WAITING 1901(2) CXXVIII

WAITING

By the time you read this the result of the crucial vote in the British Parliament on “Teresa May’s Deal,” thrashed out with the EU several months ago, will be known. As I write defeat seems certain but   May persists with it as the only deal on the table, hoping that enough MPs from all parties will rally round to support it, in the absence of anything better – or worse, since a “No Deal” departure commands even less parliamentary support. Brussels has indicated that the May Deal cannot be renegotiated, though there might be some minor tweaking.  A number of commentators have suggested that this – surely the biggest event in British politics since World War Two – has been mishandled to such an extent as to present a constitutional crisis, without, however, an immediate apparent solution.

With only two months to go before Britain leaves – or crashes out of – the EU, we in Ireland can only watch and wait with trepidation. The issue will probably go down to the very wire as it is in every side’s interest that some deal be cobbled together. Yet there is a strong danger that, with positions entrenched on both sides, we could stumble into a no deal situation. It is perfectly clear that the EU cannot compromise on the vital institutions of the Single Market and the Customs Union. Given this basic reality, which the draft agreement recognised, there was always going to be a downside for the UK in leaving. This has now got through to Britain’s politicians, hence their dissatisfaction, and May is currently thrashing around seeking some give around the edges from Brussels. The outcome is impossible to call. Though not strictly comparable, think how the US would handle the seismic economic and political ramifications if Illinois were to leave/secede peremptorily from the Union.

There are other possibilities. It would be technically (and legally) possible to postpone Brexit were Britain to suspend or revoke its decision to withdraw before 29 March. This would theoretically leave the way clear for Britain to remain in the EU as is, or to hold a second referendum on departure, or indeed on the acceptability or otherwise of the May deal. Failing any solution in the coming weeks (an emergency Summit in late March?), there could well be a temporary suspension of Article 50 in an attempt to buy time. However, could May or any other Prime Minister deliver on this and what would the eventual outcome be? The Brexiteers most potent current argument is that “the people have spoken” with the situation today being portrayed as in some way akin to the 1940 situation in World War Two, when Britain stood alone, the rhetoric redolent with Churchillian undertones and demands for no backsliding..

Apart from the dubious interpretation – Britain did not “win” the War; it made great sacrifices and was on the winning side in what was “a nearest run thing” ( Wellington’s phrase) – the current situation is qualitatively quite different. In 1940 Britain had effectively no choice – fight on or perish.  The Brexit decision, adopted by a narrow majority after an ill-informed referendum campaign, involved opting out and away from the world’s largest and most prosperous multinational entity, in which Britain had power, influence and votes, accounted for 15% of its economy, and which moreover constituted the market for the bulk of its exports, and was crucial for its financial services sector. There was no compulsion; there was no threat.

The mistakes and delusions by Britain’s politicians since  (in particular the notion that the  remaining EU Twenty Seven, with five plus times the economic clout of Britain, would roll over and accede to its demands) have been analysed ad nauseam, yet  one central and disturbing fact remains. As every poll shows, Britain, as in 2016, is split down the middle, so there is no guarantee that any referendum, however it might be worded, would succeed. And arguably the majority in favour of leaving might well increase, with some of the electorate resentful that the democratic will as expressed in 2016 was being disregarded.  The difference with Ireland’s Nice and Lisbon votes are that Ireland did not want to leave the EU but was merely disputing an internal treaty, as it had every right to do, and the EU was able and willing to give Ireland sufficient assurances for the people to vote again. Britain, having painted itself into a corner, has no such option available.

For Ireland there are so many negatives to Brexit, with no silver lining apparent. The draft agreement proposes a two year transition period, hopefully to fast track a fairly comprehensive (and ideally free) trade deal. This is not perfect but would at least allow for normal relations. Should there be a “crash out” no deal, Britain would automatically become a third country, governed in its trade relations with the EU, including Ireland, by whatever were the relevant WTO tariffs and regulations. A customs regime with checks and controls would come into play, replacing what had been a free flowing trading area for decades. The initial shock to the existing systems as they adapted and modified could be considerable. Delays would  be inevitable and almost universal, with all that that implies in terms of interfering with existing, often finely tuned, supply chains and threatening any time-sensitive perishable goods trade, including medicines and radioactive medical applications.

The Brexit threat to Ireland’s prosperity is very real. Sterling is widely forecast to fall, substantially if there is no deal. This will deal a body blow to our economy. Britain remains Ireland’s second largest trading partner (behind the USA) with €1 billion plus traded every week, taking 11% of total exports and is particularly vital for our indigenous industries like agriculture and small businesses. Our meat trade could be devastated. Our interlinked agricultural, health, economic and tourist structures with Northern Ireland will be harmed (a two-way process, be it noted). Our biggest tourist market will come under threat, as currencies fluctuate.

And, while we have diversified our trade dramatically since 1973, the issue is deeper than figures. We are already at a disadvantage in terms of trading with our EU partners by being an offshore island behind an offshore island. This was a handicap when Britain was in the EU, but will become worse after Brexit.  Roughly two thirds of Irish goods exported to Europe (which far exceed exports to Britain) do so via British roads and ports. Customs procedures if introduced will lengthen the time for our exports to reach European markets while we, like Britain, will have OUR supply chains and time sensitive two-way trade affected.

