#Brexit and Ireland: A Personal View

Lemass Whittaker
L-R: Sean Lemass, Jack Lynch, T K Whittaker 

It was the 1950’s. I think it might have been on Wednesdays, but it could have been Thursdays. From where we lived, you could hear the mooing of the cattle as they were driven up through Stoneybatter (a Dublin north inner-city area) to the markets. They were being herded there to be bought and sold. Ireland’s second biggest export.

What was Ireland’s biggest export in the 1950s? It was its people.

Driven from their own land by a failed experiment to make Ireland self-sufficient behind tariff barriers. We had biscuit factories, canned bean factories, and chocolate factories that survived because of tariffs. We had factories that put back together cars that had been built in the UK and then “knocked down” so they could be reassembled in Ireland. We called it the Irish car industry. In truth, it was little more than Lego for grown-ups. Playing at being the real thing.

Ireland in the 1950s was a sour and sad place. The best and the brightest went elsewhere. Poverty was the price you paid for unfettered sovereignty. I should know. Where I grew up, an outside toilet was considered a luxury.

Then, as the 50s began to give way to the 60s, came T K Whittaker and Sean Lemass and the plan for economic expansion. Whittaker was the brilliant civil servant who wrote the plan, Lemass – who had fought in the 1916 Easter Rising and soon to become Taoiseach (prime minister) – was the most astute politician of his day. Ireland was going to open itself up to the world. Forget the illusions of a “Gaelic economy”. Drop the barriers behind which inefficient industries survived. Invite in investment. Become part of the world.

And the world came. Yes, the old industries died and that was heart-breaking for many. Ford and Dunlop in Cork went . So did General Motors in Dublin. But in their place came Merck, J&J, HP, Apple, IBM, Intel, Asahi, and multitudinous others, building brand new factories and offering jobs on good pay and conditions. Today, it is Oracle, Amazon, Google, Groupon, and the rest.

A friend of mine, the global labor relations director in one of the world’s biggest transnational companies, once told me of a conversation he had had with a leading African politician. “Monsieur, my people believe that there is only one thing worse than being exploited by an American multinational. And that is not being exploited by an American multinational”.

Go to any Irish town and people would bite your hand off for a job in a multinational. Actually, they might not stop at your hand.

As the European Union, then the European Economic Community, began to take shape in the 1950s, a man of Sean Lemass’s vision would have wanted to join. But so dependent was Ireland on the UK market that it could only move when the UK did. When you are the offshore island to an offshore island you are in a difficult place.

But eventually we did join the EU in 1973, along with the UK and Denmark. The six became nine.

Slowly, and with growing confidence, Ireland began to find the political space in Europe in which to become itself, leaving behind the dead hand of British empire dominance. The cattle stopped walking up Stoneybatter. We left vassal statehood behind.

Read the roll call of Irish politicians and officials who have played a major role in making the EU.

People such as Patrick Hillery, our first Commissioner, later President of Ireland, who rolled out the EU’s first ever program of social and employment laws.

The late Peter Sutherland who helped drive the EU in a business-friendly direction.

Catherine Day and David O’ Sullivan, both leaders of the EU’s Brussels organisation. The current Irish Commissioner, Phil Hogan, a voice of sanity in the Brexit debate. And many, many others.

Ireland has punched way above its weight, due in no small measure to the fact that Ireland is not a “major power” with an agenda, just a small country trying to make a contribution to the betterment of Europe, of which we are a part.

Within the European Union Ireland has found a voice, a role and true sovereignty.

For true sovereignty is not the power to make cramped decisions behind walls which seek to keep the world out but the ability to engage with the world and shape the world. To help make the rules rather than just take the rules. To be on the inside, not the outside.

The above thoughts were sparked by the recent comments of the Tory Brexiteer, Andrew Bridgen, who told the Express newspaper that Ireland would be “very tempted” to leave the European Union after Brexit. He said:

“Despite the fact that 96% of Irish people claims currently to support the European Union and I think that support will rapidly decline. The Republic of Ireland is only going to be four and a half million people. They will be one percent of the EU population. They will be the only English-speaking nation left in the European Union when we have left.” (See the full interview here).

