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Speaking for Ireland

John Bradley

A Time to Speak: A selection of speeches made during the period 1989 to 2013 reflecting on economic, social and other issues, by Sir George Quigley, Ulster Bank and Appletree Press, 2015

On November 10th, 2015, a collection of some of Sir George Quigley’s most important speeches on issues related to Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland was celebrated in a book launched in Dublin, and in Belfast at a later date. At the launch, at which I was asked to reflect on the vital role that Sir George played in promoting research into economic and business issues of island-wide interest, Lady Moyra Quigley spoke movingly of her late husband and of the role that he had played for more than two decades in promoting inter-community harmony within Northern Ireland and better North-South understanding and cooperation on the whole island. She remarked on a Chinese saying that “the philosophy of one century is the common sense of the next”. Sadly, Ireland may be a special case and may require more than one century. But there can be no doubt but that Sir George’s vision and calm, reasoned discourse points to the only way out of the strife and misunderstanding that still bedevils our island and its wary and distrustful communities.

I can date very precisely when the North-South border entered into my own professional life and became an integral part of my work as an economist. In late 1989 I was asked by the then chairman of AIB – Peter Sutherland – to address the members of his board during a week-end retreat held at Dromoland Castle. My topic, the medium-term prospects of the Irish economy, was based on the pioneering research that the Economic and Social Research Institute had been carrying out during the 1980s, in the era of recession prior to the arrival of the Celtic Tiger. Just before my address, I noticed – to my surprise ‑ that many members of the AIB board were from Northern Ireland. So, I started my presentation by apologising to these people for not being able to say anything about the economy of Northern Ireland. I added that there was nobody in the ESRI (at that time) working on Northern Ireland, on cross-border questions, or collaborating with Northern researchers.

Immediately after my presentation I was approached by John McGuckian, who was also chairman of the International Fund for Ireland. He explained that the IFI had a policy of supporting “real” cross-community and cross-border projects rather than academic or policy research. But it was suggested to me that I should try to seek out a partner institute in the North and consider submitting a proposal for joint work that might start to break down the North-South indifference that then characterised our divided island community of economists. I followed this advice, and the subsequent three-year IFI-supported project served to launch a decade of very close involvement in North-South economic research that ended up having a profound impact on my subsequent interests and career.  

Almost immediately after starting this research project in the early 1990s I met Dr George Quigley, then chairman of Ulster Bank and recently retired as a permanent secretary in the Northern Ireland civil service. Contact with him over the following twenty-five years had a huge impact on my analysis and understanding of the challenges of that strife-torn region and its slow and tortuous path back to normality. Only after his death, on March 3rd, 2013, did I fully realise the magnitude of his contribution to driving this transformation, both in terms of his dedication to the task and, unfortunately, to the fact that his was often a lonely voice of encouragement and positive ideas in a process that was dominated by lack of engagement, low levels of trust, and acrimony.

Sir George Quigley’s (he received a knighthood in 1993) recently published collected speeches are a serious and reflective contribution towards addressing one of the most important strategic challenges facing our island: namely, learning to live together in peace, harmony and prosperity. The volume is informed by his love of history, literature, religion and philosophy as well as by his engagement and deep knowledge of business and economics. When there was a need to speak out, he was first in line, heeding the injunction of John Stuart Mill:

Let not anyone pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.

I heard Sir George speak on many occasions and each time was memorable. Reading these speeches again, many years later, reminds me of how he always managed to capture the essence of complex issues in a way that simultaneously informed, entertained and motivated.

Perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, I should have realised that the emergence of more trusting and sustained North-South Irish research relationships from a permafrost of almost seventy years of general indifference was never going to be simple or easy. It took me some time to accept that North-South economic policy discourse might sometimes be better kept at a well-intentioned, anodyne level, and usually needed to be treated with extreme circumspection. I had to learn the hard way that any attempt to explore deeper into the past, present, and possible future inner workings and interrelationships of both regions, prior to the natural emergence of common business and economic interests, risked generating friction and opposition. At best, examination of the possible synergies arising from enhanced cross-border economic activities might run the risk of being regarded as unwelcome, unnecessary and unhelpful interference. At worst, it could be rejected, and seen as potentially hostile and threatening, striking at the heart of valued, but separate, regional identities. Unlike my previous experience in the very active field of international research within the EU (involving widespread collaboration with institutes across the countries of the then twelve-member European Community), North-South research was not always assumed by both sides to be uncontentious and politically “neutral”.

But by the late 1980s the significance of our own internal island border was gradually changing and the emergence of future possibilities was beginning to attract attention. In 1991, Sir George first dramatically articulated the galvanising concept of the “island economy”. Coming to terms with this concept after more than a generation of effective separation presented a radical challenge to deeply entrenched attitudes.

For any state embroiled in conflict, the most crucial time for reflection on future possibilities is not after peace has arrived. Rather it is during the final stages of the conflict, when a clear identification of the possibilities about to be opened up by peace is essential in order to inspire, motivate and drive the practical bargaining that must be gone through before the conflict and all its horrible memories can fade.

The decision by Sir George to speak out so early and so directly about the desirable shape of the future of our island as the civil unrest entered its endgame was based on his deep convictions and must have taken high courage. The potential for mutual benefits of North-South socio-economic interactions and co-operation in the context of an island economy was not universally accepted back in 1991, a year before even the Single European Market was fully established. If we are honest, it is still not universally accepted today.

In evaluating the massive contribution that Sir George made in identifying these possibilities for an Ireland soon to be at peace, history should surely count him alongside Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet, Walter Hallstein and Winston Churchill, the far-sighted architects of postwar European reconciliation, recovery and prosperity. Of course, the Irish “Troubles” were not a global conflict, like the Second World War. But they were an example of regional or inter-community conflicts of a type that has become ever more common, in Europe and elsewhere, as small states, regions and communities seek to retain or gain a degree of autonomy and self-expression in a world that is increasingly dominated by faceless global political and economic forces.

I first met Sir George in 1990 when he participated in a joint meeting of the management boards of the ESRI and its Belfast equivalent, the NIERC. At that time there was little or no North-South research collaboration going on. The sad fact was that while the UK as a whole was firmly on the Southern research radar screen, Northern Ireland was not. But nobody who came into contact with Sir George could escape the powerful logic of his argument that this unsatisfactory situation must change. And thankfully, it did, in very large part due to his urging and encouragement.

After his death on March 3rd, 2013, I re-read his paper presented at that ESRI-NIERC meeting on December 5th, 1990 (entitled “The Impact of Europe on All Ireland: Implications for Research”). This is one which is a candidate for inclusion in the second volume of his speeches! I was stunned to see how prescient he had been about the challenging issues of European integration as well as about the desirable future path for the economy of the island of Ireland. What he sketched out was a twin-track research agenda for the island of Ireland that addressed both private enterprise and public sector challenges.

He laid out a series of island-related topics that needed to be explored by researchers. These included ways to build the competitive advantage of enterprises on the island; the role of North-South trade; the need to seek out specific sectors of enterprise that could build island-wide synergies; the desirability of North-South mergers and alliances; the quest for synergies and economies in the provision of island-wide public services; and ways of learning and benefiting from European regional development.

Since that time, researchers have been trying to fill in the research gaps identified by Sir George, and there have been many success stories. And over the more than two decades after 1990, Sir George urged on this work as he himself laboured to move the island of Ireland challenges and opportunities closer to the top of business and political agendas.

Over the years that I knew him, what I could never understand was how this busy man, who had incredible demands made on his time, was always ready to play a supportive role, accept an invitation to chair meetings or make presentations, and how in doing so he would always come up with new perspectives on our national challenges, and express them in such elegant and stylish language.