Another aspect, sometimes overlooked, is that for the first time ever after 29 March Ireland will be de-linked umbilically from Britain. Our political independence notwithstanding, we remained economically, socially and culturally linked with Britain in the succeeding decades. We entered the EC, because we had to, such was our dependence on our bigger neighbour, which was joining. As the EU morphed into the comprehensive economic and social organism it is today, so those links with Britain continued, even intensified, though in a healthier more equal form as Ireland developed. Brexit will change this summarily.

7/1/19

THE LADYBIRD BOOK: LEARN ABOUT IRISH HISTORY: THE BACKSTOP 1901 CXXVII

THE LADYBIRD BOOK: “LEARN ABOUT IRISH HISTORY; THE BACKSTOP”

BREXIT. For the Outsider there is fascination in observing how the elite in a major economic and political power seem hell-bent on wrecking it. For the Insider, and Ireland is an involuntary Insider, there is trepidation and fear at the extent of the potential real and collateral damage as Britain seemingly stumbles towards a crash out from the EU.

It’s not inevitable. Teresa May appears to be running the clock down, with a vital vote in Parliament    on the Withdrawal Agreement – the least bad option -scheduled for mid-January.  But a defeat, which seems likely,  will leave precious little time left to come up with an alternative to the chaos of a hard (i.e. no deal) Brexit. Moreover there appears no palatable option that might get through Parliament, such is the paralysis in the British body politic.

As this reality seeps in, the anti-Irish rhetoric of the Brexiteers has intensified. As they see it, Ireland, through the Backstop, is frustrating Britain’s Manifest Destiny of departing the EU painlessly and on favourable terms.  Recently one anonymous Tory MP (a Party “grandee”) commented to a BBC reporter: “We simply cannot allow the Irish to treat us like this. The Irish really should know their place.” This came hot on the heels of former British Cabinet Minister Priti Patel, who, several days earlier, pondered why Britain had not used the possibility of food shortages in Ireland after a hard Brexit, to exert pressure in the negotiations with the EU.

Not surprisingly, on both sides of the Irish Sea there has been considerable adverse reaction to these comments and neither person seems likely to feature on many Irish Christmas card lists now or in the future. Yet they are merely the latest expressions of impotent rage from Brexiteers of that ilk that an issue ignored during the Referendum campaign has reared up to bite them in the posterior. An issue moreover that is intrinsic to an international agreement to which Britain signed up and which is fundamental to the peace settlement in Northern Ireland.

For their benefit, there follows a very brief potted history of Ireland since 1840. This might also interest Teresa May, who apparently, when addressing EU leaders in September, asked them how they would feel if their countries were “carved” in two, reaffirming several days later that any deal which “divides our country in two” would be bad.

Ireland,  conquered and misruled by Britain over several hundred years, and formally part of a “United Kingdom” after 1800,suffered a massive famine in the 1840s when the staple food  of millions – the Potato – was destroyed by a blight , Phytophthora  infestans. Upwards of a million people died of starvation or disease between 1845 and 1849, with another million plus fleeing the country. The trickle of emigrants to the USA became a flood; 1,289,307 arrived in the USA in the decade 1846-1855 alone. The Irish rural underclass was decimated; those who couldn’t afford to leave starved.

Ireland’s population, 8,175,124 in 1841, fell by over 20% to 6,552,385 in 1851 and sank to 5,798,000 in 1861. It continued to fall until well into the Twentieth Century and even now the population in the Republic, at 4.70 million, is 1.8 million below that in 1841, while Northern Ireland only “caught up” with pre-Famine figures at the turn of the Millennium.  The British (“our”!) Government’s efforts at relief were pathetic and woefully inadequate. The most that can be said is that the (“our”) Government’s woeful reaction to the catastrophe fell short of accepted definitions of genocide in that there was no official murderous intent, though, as the late Professor Emmet Larkin remarked to me, it would not have been allowed to happen in the Home Counties.

The Famine proved a political watershed, giving an impetus over time to the separatist strain in Irish nationalism, which led eventually to the 1916 Rising (the huge post-Famine Irish communities in the USA providing considerable moral political and financial support). Any residual pro-British sentiment among most Irish received a coup de grace when the British commanding general shot fifteen of the Rising Leaders, the executions (ninety were planned) stopped only by the hasty personal intervention of British Prime Minister, Asquith.  A brief but savage struggle for independence from 1919 – 1921 ended with a treaty establishing, in 1922, the Irish Free State.

There was unfinished business, however. The north- east of Ireland contained a sizeable non – Nationalist majority – the Unionists, identified by being overwhelmingly non- Catholic – who, for obvious reasons, were the preferred “Irish” of the British authorities. To cater for them Britain partitioned the island, carving a statelet along county boundaries rather than community lines, thus producing a sizeable Unionist majority but with a Nationalist minority of one third. The delineation of the Border was fudged, with a Boundary Commission (on whom Nationalists throughout the island had pinned hopes) suggesting only minor changes. Thereafter the border issue was frozen but unaddressed for decades. Britain applied some constructive ambiguity to the status of the Irish in Britain and Ireland, many of whom settled in Britain as economic migrants. They were given freedom of movement, residence and access to the British Welfare state similar to UK citizens.

