As a child growing up in 90s Ireland in Tir Connaill/Donegal, I was raised on the fringes of the conflict that went on in the North, never knowing it’s full effects and only seeing TV news or glancing at papers my father and mother were reading. On school trips we would rarely go into Derry and when we did, I noticed a slow down of the traffic. I soon realised we had reached the border, being checked by cameras on the road to be searched for bombs or guns. Being looked over by men in army gear and unfamiliar police uniforms.
As the years went by, adolescence beckoned with its insecurities, pimples and female fascinations. I found my peers and I were referred to as the “post-conflict generation”. A generation of peace and reconciliation, a term that would become a favourite of the Northern Executive. A generation of change, prosperity and a new outlook in the North and South of Ireland. But surely the older generation were to know that the past would soon creep up and rear its ugly head again. Unbeknownst to some of us was that the effect of partition was still looming over our generation, still holding Donegal back from prosperity, from equality, from national inclusion and further economic, educational, financial, and healthcare development.
In 1922, Partition came into full effect, dividing Ireland into two: the six-county statelet (“Northern Ireland”), remaining part of the United Kingdom, and the Irish Free State, being granted dominion status by the British Government, within the (British) Commonwealth of Nations. This still left the British monarch as head of the Irish Free State. I am under no illusion, as a child of the “post-conflict generation”, that partition was and remains a sectarian solution to a political problem and has only undermined the island’s potential for prosperity.
In what could be viewed as the insurrection of the two parliaments, partition has left County Donegal isolated from both the North and the so-called ‘‘Republic’’ of Ireland. Partition has left Donegal underdeveloped and ignored time and time again by those in power who did not, or would not, hear the voices of those who have been crying out for recognition.
The decimation of Donegal’s 112 miles of railways is evidence of the effect of partition as even today there is no railway in the county. The only cross-border train is the Dublin to Belfast line. The picture above shows the erosion of our railways in Donegal and other border counties. This cut off has left not just Donegal but the entire Northwest of Ireland without a railway system. In the entire North there is only one other rail line; it goes from Derry city, along the North coast, to Belfast.
Donegal was mainly bog land, particularly around the West. Other land, rocky and mountainous, only used for sheep grazing. Local famers and/or business men would have dug up the railway line for potato drills. This was not a blatant disrespect of tradition or conservationism. This was survival.
The healthcare sector of Donegal has never been given the chance to develop due to the isolation of partition and the underdevelopment of the county. There are no cancer treatment centres, the closest one a gruelling journey to Galway of up to 4 or more hours depending on where in Donegal you live. This also spills into the southern border counties, people from Monaghan and Cavan travelling to Galway or Dublin. But it doesn’t end there. To get there you can hitch a ride by bus from a charity organisation which is not government funded. In the North, people from Derry, Fermanagh and Tyrone often have to make the journey to Belfast for cancer treatments. In the past people were unable to attend hospitals or doctors from North to South and vice versa. This still applies in some cases for the unemployed and retirees. Cross border workers are allowed free NHS and medical cards in some cases but not all.
Mental health has become an epidemic, for both civilians and ex – combatants, due in part to partition’s aftermath; the conflict in the North . Partition has a direct correlation to poverty which in turn directly correlates to depression, addiction and suicide. Many Donegal natives suffer mental health issues, suffer from the county’s inadequate mental health services, and suffer the inter generational impact today. Combatants who went on the run (OTRs), found escape from criminal convictions from Northern Ireland’s judicial system in the border counties. Unable to return home to their families and friends, these OTRs became isolated and fell into depression, addiction and even suicide.
As previously mentioned, Donegal suffered agriculturally due to poor land in the west of the county, but also through the war of independence and the civil war. During the economic war between the Free State and Britain from 1932 – 1938, Donegal had already been through a near famine epidemic less than ten years previous. The economic war nearly crippled its farming industry that consisted of over 50% of the land. Most of the arable land, dairy and cattle producing farms were owned by Protestant Unionists in the east of the county and could not find much profit from the poor West side of Donegal.
As a result of partition many of these farmers took their business and money north of the border, pulling commerce out of the South and into the hands of the British financial system. This further depleted Donegal’s potential for economic and agricultural growth and still goes on today. The pictures below show a clear correlation of farms and arable land in the east of Donegal, owned by Ulster Protestant Unionists ,who’s ancestors settled during the plantation, and the poorer, often unfertile land in the West, which Irish Catholic Nationalists owned after previous generations were displaced and resettled.
