Photo by Anastasiia Rozumna on Unsplash
Belfast and Bilbao are capital cities of their regions, Northern Ireland and the Basque country respectively. Both share a proud heritage of shipbuilding over centuries, followed by its decline as the world moved on. Over the last sixty years both also suffered the trauma of armed insurrectionists, fighting to impose their particular ideals. However, despite their common past each currently faces a very different future.
The Irish Republican Army (IRA) was founded in 1919, in order to drive out the “British settlers” and unite the province with the Irish Republic. “The Troubles” came to a head in 1968, triggering thirty years of conflict. Only in 1998 was the Good Friday Agreement concluded whereby both sides agreed to lay down their arms, with structures established to ensure all parties were represented in the future governance of the Province. Despite its massive achievement in terms of peace, its shortcomings are now transparent: it was driven by politicians rather than the people and ducked vital issues rather than confronted them.
In Belfast there used to be over 50 “Peace Walls” physically separating the two religious communities. There are now between 60 and 100 – depending on how they are counted – with some constructed since the Agreement was signed. In 2013 the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont agreed to remove them all by 2023, but politicians have done nothing since. Likewise, although the Agreement urged the Department of Education to “encourage and facilitate” desegrated education for Catholics and Protestants, over 90% of schools still remain segregated by religious belief. Divisions among younger generations have been reinforced rather than dismantled.
71% of the local population support stopping segregation, but politicians have failed to respond. Recently Bangor Academy, the largest school in Northern Ireland, has unilaterally proposed to teach Protestant and Catholic children together, subject to a parental ballot, thus side-lining politicians completely. Meanwhile the Assembly itself has become paralysed for more than a year with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) refusing to share power – notionally because of the Brexit border in the North Sea – and the security alert being raised back up to “severe”. Petrol bombings in Derry on Easter Monday to commemorate the 1916 uprising confirm that underlying tensions remain.
In the Basque country, it would take until 2018 before the paramilitary group ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or Basque Homeland and Freedom) would declare its dissolution, though its support and activity had petered out earlier because after 800 murders the locals had simply had enough. People wanted to live and work together (convivencia) and to make the most of their opportunities. The region already had more autonomy than Spain’s other regions with its own education system, police force, retained language and devolved financial responsibilities, having been granted these by the 1978 constitution. Now the people wanted to build on this for the future.
And build they have, progressively developing an economic model which has propelled the Basque country to become one of the richest regions of the EU in terms of GDP per head, alongside one of the lowest rates of poverty and social exclusion. The regional Government sets the framework for the economic and industrial strategy, but only after having been informed by a full range of public and private bodies via the Basque Competitiveness Forum set up in 2004. Other key networks have followed, notably the Basque Institute of Competitiveness and the Basque Innovation Agency. These were not administrative talking-shops but real collaboration opportunities for local stakeholders to identify and then help drive the necessary change.
Writing in the Financial Times in 2021 Martin Wolf observed that the Basque country’s success suggested major lessons: “first, renewal must come from within; second, it is never finished”. Belfast should take note, but then so should Westminster. In a speech two years ago Michael Gove as UK Secretary of State for Levelling Up cited the Basque country as a great example of where things had been done well; he went on to show that he had learnt nothing from the comparison.
Dr Caroline Gray, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Aston, has made a close study of the Basque country success. One of her conclusions exposed with clarity the shortcomings of the UK’s current approach to levelling up the regions: “Having areas compete against one another for centrally controlled, often short-term pots of money does not facilitate the formation of robust, collaborative partnerships that could ultimately add value”.
The UK Government is one of the most centralised among western democracies. The concept that national government always knows best is baked into current Conservative thinking. It champions “taking back control”, but only for itself.
The UK should change its blinkered approach to devolution. It should work with the people as well as politicians to address the right questions. For answers it could look to Bilbao.
One thought on “A Tale of Two Cities”
That was revelatory. I had no idea that the Basque county had achieved such progress, and quite rapidly. A lesson indeed for Northern Ireland who seem to have regressed if anything in recent years. Having visited Shankill in 2019 I found it one of the most theatening places I have experienced, and I have visited quite a few!