This EU referendum has divided Britain like no other political event in my lifetime. The campaign has been so violent, forces have been unleashed by both sides that might prove impossible to control and the very existence of the United Kingdom is now unsure. Even if ‘Remain’ wins, as the latest polls suggest, the victory will prove to be pyrrhic at best, because it is highly likely that a narrow victory for ‘Remain’ will only be secured by a strange alliance of cosmopolitan London together with Irish, Scottish and Welsh nationalists who ultimately want to break free from London’s orbit.
The defeated English nationalists, emboldened by their last few months’ performances, will without doubt agitate for a separate English Parliament in the event of them losing. They will be sore and will point at non-English forces in the City-state that is London and in the regions. There could be a new constitutional settlement in the UK.
If it is a vote to ‘Leave’, then the Scottish Nationalists will demand another referendum, which will seek to take them out of a non-European Britain. If they win this, the entire UK, as we have known it, is under threat. The question then is what happens to Northern Ireland?
Listening to their fans sing ‘God Save the Queen’ in France is a bit unnerving for Southerners who may have hoped that the football team, like the 1982 Northern Irish version, might in some way be supported by both sides. I can’t remember whether the 1982 fans roared ‘God Save the Queen’ in a team captained by Martin O’Neill, did they? I can’t imagine O Neill, Pat Jennings, Gerry Armstrong or Pat Rice standing rigid for that particular tune. In fact, why does Northern Ireland sing what is the English national anthem, when Welsh fans or Scottish fans would never dream of it? But that’s Northern Ireland for you – or at least one part of it. Critically, in the event of the Union becoming a loosened affair, the future of Northern Ireland comes back into the picture because an English parliament, running parallel with Westminster, with its own budget and taxation powers, might not be so keen to cough up £7bn for Northern Ireland indefinitely. Why would they pay the dole of people who voted against them in this divisive referendum? At least that’s how many in England might see it.
The truth about all this political and economic speculation is that no one really knows what’s going to happen next. But things won’t simply settle back to business as usual. The English won’t just all go off on their summer holidays to France and forget it all happened. This is the end of something and the beginning of something else.
And Ireland is not immune.
The reality is Ireland has not become fundamentally more European since 1973. We have remained part of the Anglo-American economic world. The US is our biggest trading partner, followed by the UK. When our people look for work, they go to London not Leipzig; we support English football teams; we watch the BBC, 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 the UK. In many ways, Ireland’s European dreams are tempered by the economic and social reality of geography and history. I like to look at Ireland’s relationship with the EU and the UK as a jockey riding two horses. Ireland is the jockey and the two horses are the UK and the EU. When the two horses are broadly moving in tandem, the jockey’s position is tolerable. But when the horses start moving off in opposite directions (as they are now), the jockey’s position becomes extremely uncomfortable.
As for the EU, what is likely to happen now? The EU is a broadly positive but deeply flawed superstructure. It is a status quo cemented together by central fudge whereby a strong Germany pretends to be less powerful than it is because she is afraid of herself and a weak France is indulged as powerful because she is afraid of reality.
In terms of economic growth and the weakest link in the chain, the new Greece if you will, is Italy. Italy is going backwards economically very quickly, its debts are enormous and, more crucially, it is a country at the frontline in the immigration from Africa, which is not going to stop – ever.
Once people start to move in great numbers, once people take risks to go to a country where they feel their children will have a better future, they don’t stop. This is why Ireland was practically denuded of people in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Irish emigration to the US only stopped when the Americans closed their doors in the 1930s.
Only after that did 500,000 people leave Ireland for Britain in the 1950s.
This is why so many of our team who will line out tonight will have 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.
The EU has to figure out a way for Germany to escape its own demons when it comes to diplomacy. The reaction to Germany’s handling of the euro crisis and its constant battles with the ECB right up to yesterday, indicate that the Germans are still playing a parochial game, when they should be much more global. Tomorrow we are faced with the fracture of one of two Unions – the UK or the EU.
If the British leave tomorrow, the entire EU will begin to fracture, not because they will be followed out the door in short order by others, but because the very act of leaving is enough to undermine the entire project. If they don’t vote to leave because English nationalism is defeated by cosmopolitan Londoners and nationalists in the provinces, the Union will never be the same again.
Ireland is now caught by the contradictions of our European aspirations and our economic Anglo-American realities. We have to play a clever game, involving non-committal diplomacy, rather than picking unilateral sides. Our model should be the city-state of the medieval world – like Venice or Dubrovnik – playing sides off each other to our advantage, rather than committing ourselves to one side or another.
This is now time for soft power rather than hard decisions.
Are we up to such nimble agility, which identifies our long-term, geo-strategic self-interest? Or will we just go along with whatever plan Brussels hatches after the UK referendum?
The choice is ours.