In my youth, my mother and I would travel to Meenaneary, in the Southwest of the county where my grandparents, uncles, aunties and cousins all resided. I remember my aunty taking us to Slieve League and telling us how, when she was a child, she would go out to the cliffs there. “Nobody knew about this place,” she said. “There was never anyone here and it felt like our own private paradise.” To a lesser extent this is still evident today in Ireland as many in the south are still unaware of Donegal’s tourist attractions. It never surprises me when I take friends from Dublin up to Donegal and see their faces in awe and hear the familiar line , “I never knew about this place”.
Tourism in Donegal was practically non-existent in the beginnings of partition. People from Nationalist/Catholic areas would go to places such as Buncrana and Bundoran while those from Loyalist/Protestant areas would flock to Portstewart or Portrush. This sectarian division of partition limited the amount of tourism to Donegal.
As the conflict in the North began to rage in the late 60s and 70s, Donegal became even more isolated from the rest of Ireland. People from the South saw “the black North” as the whole of Ulster and became cautious of frequenting Tir Connaill; to drive up and still be in the South involved taking the longer trip from some areas, e.g. Dublin, into Leitrim, and through the county’s corridor into Donegal. This idea of the whole province being under British rule still resonates today for Southerners. While working in Galway I was asked by a Roscommon man, “What’s the sterling rate nowadays up in Donegal?” And from my Dublin friends, “You black nordies are all the same.”
And so nowadays while there is a somewhat steady flow of tourists into Donegal there is also a flow of Irish money going out. Tens of thousands of people travel to Derry for shopping trips, nights out etc. and in turn take money out of the local economy and place it in the North. This is also evident in the Strabane area, where many people from Donegal go over the border to buy cheaper alcohol and food shopping, furthering holding back Tir Connail’s economic development. What’s also evident is people travelling to the North with a U.K. visa cannot visit Donegal, so the county loses out on more potential money, and vice versa for the Northern border counties missing out tourism opportunities for visitors with a visa for the South.
These points highlight the effect of partition on Donegal, the border counties and also the North. There is a clear and strong argument that what’s needed to improve the lives of all involved is to have a national referendum for a 32-county sovereign republic. In this united Ireland we can propose that the actual Northwest region of the island would be able to focus on and resolve issues such as healthcare, commerce and economic underdevelopment, agriculture and fishing, tourism and infrastructure.
Taking Brexit into consideration, the very strong possibility of a hard border, EU funding being cut completely, tariffs put in place for goods and services, Sinn Fein’s new economic report detailing the potential of generating over 35 billion euro within eight years of Irish unity, an all-Ireland republic is becoming an increasingly attractive idea and a possible reality. If an all-Ireland sovereign republic is implemented the Northwest region of the island would benefit massively.
The total value of fish landed in the six counties’ three primary fishing ports in 2015 amounted to £20.8 million. Allowing our Northern neighbors to share the spoils of the whole island’s waters would generate a more abundant Ireland. On the subject of the EU stranglehold over the six county’s fishing industry, Dick James, Chief Executive of Northern Ireland Fish Producers Organisation has said, “reduced quotas, red tape and restrictions have been disastrous”.
Ireland’s fishing industry is reported to be worth 1 billion euro a year by 2020. The six-county state receives 23.5 million euro from the European Maritime & Fisheries Funds (EMFF), while the European Commission reports that the EU will give €147.6m to the South of Ireland’s fishing industry in 2014-2020. The Dublin Government is providing an additional €94m in co-funding, meaning there’s a total of over €241m available. With the strong chance of this funding being lost in the North due to Brexit, a sovereign all-Ireland republic with a unified fishing industry would benefit County Donegal’s economy as well as the rest of the island. Under this new Ireland our sovereignty must be respected by the EU and less bureaucracy would need to be put in place.
This same proposal must also apply to the agricultural industry in a united sovereign republic. According to the Ulster Farmers Union, the agri-food sector generates £4.5 billion a year in the six counties while receiving €350 million from EU funding. In the twenty-six counties, Teagasc reported that in 2015 the agri-food sector generated €13.54 billion and received €1.2 billion in EU funding. A combined agricultural industry would benefit the Northwest region of a united Ireland, as stated previously about farmers taking business North of the border: no money would be lost by going to the UK market of the six counties.
In regards to tourism, unity would bring huge benefits for the Northwest. As stated previously, people with a UK visa often currently feel they are unable to travel South into Donegal, losing potential income for the county. This is also evident for people on an Irish visa who think they cannot enter the North. Of course, in an all Ireland republic that matter would be resolved immediately.
In a United Ireland the whole Northwest region of Ireland could work as one single tourist attraction consisting of counties Donegal, Derry, Tyrone and Fermanagh. The current six-county state’s tourism sector brings in £764 million according to NI business info while Failte Ireland – the tourist board in the South – reported in 2015 that tourism there made a colossal €7.7 billion. Combining these two tourist sectors and implementing a Northwest tourist attraction region would generate more income to the island as a whole. In a united Ireland, money would remain in the economy. This new Ireland would also attract today’s cautious Southerners to the North, as well as attracting more Northerners to come “South”.
