Sunday, March 04, 2012

A self sufficient part of the confederation: What might Northern Ireland look like in the future?

Photo by Keith Belfast

The following piece was written last June and published in the latest "Bubbles & Chunks" edition of The Vacuum. Available at all good pubs, caf├ęs and arts venues.

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Utopia arrived in the early 2030s after a number of political twists and societal turns forced old structures and traditions to reform. The first sign of change was the half expected collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly just after the 2021 elections when bitter fighting over what would be an appropriate rate of VAT meant that no party could agree to nominate Joint First Ministers.

The exasperated government in Westminster decided not to repair relationships and head back into the dark tunnel of talks. The skeleton Northern Ireland Office instead announced the break up of the local political scene and started again with a new set of actors.

Jury Service lists were consulted and a new process was kick-started with the appointment of eighty people to form the People’s Assembly. A small number of people refused to cooperate and were jailed for three years – the length of time each Assembly was to operate. Replacements were chosen and the prospective MPAs were locked away in isolation inside the Stormont Hotel to get to know each other and select ministers.

Remarkably the new system worked well, with its mixture of age, background and experience. There was little appetite to reform the old party structures. At the end of each three year stint, MPAs expressed sadness on leaving the ‘house on the hill’ to return to their previous employment.

Meanwhile MPAs questioned why East Belfast should remain the centre of political life and the civil service. They decided to rotate the location of the People’s Assembly around the six counties after each ‘election’.

When the democracy circus came to town, investment quickly followed. Vacant secondary school classrooms were converted into offices, assembly halls fitted out as debating chambers, and kitchens and canteens reopened. With two year’s notice of each new location, hotels sprang up, bus routes bolstered, roads widened, and train lines extended to each new venue.

For a decade, Greater Belfast’s population has declined by around 1% a year as families followed the jobs being created right across the north. A shrinking population and diminished influence led to reduced demand for city centre car parking spaces and hotels. A decluttered Belfast skyline now leaves the stonework and spire of St Anne’s Cathedral visible from right across the city.

The touring People’s Assembly changed citizens’ perceptions of distance. It also sped up journey times: A road and rail bridge now skims the surface of Lough Neagh connecting Crumlin with Coagh. The tunnel under the Glenshane Pass has only recently been completed after three years of boring and a further two years fitting the world’s longest display panels – meeting the planners’ requirement that underground motorists be given the impression of the scenery they are missing.

Recovery from the Irish economic woes of 2010 was a slow process that mainly led to growth around Dublin at the expense of other areas. By 2025, separatist movements in the provinces were challenging this inequality and pointing to the success of Northern Ireland in managing its own affairs.

The results of a hurried referendum intended to quash rumblings of autonomy surprised the Dublin elite. Connacht and Munster set up their own regional assemblies and tax-raising powers were devolved away from the Leinster capital.

The long-time parity between Sterling and the Euro meant that currency was interchangeable across the island. An isolated Donegal was the first to apply, quickly followed by Cavan and Monaghan, pleading to join a reforming Ulster. Two years later a hastily negotiated international treaty was in place.

Soon after, the island of Ireland was thriving, with four strong provinces maximising each region’s output and collaborating to achieve efficiencies. Presidents and Royals continued to visit Ulster, bringing the world’s cameras to Omagh, Armagh and Ballymena. Tourists followed, eager to visit the land of free public transport and complicated history. Letterkenny will be the next stop on the parliamentary roadshow.

Fresh thinking in the political sphere seemed to free people up to consider all kinds of new ideas. The land of saints and scholars is now home to some of the most innovative scientists and researchers in the world.

The discovery of a seam of uranium in the Mournes turned out to be an elaborate hoax, but it excited an interest in nuclear physics and a Newcastle schoolgirl went on to discover – well, stumble upon – a viable method of creating bubble fusion. She won the title of Irish Young Scientist of the Year, while the island of Ireland discovered that their early advantage in developing a fusion-based economy opened the doors for energy-rich industry and manufacturing.

Self-sufficiency hasn’t been limited to Ireland’s energy. The introduction of farming qualifications at secondary school and limited state subsidies has encouraged investment and allowed Ireland to become the bread-basket of Europe. Fisheries are the one exception in the agri-food industry. Gone are the days of Lough Neagh eels being shipped to Japan. Seafood has overtaken meat on kitchen tables. Good for health, and good for the economy.

What started out as an Adjournment debate about Fair Trading principles was enthusiastically taken up by the Minister for Independence. Consumer insistence upon fairly produced goods has resulted in big retailers like Tesburys using local suppliers and raising workers’ self-esteem and standard of living. Consumer price cuts that are entirely passed down to suppliers without affecting a retailer’s margin are now illegal.

Fears that relaxed planning regulations would destroy rural green belts have been proven unfounded as developers avoid creating large new housing estates and instead re-establish small hamlets and villages with affordable housing and micro communities. Locally-based credit unions are backing co-ownership schemes, while the last high street bank branches will close later this year.

While nationalist hopes of all-Ireland unification have been both achieved and dashed with the split into four self-governing provinces, unionists have had to adapt their traditional vision, as Scottish independence and English regionalisation have turned the United Kingdom into a de facto confederation.

All in all, 2030’s Ulster – the new ‘nine counties’ – is self-sufficient, politically stable, harmoniously relating to our neighbours by land and sea, and exhibiting healthy signs of community building.

A settled nation … until the acceleration of global warming over the last ten years and rising sea levels so threaten the Balearic Islands that their billionaire investors have branched out to find a larger island economy to capitalise. Spanish-Ulster language schools are now ubiquitous while Margaritas have replaced Guinness as the refreshment of choice.

All change!

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Photograph via KeithBelfast

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