Over the past few days there has been announced that Ireland is soon to have its own version of UKIP, the UK Independence Party, the catalyst for Brexit. Given that 96% of Irish people support the EU, as Bridgen notes, and, as they watch nightly on British TV, to which everyone in Ireland has access, the shambles that is Brexit, I very much doubt that the Irish people have any appetite for a reheated, UK-derived “kippers” menu.

Now ardent Brexiters like Bridgen believe that once the UK has left the EU it will quickly return to its true role as a global power, Global Britain, signing trade deals with an ever-lengthening imaginary queue of countries desperate to do business with a UK unshackled from Europe.

It won’t happen, or it won’t happen in the way Brexiteers think it will. Rolling over an existing EU trade deal with small, faraway countries may be about the sum of it.

But what future would there be for Ireland if it left the EU? How many of the multinationals located in Ireland would stay if Ireland was outside the single market and the customs union? Very few I suspect.

We are what we are, and we will never be other than that. We are in a globalised world. A small offshore island, behind a slightly bigger offshore island, off the Eurasia landmass, offering an English-speaking landfall to global companies that want a European home in which they can feel, well, at home.

But there are other reasons why Ireland will never follow the UK down the Brexit rabbit hole.

September, 1973, Celeste, now my wife of 45 years, and myself were both heading home from work. We walked down Dublin’s Talbot Street. Five minutes after we walked down that street the bombs went off. That’s how close to death you were in the “Troubles”, much more so for the people of Northern Ireland than for us Dubliners. They walked close to death every day.

For too long Ireland lived, to make use of O’Casey’s words: in the shadow of the gunman and the bomber.

Like many a Dublin boy I grew up in an Irish republican family. It was never referred to as Northern Ireland, it was the “Occupied North”. I was brought to Sinn Fein /IRA “sales of work” in Catholic church halls where memorabilia of the heroic deeds of Kevin Barry or “Sean South of Garryowen” were sold. Who knows where our working-class pennies went.

Conor_Cruise_O_Bri_1209188fIt was Conor Cruise O’Brien (pic right) who changed the way I thought about Ireland and Northern Ireland.

First through his writings on Parnell and Burke, not to mention his little booklet on Camus. Parnell, Burke, Camus, like O’Brien himself, political actors and thinkers caught between two cultures, often at war with one another, half Irish/English. French/Algerian, torn sensibilities.

But it was his book States of Ireland that took me away from the naïve Irish republicanism of my mother to a deeper understanding of the complexity of the island on which we Irish live.

O’Brien’s thesis was simple. Northern Ireland was not “occupied” by a hostile foreign power. It was simply that there was around a million Unionists/Protestants that wanted to be part of the UK, not Ireland. It was evil to think that they could be bombed and terrorised into a “United Ireland”. O’Brien knew that the US adage in Vietnam “if you have them by the balls their hearts and minds will follow” didn’t work there and was not going to work in Norther Ireland either. He was right.

As an Irish Labour Party member in his constituency back in the 1970s I knew O’Brien personally, the Cruiser as he was known by all, and enjoyed many a glass with him. But in his later years his anti-Irish republicanism, if understandable, pushed him into a lonely political place, where none of us followed. But whatever the failings of his later political life, for me O’Brien will always be the man who forced southern republican Ireland to recognise that there were two communities on this island and that we had to find a way of living together.

Of course, there were others, Garret Fitzgerald and John Hume to name but two. But this is a short briefing/blog not a detailed history and all I can do in this is to talk about how my own understanding of the island on which we Irish live we evolved.

The “border” between the two parts of the island was not just a physical thing. It was also an ideological and emotional divide, with a Protestant state for a Protestant people on one side, mirrored by a Catholic state for a Catholic people on the other, with the minority populations on both sides of the divide discriminated against, to put it at its mildest.

The European Union helped dissolve the internal Irish border. This is not to suggest that the European Union was responsible for the process that has brought a fragile peace to our divided island. It is simply to state that the gradual disappearance of borders in Europe was of assistance to those seeking to find a way of ending the terror and violence that had been commonplace for far too long.