It should also be noted that a united Ireland will have a single currency. Instead of tens of thousands of people taking the trip into Derry, Strabane, Newry etc. and passing over their money to the UK, it will remain in Ireland, accumulating more income for the Northwest region, border counties and the whole country. This will help people spend more of their money in their local areas, in turn helping small businesses and smaller towns such as Lifford and Letterkenny to flourish. This increased revenue, job growth and removal of the financial border can only benefit the entire surrounding region of Derry, Tyrone and Fermanagh. The flourishing of these current Northern counties would no longer be to the detriment of Donegal, that we have seen through there presently being two currencies in the region.
The healthcare sector could benefit immensely. Donegal’s place in the Irish health sector has been blended with the province of Connacht, leaving vital services spread out and inevitably resulting in people travelling long distances for services. In a united Ireland, a complete overhaul of health services could see free healthcare for all. This will give everyone on the island the entitlement to attend hospital and doctor appointments regardless of where they reside, employment status, age or medical condition. The Northwest could be granted a designated healthcare sector region which could consist of Donegal, West Derry, West Tyrone, and Northwest Fermanagh, resulting in more localised healthcare. Decentralisation of services results in greater accountability of budget allocation. Ironically, this proposed new healthcare region would somewhat resemble the old territory of the O’Neills.
Furthermore, a cancer treatment centre for all cancers could be created to ease the burden of people in the Northwest who have to travel to Galway, Belfast or Dublin. A combined all-Ireland health service could reduce costs and raise healthcare standards. Alluding to an earlier point, it can also be argued that ex combatants will be able to return to their homes and families, reducing depression, addiction and suicide for this group. Rehab centres could work under one system as Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan currently operate separately to the other six counties of Ulster which work within UK regulation and legislation. This would also apply to hospitals, doctors surgery etc.
Finally, infrastructure. Investment could be made into a new all-Ireland Republic to link once again the railway lines of the North West region into the rest the island. A nationalised all island railway system could provide the region with a rail service from Donegal to Sligo via Leitrim, linking up with Galway and into the rest of the country. It could also be linked to Derry, in turn linking up with Belfast and Dublin. A direct railway line from Derry to Dublin could also be created, connecting Tyrone, Monaghan and County Armagh. This rail could also be joined with Cavan and Fermanagh which would go to Galway via Sligo. This regeneration of the railway would further connect the North to the South. It would also bring employment and development to border areas and counties, making them a more attractive option for potential investment. Environmentally, a modern railway system would reduce road traffic and emissions.
The new motorway from Derry to Belfast, first proposed over 50 years ago, could also finally get underway, under the control of one government and no longer be embroiled in the historically-sectarian lack of investment West of the Bann, which Donegal has suffered the consequences of for decades.
In conclusion, I intended to point out what the benefits of Irish unity would mean to Donegal and the Northwest region of the island. What must be realised is that not only will Donegal benefit, but thrive in a new sovereign 32-county Irish republic. The surrounding counties and whole island will benefit from many aspects of Irish unity. The strong arguments and clear benefits of unity are evident. From tourism and healthcare to fishing and infrastructure, from agriculture to economics, the people and communities of Ireland would see a better way of life.
There are other areas which I have not explored here that could also benefit from an all-island economy, such as water supply, electricity, renewable energy, education, a national grid, environmental and conservation issues, civil and social service sectors, government departments etc. Instead of two separate regulations, jurisdictions and legislation, the amalgamation into one system would save millions, generate billions and improve the standards of our shared, inclusive Ireland for all.
Structures should now be put into place by all political parties North and South to discuss a new sovereign 32-county republic. The British government should be informed on the matters discussed but have no say or influence whatsoever on any proposals. Representatives in Brussels should also be involved and informed on matters discussed and/or proposed but should also have no influence on any matters that arise. Sovereignty should mean sovereignty.
A clear, concise and agreed arrangement between all political parties of a united Ireland must be reached and a national referendum should be called for the people to decide. Further planning and steps should be provided to make sure the transition from Partitioned Ireland to United Ireland is carefully managed. Furthermore the EU should provide extra funding for the process as it did for the reunification of Germany. Britain should also give further funding to the new Republic and a lowering of that funding until a complete cut off throughout the process of unity.
As a sovereign Republic that grants the people the true power of a nation, to determine its own destiny and self determination, it is up to us, the people of Donegal, the Northwest, Ulster and our whole island to make this a reality. Onwards to the republic, comrades, and onwards to freedom.