IRELAND CAN’T JOIN THE BREXIT CIVIL WAR

Gabriel Doran

To me, one of the worst things about the Brexit is the cavaliering.

The bounding towards a sense of instant gratification by ebullient Brexiteers at the prospect of the UK regaining complete sovereignty, in addition to being able to walk away from mandatory rules on accepting EU migrants.

This fixation with a political sensory-overload of jingoism and nationalism, with more than a whiff of over-indulgent nostalgia, has wilfully ignored the variables involved in such a geopolitical upheaval and has left more challenges unmet than solutions. More crucially, up until the aftermath of the June 23rd vote, this obtuse Brexit vision had not truly conveyed the long-term solutions to the immediate challenges identified then, now facing us.

What are we left with? A reminder of the power of a mobilised, well-influenced electorate – yes. A misplaced sense of national pride? From where I’m standing, also yes.

Now the hard and more reflective part. Article 50 is triggered. The recent Dutch and French elections, and as the forthcoming German elections will likely attest, have demonstrated the beating heart of  European people’s desire for the European Union and a cooperative continent.

Despite the bluster of the EU’s economic failings from the Brexit campaign, earnings growth in Europe has now quietly outshone the US.

Amidst all of this, some narratives have come into play which were notably absent from the menu during the initial Brexit carvery.

Sinn Fein have of course been ramping up their rhetoric, warning of the disaster that a hard border would bring to the island of Ireland and mainly focusing on the possible customs checkpoints. However the narrative to truly scrutinize is the one claiming that the UK is looking out for the best interests of either its Irish borderlands or its former colony.

Ian Paisley Jr, Jeffrey Donaldson and Nigel Farage, two DUP MPs and a UKIP MEP who were some of the most fervent members of the ‘Leave’ campaign, have developed a relatively new message in an attempt to reach out to Irish interests in the context of the negotiations ahead.

Mr. Paisley Jr’s conveys a certain foresight, a somehow intimate knowledge of Irish sentiment and behaviour towards the EU in light of Brexit, in speaking with the Irish Times in April:

I think Ireland will realise soon that staying in Europe isn’t for themWhen they realise most of their trade for foreign direct investment is with the United States and most of their homegrown trade is with Britain, why would they pay billions of pounds to be in a membership which isn’t actually delivering trade to them?…”

Indeed, the UK is a considerable export market to Ireland, however officially Belgium is larger, by an extra €800m to be precise.

He is correct to refer to the US as the biggest FDI contributor to Ireland, which one could successfully argue is primarily down to a 12.5% corporation tax rate, however how much of that appetite from US investors would still remain when using Ireland as an investment base to a direct market of just over four and a half million people outside of the EU as opposed to the tariff-free current market of 500 million?

To put this in perspective, look at the UK’s current exit. Unless an EU-UK trade deal is struck by the March 2019 negotiating deadline, the UK’s trade with the EU will be regulated by WTO tariffs, which, according to Centre for European Reform (CER) economist John Springford, could range between 2.2% of UK GDP (£40bn) to 9%.

Furthermore, whatever deal the UK is presented with, it will be the result of EU member state discussions that the UK will not have a say in, which London School of Economics EU law professor Damian Chalmers says is a more potent threat, due to the possibility of a deal involving new regulations for UK exports. This is the ride that US investments are now potentially facing with an economy currently worth $2.8 trillion (GDP). Imagine how eager US investors would be for the Irish economy, currently worth $238 billion, to face the same fate by leaving?

Moving on to Mr. Donaldson, warning the Irish government in May to be wary of the EU institutions manoeuvring Ireland to be used as bargaining chips in upcoming negotiations with the UK.

In the end Dublin has a far greater self-interest in ensuring the UK gets the best deal possible than any other EU member state and therefore Dublin should resist becoming a bargaining chip in this because ultimately it could damage its trading relationship with Britain.

While any signal of caution should certainly be heeded during the negotiations ahead, I am suspicious of such a discordant message from the Lagan Valley MP.

There is no doubt that substantially endangering current trading and logistics chains and agreements between Ireland and the UK would be a mutual calamity however that doesn’t mean that it’s Ireland’s strict responsibility to ensure that it makes itself malleable to the consequences of a bad, or indeed a non-trade deal between the bloc and the kingdom. Both Ireland and the UK are in very new territory in this post-Brexit trading landscape and need to assess the situation objectively, for all pitfalls and possibilities.

And finally Mr. Brexit himself, Nigel Farage.

