As a 21-year-old student, I stood in the Great Hall, Bruges, in September of 1988. Little did I know that the speech I was about to hear would constitute the opening salvos of a battle that would culminate with Brexit.
In the now-famous Bruges speech, Mrs Thatcher picked her audience, her moment and her message.
Along with ten other Irish students, I was a postgraduate at the College of Europe. The College of Europe is the West Point or Sandhurst of the EU. It is charged with training the next generation of European officials – and indeed, most of the friends I made there have become senior apparatchiks in the European bureaucracy. The Iron Lady knew this was the lion’s den, and she roared.
It is interesting today to go over that speech to see the points Thatcher raised, how prescient she was and how in touch with the feelings of the average English person.
The first thing she did was outline a vision that could have been described as British Gaulle-ism, in the face of those who want ultimately to see a united states of Europe. Thatcher followed Charles de Gaulle by asserting that the best way to build the European Community was “willing and active cooperation between independent sovereign states”. She dismissed the idea that the United States might be a model for the future of Europe.
At the time, lots of eurocrats were talking about the “embryo” of a European government emerging through the single currency. Indeed, this all came to pass with the loss of sovereignty of a number of EU countries and the pooling of sovereignty of so many.
She warned against a EU superstate: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level, with a European superstate exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”
It is easy to pick selectively from a speech and conclude that it was prescient in the extreme, but Thatcher’s concerns were bang on the money as far as Britain is concerned. Europe has been one of the dominant underlying issues in British politics since then.
If the “Irish question” divided, dominated and poisoned British politics in the 19th century, the Europe question has played a similar role in the 21st century.
Ultimately, the Irish question helped destroy the great Liberal Party. It brought Gladstone’s career to an end and ultimately led to the partition of Ireland.
After expending enormous resources between 1914 and 1918 on the Western Front, by 1922, the victorious British ended up losing more of their land mass than the defeated Germans.
The Europe question will destroy the Conservative Party, marginalise the Labour Party and give added fuel to the separatists in Scotland and Wales and, of course, the nationalists in the North. In fact, no matter what happens, the Union will be profoundly weakened by this vote, which is why the DUP should be careful what it wishes for.
If there is a majority for Brexit, here’s an obvious scenario that could unfold if there’s a break-up of the UK.
The English nationalists lead the British out of Europe. The Scottish react by going to the polls again, wanting to stay in Europe. They have to leave the UK to stay in the EU, and by a small margin they vote to stay in Europe, but leave the English.
The rump UK becomes an entity involving a eurosceptic nationalist England, a modestly pro-European but compliant Wales and an ever-divided Northern Ireland. However, it is a Northern Ireland shorn of its fraternal brothers, the Scots, in a union with the ambivalent English. There has never been the same cultural affinity between the English and the Northern unionists. And once the Scots are gone, why would the English bother with the Ulster unionists? After all, we know that people who divorce once are highly likely to do so again.
So that’s one scenario.
But now think of the alternative, in these very tight polls.
The Remain camp wins in Britain, just about, but loses in England. The result is carried by resounding majorities in Scotland, Wales and the North. These majorities are voted by Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalists. Republican voters from West Belfast help preserve the Union. What would Bobby Sands make of that?
The nationalist majority in England blows a fuse and can’t believe that after winning the popular vote in England, their will is thwarted by nationalists in Scotland and Ireland whose ultimate goal is to destroy the Union. So the English are trapped in a pro-European, British Union that they want to get out of. The English are the paymasters – in fact, they pay for everything – but their democratic will is defeated by people whose dole they pay.
How do you think they will react?
They will agitate for an English referendum, obviously. Wouldn’t you?
Either way, win or lose, the Union will never be the same again.
If Britain goes and the EU reacts vindictively by throwing up barriers to that country, it is an attack on Ireland. Make no mistake about it. Our government can’t for the second time in five years behave like the model prisoner of the EU, accepting EU nastiness over common-sense diplomacy. We are not Poland, Italy or Greece; we need Britain. In the event of Brexit, if Germany commercially attacks Britain, as its overbearing finance minister said it would yesterday, that constitutes a declaration of war on the Irish economy.
Our trade with Britain is €1 billion a week. It is our biggest import market and second biggest export market; we are its fourth largest trading partner; there are more English people with one Irish grandparent then there are Irish people with Irish grandparents. When Jon Walters scores tomorrow, will you care that he’s pure Scouse – Irish blood, English heart? Last time I checked we didn’t have any Prussian lads playing up front. Our ties with England are too deep for us to be marching to a German drum.
Ireland’s overwhelming interest is in open borders with a post-Brexit Britain. We have vetoes in crucial areas of national policy. If we have to use them, we must. If there are areas where we need to get qualified majority voting, we had better start lobbying fast.
Ireland faces a choice post-Brexit: act in our self-interest, or assume the position. Which pose do you think Official Ireland will adopt?