Demography is destiny. In 1821, England’s population (11m) was less than double that of Ireland (6.8m). Imagine an alternative history in which over the following 200 years, the rapid divergence between the two countries did not occur, so that England’s population might today be about 30m (as opposed to 51m) and Ireland’s 15m (as opposed to 4m, excluding Ulster). Britain would have been a more ordinary European country. It would not have had an empire—or not such a big one—and would not have been so militarily or economically successful. Ireland’s alternative demography would probably have required it to win independence from Britain at least 100 years earlier, avoid the great famine and industrialise. The Irish would not have regarded a smaller, more pacific England (leaving aside Wales and Scotland) as so arrogant, and the English would not have seen the Irish as chippy and untrustworthy. (In some fields, of course, the sibling rivalry might have been more intense had the two countries been more equal.)
Today, we have to rethink British-Irish relations almost as if that alternative history did happen, because in a postindustrial world, countries can partly escape their demographic destiny. In terms of economic weight, the gap between England and Ireland has been narrowing, even if the populations haven’t. Over the past 40 years, “a relative psychological equivalence” (in the words of Garret FitzGerald, former taoiseach) had already emerged to replace older feelings of superiority and inferiority. But now the Irish can back it up with hard cash, and a much higher per capita income than Britain. As John Murray Brown’s cover story says, Ireland’s long boom has not only created a big moneyed class, it has propelled the country further out of Britain’s economic (if not cultural) orbit. Over the past decade, Ireland’s broadly benign revolution has been one of Europe’s most dramatic stories, and yet, characteristically, it has not been much noticed in England (unlike in Scotland). But the Irish are now, in the main, too confident and too busy making money to care. Indeed, the new Ireland might in retrospect consider itself lucky that it did not grow too big—it can now enjoy wealth and freedom, as well as the cosier sense of national identity that comes from being a very small country next to a big one. Big countries, like Britain, are by contrast condemned to postmodern anomie.
We asked a number of Prospect…