If you think moving house is stressful, what about moving an entire city? Five years ago, a declassification of British government documents made public a restricted 1983 file titled: ‘The Replantation of Northern Ireland from Hong Kong.’
The plan proposed moving Hong Kong, then a British colony and protectorate, to a new city located at Magilligan outside Derry on the border with the Republic.
No you didn’t misread that.
At the time, Margaret Thatcher’s Britain was challenged about the pending handover of Hong Kong to communist China and considering all sorts of solutions. This proposal, which appears to have found its way to the Foreign Office via the Northern Ireland office, sought to move 5.5m people, mostly Cantonese, to Magilligan.
As justification, the report noted that 50 Chinese families from Vietnam had already been resettled successfully in Craigavon and Coleraine, adding that “the Chinese do not find the Northern Ireland climate objectionable and they can get on reasonably well with the current inhabitants”.
The argument was also made that the massive influx of Hong Kong citizens would provide a weighty new counterbalance to the acrimonious nationalists and unionist population by greatly outnumbering them all. Indeed, a 5.5m influx would have made Hong Kongers the biggest nationality on the island.
In true civil service fashion, the British Foreign Office got right into the minutae. One official ventured that maritime-oriented Hong Kong Chinese, who liked to fish, might raise the hackles of the Republic’s Government given a sovereignty dispute over Lough Foyle. Another looked at how to fend off potential European opposition, arguing that the then EC had accepted Gibraltar and Falkland island residents as EU citizens, and on that basis, they could not object to the inhabitants of Hong Kong, particularly if they were living in the Magilligan area? Even for Thatcher’s Britain, this proposal was more 1883 than 1983 and wholly racist in tone to both populations.
While UK government sources claimed that much of the discussion was tongue in cheek and it was never taken seriously, it did seem to have enough legs to have been put to Britain’s US allies. The file also claimed “American doubts” about the scheme would be assuaged by the “possibly happy outcome to the uncertainties currently surrounding Hong Kong”. Thankfully, good sense prevailed and Hong Kong stayed put.
While the Replantation plan makes for decently flippant (if slightly perturbing) dinner party conversation, the notion of transplanting Hong Kong to Ireland popped up again recently, albeit on a much reduced, but still signficant, scale — this time, tabled by a Hong Kong-based billionaire who wants to stick a mini Hong Kong south of the border this time. Between Drogheda and Dundalk in fact.
Ivan Ko, a developer and boss of the Victoria Harbour Group, says a site of 50 sq km for ‘Nextopolis’ would cater for 50,000 Hong Kongers moving 10,000km. That would make Nextopolis Ireland’s fifth biggest city from the get-go. He told The Guardian newspaper that he has six Irish locations under consideration, but Louth is in the lead. Interestingly, some eager local business interests in Louth are already saying “Hello Hai” to the notion, adding they are shovel-ready for Hong Hong II in the M1 Corridor.
Mr Ko has discussed his plan with Irish State officials, but is believed to have gotten a cool enough reception.Nonetheless, Ko recently told CNN he pushing ahead regardless. He told The Guardian: “We like Ireland. Corporate taxes are very low. You have very strong manufacturing and biomedical companies. Major tech giants have European headquarters there.”
So putting aside the a brace of crazy sci-fi Hiberno Hong Kong transplant proposals, it is worth stating there will be an impact regardless for Ireland and its property market, stemming from recent unsettling events in Hong Kong.
The city has a lot of wealthy western-minded and English-speaking citizens who want out, and fast, thanks to China’s recent clampdown on the city’s democratic processes.
While Ireland has not traditionally been at the top of the go-to destinations list for exiting Hong Kongers (citizens have been trickling out since 1997), it is fast climbing in favour of late. The traditionally favoured destinations are Taiwan, Singapore, Australia, UK, Canada and USA.
But sabre-rattling by China over its long-standing claims to Taiwan is unsettling many Hong Kongers about relocating there. Meanwhile, the USA has been unsettled under Trump, while Brexit means some of those migrants who want to operate a business will be turned off the UK option.
Ireland is English speaking and, as developer Ko points out, operates a favourable corporate tax rate. What he doesn’t mention is Ireland also has a passport-for-investment package in place which allows non nationals and non EU citizens to obtain an Irish passport by investing here. And money spent on your own home counts as investment.
Ireland’s passport was recently estimated as the second best in the world for freedom of travel, according to the Arton Capital Passport Index 2020 published last month.
And Irish estate agents have recently started to notice the arrival of Hong Kongers among potential buyers for luxury homes. It’s by no means a flood or even a flow, but it’s there. This week, the Financial Times interviewed a Hong Kong couple searching for a two-bed apartment in Dublin in the €800,000 to €1m price bracket.
Interviews in the region’s South China Post regularly feature Hong Kongers who have just settled in Dublin in particular. Recently, a rural mansion which had lingered on the market for years was bought for above €1m by a Hong Kong family with no links to Europe. Meantime, Dublin city-centre based agent Owen Reilly reports dealing with three different lots of Hong Kong buyers in recent weeks.
While the numbers may be small now, they’re set to increase as China continues to tighten its grip on the former colony.
Not only are these immigrant buyers likely to be wealthy, but they are also selling their homes in one of the most expensive real estate markets on earth. A two-bed apartment in Hong Kong typically costs €2.5m and rents for €5,000-plus per month.
At the same time, our own CSO data confirms that our own moneyed diaspora is returning in numbers, spurred by Brexit, Trump or Covid, or a combination of all. A total of 28,900 Irish nationals returned home so far in 2020 — the highest number in 13 years.
The new year will combine a likely increase from Hong Kong with our own wealthier returnees.and, on top of that, the non-Irish-connected Brexit refugees from the UK, with the result that the top end of the property market at least is set for a steady injection of interest in 2021.
The influx means the top end might actually be buffered somewhat from a downturn in prices generally predicted for next year.
And are you still thinking about how bizarre it would be to create a new semi-independent international city here, populated almost exclusively by wealthy foreigners and driven by business interests? Well, we already have it. It’s called the IFSC. So maybe shifting Hong Kong to Termonfeckin isn’t such a bad idea after all.