Re-reading his papers, some after a twenty-year gap, I rediscovered what it was that made him so persuasive and compelling. He never oversimplified things. He always spelled out the deep background, in national, European and world terms. Whenever he spoke, he expected you to pay attention and to keep up. But he made this easier by the engaging attractiveness of his language and his often mischievous sense of humour.

In his seminal Sir Charles Carter Lecture in 1992 (“Northern Ireland: A Decade for Decision”), wishing to draw attention to what he identified as an unwillingness to engage in constructive, open self-criticism, he told of the wife of the canon of Worcester Cathedral who asked her husband: “Are we really descended from the apes?” and the canon replied: “My dear, we will hope it is not true, but let us pray that, if it is, it may not become generally known.”

My favourite section in this fascinating book that gathers together some of his speeches is the short address Sir George gave in January 2007 on the occasion of the appointment of Milan Mledek as honorary Czech consul in Belfast. Not for Sir George the elegant platitudes that often accompany such events. Rather, he reached out to the Czech people and articulated a deep understanding of the trials and tribulations of the Czech nation through history and specifically as it emerged from an oppressive Communist regime and sought to reintegrate back into the family of European nations. He reminded us that after the ill-fated Munich Agreement of 1938:

The rest of Europe displayed remarkable acquiescence in the amputation of a vital European limb, neglectful of the fact that the loss also impoverished its own life.

His empathetic reaching out to the Czech nation was an example of his profound engagement in international affairs and also of how he used international events to throw light on his strategic views for this island.

But Northern Ireland, too, is in transition. We are moving, however painfully and slowly, on to a new political trajectory. But we must also become much more innovative in finding ways to move up through the economic gears, becoming far more deeply integrated into the world’s trade and investment flows.

His concluding quotation from the Czech author, Karel Čapek, was clearly intended to apply equally to Ireland as to Europe:

The Creator of Europe made her small and even split her up into little parts, so that our hearts could find joy not in size but in plurality.

In his public presentations Sir George was invariably positive and optimistic. But in private conversations and correspondence one became aware of his disappointment at the slow pace of developments after the Belfast Agreement was concluded. His criticisms, although pointed, were intended to guide rather that chastise:

No community can expect to reach its full potential as an economic player ‑ or even be taken seriously ‑ unless it exhibits political and community stability. The world does not expect us to solve all the problems before it takes us seriously. It just expects us to show surefootedness in negotiating the slippery terrain and to demonstrate that, as a community, we have reasonable problem-solving skills and competence.

Today, as the debate on the UK and Europe enters its crucial stage, I miss the wisdom and insight of Sir George, who would have undoubtedly been in the thick of the discussion. But in this book we have his collected writings upon which to fall back. Just as he was far ahead of his time in debating the island economy, so too he was also in the forefront of promoting the wider European ideal. This is an impressive and enviable legacy.

It was typical of Sir George that it was at a speech to a Unison/Impact trade union conference in 1996 that he used Walt Whitman’s poem “A Noiseless Patient Spider” to reinforce his plea for greater partnership and trust in society. He characterised Whitman as the great poet of social inclusion. In fact Whitman was also the poet of post-civil war reconciliation, and the lines that Sir George described as being among his favourites, also serve to capture his own great achievements:

A noiseless, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them ‑ ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, ‑ seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d ‑ till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.


John Bradley was for many years a research professor at the ESRI and now works as an international consultant in the area of economic and industrial strategy. He regularly advises the European Commission, the World Bank and other international organisations and governments on policy issues related to promoting long-term economic growth and development. This essay is a revised form of words spoken at the Dublin launch of A Time to Speak in November last year. Results from the IFI-supported North-South project referred to in the text are reported in The two economies of Ireland: Public policy, growth and employment, Bradley, J (ed) (1995), Irish Studies in Management. Dublin: Oak Tree Press in association with University College Dublin, Graduate School of Business.