In football, a certain type of player emerges when his team needs him most. He is a leader on the pitch at crucial times and makes the right choices, which matter most. Right now Ireland needs such a political leader. It is time to be calm, rational and act in Ireland’s self-interest.
Official Ireland, from the government to all agencies of the state ran a disastrous, shameful campaign. It should hang its head in shame, having led the Irish people up a political cul de sac, backing one side in a referendum in a foreign country over which Ireland has no control. It got this wrong. This was another example of “the green jersey agenda” squared, where a small policy-making elite conflates its own narrow interests with those of the rest of us. And with predictable results. Now Ireland has to negotiate with the very same British politicians that Official Ireland vilified and alienated during the campaign.
What a tactic! This is political and strategic naiveté on a monumental scale. Official Ireland should learn from the past few days that you should only involve yourself where you can actually influence the outcome.
There are three specific post-Brexit implications that need to be considered.
The first is economic and how we should frame this unique opportunity; the second is geo-strategic revolving around what the EU does next and the third pertains to the future of the United Kingdom and how we navigate relationships with the North, Scotland and England in the event of historic constitutional change in Britain.
Economically, I have argued consistently in this column that Brexit could be positive for our economy, if managed properly. This was not a popular line until Friday when it became Irish government policy. The unique opportunity centres on attracting foreign investment. Britain is the EU’s biggest recipient of foreign investment. It receives €35 billion per year. In contrast, Ireland receives around €5 billion. If the uncertainty about access to EU markets implies that investment into Britain will be diverted, where do you think is the most logical place for this investment to be diverted? It should come to Ireland, of course. Because our economy and society is about 15 times smaller than Britain’s, even a fraction of its foreign investment business would have a big positive impact here.
At its most basic, Brexit makes Ireland’s foreign investment strategy and sales pitch – English speaking, low-tax, EU member – more unique and compelling.
In terms of action, the state – specifically the IDA – should be phoning every chief executive of every potential foreign investor that is contemplating making an investment and is 50/50 as to whether they make it in Ireland or Britain. The same should be done with banks and financial services companies.
During the two years of negotiation, our state should fix Dublin’s housing problem because housing people to work in these companies is part of the story. Sadly, given the “good room” mentality and the ‘keeping up appearances” of Official Ireland (particularly as regards the “wealthy foreigner”), it might take the lure of a foreign investment boom, rather than the egregious domestic plight of locals who can’t find a home, to spark the Irish state into action on the housing market.
The second area of consideration is what I would call geo-strategic. This involves negotiating with our partners to make sure the EU recognises that with respect to Britain, Ireland occupies a special position and we need opt-outs where our national interest is specifically and disproportionately challenged. This type of “special position” is exactly the status David Cameron was afforded by the EU to try to keep Britain in, so there is precedent. It didn’t work for Britain, but the same understanding needs to be negotiated by our government.
Ireland is special not just because of the border but because the reality is that Ireland has not become fundamentally more European since 1973. We have remained part of the Anglo-American economic world economically. We do over €1 billion of trade with Britain every week. The US (not Germany or France) is our biggest trading partner, followed by Britain. When our people look for work, they go to London not Leipzig. We support English football teams, watch the BBC, tune in to English soaps and listen to English music. It’s not that our own culture is subservient but we are intertwined, economically, socially and ultimately politically with Britain unlike any other country.
Over 500,000 people left Ireland for Britain in the 1950s. This is why our football team today has English and Scottish accents. Those lads are the demographic echoes of the 1950s and 1960s migrants. Their grandparents didn’t head to Bordeaux or Galicia for work; they went to Birmingham and Glasgow. There has been an open trade and travel policy between Ireland and Britain for years. This is sacrosanct.
If the EU becomes vindictive and tries to block trade and travel with Britain in order to teach it and other would be “deserters” a lesson, we need to react. Such European truculence must be regarded as a “red line” for Ireland. Our national interest is at stake and Official Ireland must realise that being good Europeans and acting in Irish self-interest is not one and the same thing.
The third theatre for negotiation is with Britain itself. If the Scots vote to leave (as this column in recent weeks has suggested is the logical implication of Brexit), what happens to Northern Ireland? I’ve always thought that the DUP should be careful what it wishes for, as a UK without Scotland – the Northern Unionists’ fraternal brothers – will be, to use David Trimble’s expression, “a cold place” for Unionism. A little Englander is a very different creature to a One Nation Tory. Unionists might do well to consider that fact.
If the new England is prepared to accept that Scotland leaving the Union is a price worth paying to be out of the EU, I might suggest that the position of the far less loved – and considerably more expensive – Ulster Unionist is, to say the least, precarious.