ImageSay we didn’t split from the UK in 1922. Say a Home Rule formula was worked out, and instead Ireland became a semi-autonomous region within the British state. Our history would have turned out very differently. The question is: would we have been better off?

We have some insight into how our country might have turned out, because part of our island is still part of the UK. There are some differences between Northern Ireland and the Republic, so the analogy only goes so far. For example, the Republic is bigger; it’s had a more homogenous population, a strongly Catholic identity, and it’s been more rural and less developed for most of its recent history. Comparing the Republic to the North is instructive, but it only tells us so much.

Ireland’s post-independence history can be summarised into two main phases:  Isolation and Integration. During our period of isolation, Ireland effectively removed itself from world affairs, preferring an “ourselves alone” strategy that sought to forge its destiny utterly separate from Britain. Under isolationist politicians such as Eamonn De Valera, the economy was consigned to the margins: a rural backwater, totally in thrall to the Catholic Church. Poverty was endemic and emigration was the norm. Ireland stayed out of World War II, and effectively missed out on the industrialisation and social changes that accompanied and followed this period. People left in their droves. By 1961, its population, at 2.8 million, was 200,000 people lower than it was when it seceded from Britain in 1922.

Had we remained under British rule, it’s probable that Ireland would have industrialised and developed faster during this period. We would have been part of the war effort. This would have meant greater numbers of Irishmen enlisting with the British armed forces, greater involvement by Irish women in war-time production and significant occupation by Allied forces in the run up to D-Day. Ireland would possibly have benefitted from the Britain’s post-war recovery. It is likely that Ireland might have been better off remaining within Britain between the 1920s and 1960s.

From the 1960’s onwards, Ireland opened its door to the world. It sought out foreign investment, entered the European Community, and forged links with US multinationals in specific high-growth sectors such as pharmaceuticals and computers. Domestic businesses became internationally competitive and the population decline was soon arrested. In the last 50 years, Ireland has liberalised, secularised, industrialised and urbanised. It hasn’t all been plain sailing and despite deep recessions in the 1980’s and 2010’s, the trajectory has been broadly upwards.

It’s not easy to see how Ireland would have benefited in the same way under Britain as we have done as an independent state. Britain would have controlled our corporate tax rate, thereby hampering our attractiveness towards foreign investors. Much funding and investment would likely have been diverted towards London and the major population centres of England than elsewhere. Although Britain has many agencies promoting rural development, none have matched IDA Ireland in terms of the successful relationships it has forged and its capacity to attract inward investment.

A key consideration would be the extent to which low-level guerrilla warfare, the likes of which occurred in Northern Ireland, might have damaged Ireland’s prospects within a British state. Given our long history, animosity between Britain and Ireland would have continued and occasionally deepened, particularly during recessions and times of social change. It’s very probable, therefore, that Ireland’s fate as an economic region within the UK might have been badly affected by paramilitary operations both in Ireland and in Great Britain, even if they were eventually to be resolved by new forms of governance.

Finally, there is Britain’s rocky relationship with the EU. While we have delegated much of our economic sovereignty to Brussels and are under the watchful eye of the Troika, Ireland has largely benefitted as a member of the EU and the Eurozone, through regional subsidies, a seat at the table, the lifting of trade barriers or access to new markets. Britain’s relationship remains lukewarm, and there have been suggestions of late that it might leave the EU altogether. For a small, sparsely populated island on the western edge of Britain, this would bode badly for our long-term economic prospects.

The economy aside, it is less clear how Ireland would have developed socially and culturally under British rule. Differences between ourselves and people from Northern Ireland or most other regions of Britain are marginal at best. Ireland’s cultural life is similar in many ways to Britain: we follow similar music, watch the similar TV shows, follow similar celebrities and read similar newspapers and magazines. Our high street shops are broadly the same, so fashion trends tend to match our counterparts across the sea. We have our national sports of Hurling and Gaelic Football, but these games (particularly the latter) are followed on both parts of the island with equal devotion and fanaticism. Neither should we forget that UK soccer teams enjoy far more support here than do teams in our local football leagues. Religion is possibly a wash either way also. While religion can hugely important in terms of ethnic and cultural identity – it unquestionably played a role in Northern Ireland during the Troubles – extreme devotion to Catholicism was the norm in Ireland for long periods of independence. It’s current decline is more likely due to self-inflicted wounds and increasing levels of secularism than anything else.