(SOME OF) THE TIES THAT BIND
“The family ties and bonds of affection that unite our two countries mean that there will always be a special relationship between us.” Not exactly love-bombing, but this was British Prime Minster, Teresa May, speaking. The context was the need to preserve the Common Travel Area (CTA) between Ireland and Britain following British exit from the EU, the occasion the announcement of Britain’s roadmap for Brexit. And maintaining the Common Travel Area was number four in May’s twelve negotiating objectives, highlighting its importance to Britain.
As I write, Donald Trump has just been sworn in as the USA’s 45th President. His “America First” inauguration address came with vows to repatriate US business based overseas and to rewrite the terms of much of current US trade relations. Trump’s plans for US business could affect future and even existing US investment in Ireland, which has relied heavily on FDI from US companies. And a major alteration in the US’ current trade agreements could potentially seriously derail international trade patterns with consequences for every country. We shall see.
However, a much more clear and present danger for Ireland is the impending Brexit and that roadmap set out by May, which heralds a tough set of parameters for the negotiations. There are few “coulds” but some very definite “woulds” regarding the likely consequences of Britain leaving the EU. The phoney war since June is now ending and quite a grim picture for Ireland is beginning to emerge. Put simply Ireland, North and South, stands to be affected disproportionately greater than the other 26 EU members by Britain’s departure. May has signalled the so-called “Hard Brexit”, involving the introduction of controls on Immigration from other EU countries as well as pulling out of the Single Market and the Customs Union. All three are critical for Britain; all three will have profound effects on Ireland.
Tied in with this, though not mentioned by May, is the North, so self-evidently an issue of critical concern to the people of Ireland, North and South. It is less than a generation since the guns fell silent and not yet a decade since the fledgling institution of the Power Sharing Executive appeared to be taking hold. Right now there is a hiatus, with elections pending in March and old tribal loyalties reasserting themselves. Peace is not under threat – far from it; the North has come too far to fall back. But the last thing needed, at a time when North South relations have never been closer, is the prospect of new or renewed barriers across the island. To a large extent the Good Friday Agreement was predicated on close relations between Ireland and Britain with physical and economic contact enhanced by a common membership of the larger entity of Europe.
A critical ameliorating element here has been the Common Travel Area, dating back to Irish independence, far predating, as May noted, membership of the EU. This was not affected by subsequent EU enlargements – until now. While May speaks of working “to deliver a practical solution” to maintaining the CTA while “protecting” the UK’s immigration system, there’s clearly a circle to be squared here. Any solution involving a two tier approach, admitting the Irish but restricting other EU nationals is unlikely to go down well with other EU member states, for example Poland, whose nationals in Britain now actually exceed the numbers of Irish. Other nationalities are much less significant in this context but will doubtless also have views. However, while new controls on immigration might be a nuisance for others, their impact on Ireland and the Irish would be of a different magnitude. Unilateral action by Britain, admitting the Irish alone, would pose the further problem of how and where to police the common land frontier lest Ireland become a back door for entry into the U.K.
The analogy of Norway and Sweden, is hardly relevant – population flows of other EU nationals between them are negligible compared to the flows between Ireland and the U.K. (Ireland remember has also admitted large numbers of Poles and others from the 2004 Enlargement – far more proportionately than the UK). A special accommodation for Ireland, negotiated by the Commission and agreed to by the other 26, is the preferable solution, but whether it is achievable and in what form is another matter.
Brexit is serious for Ireland across the whole spectrum. The two countries have had a long and not very happy relationship stretching back for at least a millennium (it didn’t all start in 1169). In many ways the two islands form a common cultural area. We’ve adopted their legal system and their language and over the centuries millions of Irish have migrated to Britain and settled there. There are at least half a million Irish born people currently living in Britain, (equivalent to 10% of the population in Ireland) with estimates suggesting that one in six Britons has an Irish grandparent. (The Catholic Church, five million strong, is overwhelmingly an Irish immigrant church). The Irish people have been and are well represented in all walks of life in Britain, including the media, sport and the arts. No other EU country even approximates to this.
Quite apart from the North, the historical, cultural and traditional links with the British and the huge Irish community in Britain, our vital national economic interests are under threat by Brexit in a manner that those of other EU members are not. Some are scarcely affected at all. Bulgaria? Croatia? Latvia? Romania? Luxembourg? And the others? All have trading links, some have investments, all have citizens in Britain but none compare with the bald facts of our relationship with Britain. Britain is our major trading partner, however one measures it, one of our major FDI sources and the largest origin of our tourists. Already we have suffered job losses as sterling has fallen in value since last June rendering Irish exports less competitive.
Next time I will expand further on the above, but with the invoking of Article 50, beginning the exit process, expected before March 31, it is imperative that our politicians address urgently the issue of the appropriate means for protecting our vital national interests in advance of the negotiations. It is currently envisaged that the European Council will set out high level objectives for the EU and then consider and approve a draft negotiating mandate from the Commission, which will then conduct the negotiations. This approach enshrines the Treaty-based proposition that all Member States have a stake in the outcome- including preservation and maintenance of what are perceived as the EU’s core values.
All well and good, but while all certainly have a stake Ireland has more and the issue is whether we can simply be just one voice among many, relying on the Commission negotiators – who will be seized of the “ big picture” which will not necessarily prioritise our concerns – to look out for us. Factor in the likely EU interinstitutional rivalry and the aggregation of other national interest of partners big( particularly) and small and there is every danger that our priorities, proportionately more vital, will be side-lined. Should we put not our trust in princes?