Keynesianism goes, this is a pretty poor attempt at it. It suffers from the same false economies that most of the UK's policy does these days. If you're going to spend money with the aim of a) sprucing up a town in preparation for international visitors and b) providing work for local builders and painters, then a far better sort of stimulus would be to increase your initial outlay, to £3m or even £30m, and try to fill those properties with real businesses, rather than pretty pictures of businesses. In the short term, the cost will be more, but there's no substitute for having a thriving local economy, and you'll soon earn the outlay back.

But if Osborne understood that, we wouldn't be in this mess in the first place.

Enniskillen in Country Fermanagh. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.