The Northern Ireland Assembly building at Stormont. Photo: Flickr/rovingI
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Would anyone care if Northern Ireland left the Union?

If there is a majority that opts for Irish unity at some stage, then change will take place. No one is making a first principles argument for Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK.

What would the reaction be if it was Northern Ireland or Wales rather than Scotland facing a referendum next month about quitting the UK? Would our political leaders be cancelling their holidays, trudging the highways and byways, desperately trying to convince people there to stay?

Of course, the prospect of the Welsh opting for full-blown independence is so remote as to be purely academic. Indeed, the referendum on the creation of the Welsh Assembly was passed by the slenderest of margins back in 1998 (50.3 per cent to 49.7 per cent). If a few thousand votes had gone the other way, Wales would still be run from Whitehall.

Yet if there was a sudden surge in nationalist sentiment sometime in the future it is hard to imagine the rest of the UK being overly perturbed. Wales – without oil and nuclear submarine bases – is simply of less strategic importance to the UK than Scotland.

Northern Ireland, in contrast, is of no strategic importance whatsoever. This was enunciated as the British government’s view as far back as November 1990 when then Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Brook proclaimed that Britain had “no selfish, strategic or economic interest” in the place.

“The principle of consent” has been the fig leaf for successive governments ever since. As long as the majority of people want to remain part of Britain, this wish will be upheld. Of course, this is hardly a ringing endorsement of the status quo. No one in British politics seems to care about making the case that Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK, as they are happy to do with Scotland. (Indeed, threats to the status of Gibraltar or the Falklands elicit more muscular responses).

The Good Friday Agreement effectively placed Northern Ireland in an ante-chamber. If there is a majority that opts for Irish unity at some stage, then change will take place. No one is making a first principles argument for Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK. Indeed, nowhere else in British politics are our political leaders so sanguine about sovereignty. Where Scotland is seen to be an opportunity worth holding on to, Northern Ireland is quietly regarded as a problem eventually worth jettisoning.

Scottish and Welsh elites in politics, business and culture are deeply integrated into British public life. In contrast, Northern Ireland’s idiosyncratic political class finds few soul mates in Westminster. Unionist politicians – more British than the British – are now oddities in our political system. Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson’s recent defence of an evangelical pastor who described Islam as “heathen” and “satanic” (not to mention his wife’s remarks about homosexuality) mean that unionist politics can now seem like something from a different planet. Not to mention the double standard. If Robinson had been a minister, a frontbencher or leader of a council in Britain, then he would have been out on his ear.

The Britain that Unionists claim kinship with is long gone. The only reason Northern Ireland’s status is not more openly questioned is down to inertia; a relief that the Troubles are over. One day that will not be enough. Although the Irish state renounced its territorial claims to Northern Ireland as part of the Good Friday Agreement, its status will remain contested. Constitutional agitation rather than armed struggle will now continue to gnaw at the fraying ropes holding Northern Ireland in the Union.

This is set in the context of British-Irish relations having steadily improved over recent decades. There is even talk of the Queen participating in state commemorations of the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule. In her state visit to Ireland back in 2011, Her Majesty laid a wreath to the IRA volunteers who fought against Britain in Ireland’s War of Independence (to be sure, many had fought for Britain during the First World War). The prospect of “Dublin rule” is no longer, plausibly, a spectre for unionists.

Things are changing in the north too. While the “sectarian headcount” may be a crude measure of political allegiance, it is worth noting that Catholics now outnumber Protestants at every level of the education system. (As they now do in the former unionist citadels of Belfast and Derry). Northern Ireland’s in-built Protestant unionist majority is shrinking; while the integrative logic of an all-Ireland offering to the outside world, essential in terms of investment and tourism, makes the gerrymandered border seem an anachronism.

In time, a similar referendum to the one we’re seeing in Scotland will play out in Northern Ireland. When it comes, it will be hard to imagine the English people and the British political class busting a gut to keep it.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.