Irish politics north and south has been transformed by the impact of the Great Recession. In the Republic of Ireland, the cost of a disastrous banking crisis was transferred to the state's citizens. Mass unemployment and emigration returned after a long period of growth, deep public-spending cuts were imposed, and the Dublin government was forced to accept an EU/IMF austerity program. The result was a collapse of confidence in the political class, with dramatic electoral turbulence, militant anti-austerity protests, and a swing to the left in a country previously renowned for its conservative bent. Political shifts in Northern Ireland were constrained by the sectarian divide that still conditions every aspect of life in the region. But the impact of austerity across the United Kingdom put the local power-sharing government under intense strain, and the Brexit vote of 2016 helped trigger its collapse.
It may be ruled out that immediate economic crises of themselves produce fundamental historical events; they can simply create a terrain more favorable to the dissemination of certain modes of thought, and certain ways of posing and resolving questions involving the entire subsequent development of national life. — Antonio Gramsci1
As the centenary of Ireland’s 1916 Rising approached, political elites on both sides of the Irish border were hoping for a backdrop of stability, if not tedium, while they cantered through a decade of emotionally charged anniversaries. Yet in the wake of the global crash and its profound impact on the Irish, British, and European economies, they have had to steer a path through a far more treacherous landscape.
The Great Recession hit the Republic of Ireland especially hard, resulting in a disastrous slump. Private bank debt was absorbed by the state and the burden of the crisis transferred to its citizens. Unemployment soared, drastic cuts in public spending were imposed, and control over economic policy was surrendered to officials from the “Troika” of the European Union, European Central Bank (ECB), and International Monetary Fund (IMF). The clear parallels between the Irish experience and that of the EU’s Mediterranean fringe saw those countries branded collectively as “the PIGS” (Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain). But as the eurozone crisis ground on, Ireland found itself being presented to its fellow PIGS as a paragon of economic recovery and political stability — proof that the Troika’s harsh medicine could be made to work.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland experienced the global crash through a very different set of parameters. As part of the United Kingdom, the region did not share in the fortunes of the eurozone, yet this advantage was cancelled out by its membership in another currency union with its own core–periphery divide. Heavily reliant on the public sector to keep the local economy afloat, Northern Ireland had every reason to fear the brutal austerity program that the UK’s Conservative government imposed after 2010. Responsibility for implementing these cuts would fall on the regional power-sharing administration, composed of unionist and nationalist parties, thus putting their uneasy partnership under intense strain. Political turbulence might jeopardize the peace agreement that had brought a long period of low-intensity warfare to a halt in the late 1990s.