A classic showboating grandstander, Mr. Farage litters his Irish Times op-ed with references to the significance of the Brexit vote a century after 1916, acknowledging the importance of the Belfast/Good-Friday Agreement and how the EU should just “butt-out” of an “excellent” Anglo-Irish relationship. There’s finger pointing to how the Irish electorate has voted against previous EU treaties, as well as the not-to-be-forgot hardships of the troika done on to the Irish taxpayer in the wake of the banking crisis. Both important points to make.

But then he projects more of his inner-monologues as truth, saying many Irish are “deeply Eurosceptic” and that mass EU immigration has caused the country to suffer.

According to a poll carried out in May 2017 by the not-for-profit organization European Movement Ireland, 88% of the Irish population believe that Ireland should remain a member of the EU, and 87% believe that Ireland has benefited from membership. It is hard to decipher “deeply Eurosceptic” sentiment from such statistics.

Regarding EU migration, while there hasn’t been any indicators of economic slowdown or a nullifying effect on Irish GDP from freedom of movement thus far, Ireland has the fifth lowest average workers’ salaries in the market economy among the fifteen original EU member countries, according to a 2016 report from Unite the Union.

At the same time however, a 2015 report from Migrant Rights Centre Ireland revealed that 44% of migrant workers in Ireland’s low-pay sectors are earning less than the minimum wage, 48% are surviving on less than €300 per week, while 61% are required to work extra hours without pay. Therefore migrants working in Ireland are often subject to worse wages than their native peers. My point being that, as the data to ascertain a link between EU migration flows to Ireland and wage suppression is nebulous at best, Mr. Farage should do better than to just provide narrative-fitting conjecture on the subject.

The timing of these very distinct statements is notable and there is a certain high-mindedness here in that the Irish national sentiment can be so intimately understood and can be corralled to be naturally adaptable to the British political and economic direction.

Historically this has been the case, and these western isles are not unique in this situation- countries in close proximity move past previous conflicts through gradual hierarchies based on access to resources, military prowess and sheer size, the island of Ireland’s relationship with the island of Britain is no different – however, both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are relatively young sovereign countries – as is the European project.

Now, as Brexit unfurls, a national populace just over half the size of London which has been a key and steadily growing export market for Northern Ireland’s agriculture sector must be allowed to enjoy the maximum benefit of any post-Brexit opportunities as an existential necessity, for the Republic and Northern Ireland, while the European Union must be given the chance to manifest its potential in the digital age, referenda aside.

So why should Ireland allow these recently constructed narratives to influence its outlook, when dealing with a government possessed by the Tory right, who determinedly railroaded through their Brexit deal in parliament while rejecting an amendment to consider the Belfast/ Good Friday Agreement in the process? A government which cherry-picks details from Northern Ireland’s dark past and separates them from context for political expedience in a General Election? With a minister who would rather leave resolving the Irish border challenge until a final EU-UK trade deal is reached as opposed to prioritising it immediately as a separate, singular issue?

Ireland can maintain excellent ties with the UK without diluting its current place in the EU and all the benefits that this brings. Maintaining its foothold within the EU amplifies its sovereignty through having a key voice on decision making for a powerful union in a changing world and, ideally, Ireland can reap the dividends of the goodwill towards it among member states, to push for true European reform that benefits the people typically hit hardest by economic downturn in Ireland and across its fellow member states.

International vision and ideas of grand destiny frame much of the Brexiteer rhetoric, reflective of the longstanding image of grandeur of the United Kingdom. The department for exiting the EU. The more base elements of the leave campaigns. These are the cavalries of cavaliers. Rushing to the carvery. This leaves Ireland the perfect opportunity to play its only real hand, but also its best – a cool headed and rational approach, which isn’t afraid to identify and communicate the true difficulties the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland face.

And that will be the best way to continue.

The UK’s position will be increasingly clear over the next twelve months, and signs are pointing more to a government on the defensive in the negotiations – out of it’s depth, eager to reassure itself through consolidating the relationships closest to it and very likely to do so ruthlessly.

An Ireland pushed to ‘Irexit’ through a strained relationship with the UK, exacerbated manipulatively over future generations, could be a form of neo-colonialism. It is imperative that Ireland doesn’t allow itself to be run over by the Brexiteer Cavalry.

If Ireland stands for its own interests in the negotiations to come while still looking out for Northern Ireland’s, it will be the Brexiteers’ own short-sighted cavaliering that will lead them to their own calvary.


Gabirel Doran is from Belfast and used to work in Brussels. He now lives and works in Dublin.
Follow him on Twitter.

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Photo credit: “Rupert’s Standard at Marston Moor” by Abraham Cooper c.1824 (Tate)

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