It was a project, the Single European Market, driven in large part by then UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, that acted as the catalyst. Since its inception in the late 1950s, the European Union had a common external tariff border, with goods flowing tariff-free internally. But there still existed an enormous number of non-tariff barriers to trade, such things as product regulations, professional qualifications, quotas, import licences and so on. The “Single Market” was created to bring an end to these non-tariff barriers.

As Thatcher herself put it, outlining the potential benefits of a market of some 320 million people:

Just think for a moment what a prospect that is. A single market without barriers—visible or invisible—giving you direct and unhindered access to the purchasing power of over 300 million of the world’s wealthiest and most prosperous people.

Bigger than Japan. Bigger than the United States. On your doorstep. And with the Channel Tunnel to give you direct access to it.

It’s not a dream. It’s not a vision. It’s not some bureaucrat’s plan. It’s for real. And it’s only five years away.

This great single market is now being carelessly thrown away by a UK Conservative government, many of whose members think of themselves as Thatcher’s heirs.

Ireland, Northern Ireland and the UK has had a “common travel area”, passport-free travel, dating back to the 1920. Now, inside the customs union and Thatcher’s single market there would no longer be any need for border controls to monitor the flow of goods. Out of this gradually grew, as Tony Connolly has documented in his brilliant Brexit and Ireland, a deeply integrated economy on the island of Ireland, with goods flowing freely in both directions.

With the Belfast Agreement, also known as the “Good Friday Agreement”, slowly the security infrastructure that scarred the land began to disappear. Policemen and soldiers stopped stopping you as you went about your business and daily life if and when you crossed what was now an invisible border, as many people did, day in and day out.  Peace came dropping slow.

Brexit puts all that at risk. Or rather, the hard-line definition of Brexit that Theresa May has developed – out of the single market, out of the customs unions, out of the jurisdiction of the European Court, and end to free movement – puts it at risk.

Because all of these things will create borders where none now exist, on the island of Ireland and between mainland Britain and Europe.

Of all the regions of the UK, Northern Ireland will be hardest hit by extreme Brexit.

Ireland also will take a hit, but it will survive and prosper as the main English-speaking country in the EU. In coping with Brexit, Ireland will have the support of the other members of the EU. Will the UK government make good the damage that Brexit will do to Northern Ireland? I suspect not, especially if and when a UK government is no longer reliant the on the votes of the Democratic Unionist Party to stay in office.

In the Brexit referendum the people of Northern Ireland voted 56/44 to stay in the European Union. There is no majority in Northern Ireland to leave the single market and the customs union. If that is where Brexit takes the UK, then the question of whether Northern Ireland stays in the UK very much becomes a live political question.

Put it this way. Is the undermining of peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland a price the people of Northern Ireland will think worth paying for the vanity project of a clique of English nationalists? A clique which misled a nation into thinking that Brexit would be so easy that it could be done in an afternoon over a cup of tea. All gain, no pain.

At such a time in the life of Northern Ireland it is irresponsible in the extreme that local politicians are unable to agree on the reinstitution of devolved government. There is no bigger threat to the future of Northern Ireland than Brexit. Everything else is of second order importance and can be argued about in the future. Once Brexit is done it is done and will take years to undo. And the politicians of Northern Ireland will have stood on the side-lines as the damage was done.

Ironically, Brexit instead of leading to Global Britain, may end up giving us Little England if the people of both Northern Ireland and Scotland were to decide that they would have a brighter future decoupled from what seems to be an increasingly inward-facing England.

Ireland and its political leaders need to think out what a unified island would look like. Note, not a “United Ireland” but an island embedded in the European Union and respectful of all political and cultural traditions, no one tradition dominating the other, a system of checks and balances.

On this, see this thoughtful piece by Senator Neale Richmond here. See also this excellent article by Daniel Keohane.

There are very long days ahead and hard choices to be made. Whatever happens in the months ahead we Irish know that our future lies with the European Union. There is no future for us in returning to be an isolated island behind a bigger, isolated island.

We had hundreds of years of that. We are not going back.


A Postscript: A few months ago, Derek Mooney and myself wrote about what we thought should happen as regards Northern Ireland. It is still very relevant today: 

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