The small cafe outside Bank station, deep in the heart of London’s financial district, is jammed. Behind me — suited and booted — are four voices, deepest Cork, young lads in their late 20s. These are the newest wave of Irish people whom London has welcomed and provided with a living, when earning a living back home is not possible. In recent surveys, one in four Londoners claimed to have Irish blood, and there are more British people with one Irish grandparent than there are Irish people with grandparents.
These are the ties that bind, and this is why — whether our top civil servants and politicians like it or not — Britain, not Germany or France, will remain the natural home for Irish products, investment and people.
In the last week, our politicians (and our entire political elite), who appear to be wedded to the notion of a German Europe at all costs, have been slapped down by the ECB. The British have reacted to the increasing feel of a German Europe, rather than a European Germany, by deciding to see if this new Europe is right for them.
British business has claimed that this will lead to uncertainty, but even the pro-business Tories know the business community must be made aware that there is more to running a country than assuaging the vagaries of the business cycle. Indeed, for many new businesses, the uncertainties that old business fears are opportunities.
But forget business for a moment; of far more consequence is democracy and the facts on the ground. Those facts are that for some time now, over half of British people want nothing to do with the EU, regardless of what Whitehall – or business – thinks.
And as the EU moves for further integration, we in Ireland might consider undertaking an honest political, economic and moral inventory about what is in our best interests.
The schadenfreude was obvious as it seeped from senior Irish sources at what they saw as Britain’s difficulties regarding Europe. For many years now, I have been amazed at the huge political capital invested in relations with countries such as Germany and France and just how little official attention is paid to relations with our largest neighbour.
Whether our politicians, editorial writers or top civil servants like it or not, Britain exists and on a pragmatic basis, relations with Britain are far more important than relations with any other country in the world.
Here are the facts that form the basis of an honest economic inventory of the relationship. Some 9.8 million people flew between the Republic and Britain in 2011. This is just under 186,000 per week. Contrast this figure with the overall traffic of Germans coming here per year, which is 400,000.
After 30 years of tying our currency and criminally ignoring the sterling exchange rate in a bizarre effort to force more trade to Germany, officially neglected Britain is Ireland’s second largest export partner. We export around €14.265bn worth of goods and €15.052bn worth of services per year to the UK.
Ireland imports more from Britain than the rest of Europe combined: €16.686bn in goods and €10.108bn in services in 2011. Every week, €1bn of trade is carried out between Ireland and the auld enemy.
And the flow of people continues apace. The 2001 British census found there were 495,000 Irish people living in Britain, the highest concentration of Irish anywhere and a figure that no doubt has risen in the last decade.
When it comes to trade in goods that have huge knock-on effects in terms of people’s real lives, as opposed to trade in industries that can overstate how much is made here for accounting reasons, Britain’s importance is even more significant.
According to Bord Bia, the UK is Ireland’s number one export partner when it comes to food. €3.2bn worth of produce was exported there in 2010, up 2pc on 2009. Irish beef, for example, accounts for 60pc of the British market. Ireland produces enough food to feed 36 million people while the UK has a food deficit. Ireland also happens to be the UK’s number one food export partner, importing an estimated £3bn in 2012. Altogether in 2011, UK ports imported 6.63 million tonnes of freight traffic from Ireland, up 6.3pc on 2010.
And of course, we in the Republic are Northern Ireland’s second largest trade partner. Forty per cent of NI exports go south of the Border. Much of this trade (67.9pc) is done by SMEs, which are the lifeblood of Irish business.
There is huge potential in the area of energy between the two countries. The East-West Interconnector is the start of an all-island approach to renewable energy. It involves 185km of undersea cable and has a 500-megawatt capacity, enough to power 350,000 homes.
Ireland and the UK will heat, feed and employ each other in the years ahead. It’s the most important relation we have and, 100 years after independence, maybe it’s time to drop our insecurities and realise that we are great friends as well as great partners.
My flight home from London City was jammed with business people coming home after another day’s trading with the country that is our future as much as our past.
David McWilliams’ new book The Good Room is out now.