As light breaks through morning mists and we sail into Irish waters from Scotland, we are sailing from a land that has fully embraced the Europe Union to one that has rejected it. Our crew of four – two Englishmen and two Irishmen – are circumnavigating the outer edges of the European Union, and as night turns to day the contrasting trajectories of our two nations becomes just as stark. I last visited Ireland some thirty years earlier and it’s time for my Northern English sensibilities to slowly start smelling the coffee…
Ireland, in point of fact, could be called ‘Irelands,’ because sailing down the coast reveals an extensive archipelago of islands and inlets sitting west of the mainland. Surveying the land, from the vantage point of the sea, the mountains undulate in smooth curves like those in a child’s drawing. Moving through the rounded rocks of the extremities gives an illusion of removal from the world, but certainly not from modern civilisation. We sail by old white cottages and ruined stone settlements neighbouring ultra-designed houses complete with jetties for yachts, glass walls and acutely angled roofs. Setting sail south, passing the cliffs of Moher, towards Galway, investment manifests itself in dramatic building developments as investment grows ever more visible along the shoreline.
The dynamic combination of EU membership, a deregulated economy, low corporate taxes, derestricted planning regulation, second home ownership and remote working has stimulated a dramatic level of development up and down the outer edges of the archipelago, unparalleled in my experience. Since my last visit the Celtic Tiger has roared triumphantly, coughed, and roared on again.
We hit land for supplies and drive across the frictionless Northern Irish border into Derry, where the only sense of leaving one country for another is switching from Euros to Sterling. Anxieties over the movement of goods and disturbance of the Good Friday agreement seemingly quelled by the ‘Windsor Deal,’ Northern Ireland sits in the powerful position of being both in the EU and the UK. The result of a long and difficult process, the outcome perhaps reflects the will of the people of Northern Ireland, who voted to remain in Europe by a majority of 56% to 44%.
Replenished, we sail on. The history of our 127 year old boat in some ways, reflecting Ireland’s history: starting life as a war-time gunpowder rigger she was refitted for fishing lobsters, turned to IRA gun running and now, set in full sail, she is digitally plotting course down the west coast, purely for pleasure. Turning the pages of the Irish Times I catch an article quoting the managing director of the IMF, Christine Lagarde: “Clearly the sun is shining on the Irish economy,” she says. During her many trips to Ireland, Lagarde has repeatedly marvelled at the enormous growth of the Irish economy, pointing to the success of integration not only within the EU but within the global economy as a whole. Our view from the sea confirms that same bright sun shining on new buildings, bustling tourist facing enterprises and high-tech industries, all built since the ’90s.
During my 1994 visit, there was one motorway out of Dublin, which amusingly ran out of tarmac at the home of the Taoiseach. Now motorways, part funded by the EU, crisis-cross the country and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has the confidence to declare that a household income of €100,000 is no longer considered affluent. That he can make such a claim is no random act of God, but a result of strategically driven Irish talent and dynamism. A faded Irish Times headline from ‘94 shows how the seeds of today’s success were being diligently sown back then:
‘Computer giant Dell announces the expansion of its only manufacturing base outside of the United States of America.’ “Ireland,” Mr Dell himself said, “offers us lots of advantages.”
English ignorance of Ireland is fathomless. This ‘open for business’ attitude has expanded to make regional parts of today’s Brexit UK, such as pockets of my own North East England, look like backward, austerity-stricken cousins. In Gateshead, libraries have closed down, in Cork, they’re hiring staff. Forty five miles of ocean apart, two separate worlds. In Galway, harbour crew member and businessman David Foyle gleefully hammers home the point: “German money, look what we’ve done with German money!” he says, (sardonically referring to the boost given to the Irish economy when it joined the Eurozone in 1999). Over his left shoulder scrap metal is being loaded onto Lisbon bound boats, while over his right shoulder an imposing state funded, EU supported scientific vessel – The Celtic Explorer – crammed with the latest gizmos and gadgets, salutes Galway University’s excellence in marine science. There’s no arguing the toss with him, or anyone else. Strolling into town, through the thronging footfall of tourists from all four corners, a man in a smart suit stops to ask: “Can you tell me the way to where I’m going?” Perhaps it should be me asking him the way to where me and my country are going. Ireland has achieved exactly the type of low tax, deregulated market success in the European Union that the right wing of the UK Conservative Party is attempting by leaving.
Further east, the way to where we are going, our final destination, County Waterford, beckons. Parting waves with my crew at journey’s end, I take a fast train across summer fields, farmed with big tractors and EU funded science, to Dublin. In the capital I switch to a slick, jam-packed, Belfast bound commuter train. No longer ambling down winding cattle roads as I once did, the buzz of busyness and business clashes with the slow and steady progress of sail. But that’s a small price to pay, compared to the heart-rending culture shock of returning to the Northeast of England, where the economic ‘levelling up’ promises of Brexit seem to have stalled in the sediments of the Tyne.