All might have been well, with the British Welfare State after 1945 lifting all boats, had the Unionists not pursued a consistent pattern of anti-nationalist discrimination for decades in areas of employment, housing and local government. By the Sixties something had to give- and it did. Eventually civil unrest and political violence broke out and took several thousand lives in the quarter of a century after 1969. The much poorer Republic developed separately and more slowly, without the crutches of the Welfare State and the annual subsidy of billions from Westminster. EC and later EU membership helped change that.

A complicated and tortuous Peace Process began in the late 1980s, encouraged and assisted by the Irish and British governments and the European Union.  Paramilitaries on both sides declared ceasefires in 1994, and, with the guns silent, political dialogue between the two communities in the North began. It was slow, but eventually culminated in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which cemented and defined relations within Northern Ireland, between both parts of Ireland and between Ireland and Britain. The Agreement was endorsed by massive majorities in both parts of the island (far greater than 52-48!). Integral to it was an open Border in Ireland which has functioned well in the two decades since, underpinned by common membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union. Lasting peace and prosperity in Ireland seemed assured.

Cue Brexit, where the vote in the North was an emphatic 55.8% Remain. In the Leave negotiations Britain committed to maintaining this open Border, declaring “in the absence of agreed solutions the UK will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union, which, now and in the future support North South Cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.”  The Backstop. Wordy but clear. And not Ireland’s fault! Agreed solutions” are likely but if not the Backstop is the guarantee that perfidious Albion will not again do Ireland down.

20/12/18

 

POLITICS AND LOBBIES 1812(2) CXXVI

POLITICS AND LOBBIES

Since 1 October Ireland has had a budget, a presidential election, a constitutional amendment and controversial alcohol legislation. All this as the drama/comedy/tragedy of Brexit continued to play out in Britain. For Ireland also, Brexit is drama, comedy and potential tragedy. There is no positive aspect to Brexit for Ireland. We shall suffer; the only question is to what extent and Government policy is aimed at damage limitation.

As I write it is still not clear what form Britain’s final exit from the EU will take. An agreement was cobbled together in early November between the negotiating teams which satisfied Ireland’s (and the EU’s) special concerns regarding the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The agreement, championed by Teresa May, is probably the least unsatisfactory deal that could have been agreed but has generated uproar at a political level in the UK, with Ministerial resignations and every likelihood that the agreement will be rejected by the British Parliament.

Britain is big enough and powerful enough to survive whatever happens in the short term at least but the whole process could well “unleash demons of which ye know not” in David Cameron’s striking phrase. The Brexit lobby, elitist, loud, and stoking populist sentiments, continues to hold sway. They need to be taken down, but is May the person to do it?

Domestically, first off, the referendum to delete Blasphemy as a crime from the Constitution was carried decisively and uncontroversially on 26 October, which at least removes Ireland from the ranks of unsavoury regimes like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and others of that ilk, which prescribe and carry out punishments, often draconian, on “blasphemers.” Good riddance!

The 2019 Budget had few surprises. With an election ever closer and negotiations to extend the Fine Gael Fianna Fail agreement imminent, a steady-as-you-go budget was always on the cards. There were modest increases in social welfare payments, modest cuts in income tax and modest sticking-plaster applications to the three “H’s” – Housing, Homelessness and Health. There are no magic bullets to fix any of the three, though an increase in housing supply is clearly a vital step in tackling the first two. The Health situation is chronic and likely to get worse as the population ages. Currently the children’s lobby is ascendant over that for the elderly, but with the old growing in numbers and living longer, this balance will have to be addressed sooner or later.

One lobby group DID receive a budget setback. Ireland is currently behind schedule on her commitments to combat climate change, and the environmental lobby had pushed hard for an increase in carbon tax in the budget, to the extent that the Taoiseach had announced it would happen. Enter political reality. Increasing carbon tax means hikes in the cost of petrol, home heating oil and also in the cost of solid fuels such as coal and turf, measures either socially regressive ( the poor and the elderly tend to burn solid fuel) or discriminatory against rural dwellers  given the paucity of public transport outside the major urban areas. Politically a no-brainer at this time. Result: no budget carbon tax increase, to the dismay of environmentalists of every hue.

It would be difficult to find anyone in Ireland who does not accept the reality of climate change and the need to take measures to combat global warming. But actually translating this into concrete steps, particularly involving paying more and changing lifestyle is another matter. Even pointing out that Dublin is further north than Calgary cuts no ice (ouch!). Last Spring’s storms sounded a warning but not sufficient to cause a sea change (ouch again) in attitude amid widespread belief that the major polluting countries (led by Trump’s USA) are doing little or nothing nationally. Perhaps this will change when threatened heavy financial sanctions from Brussels (which could run to several hundred million euro annually) kick in after 2020, but before that there is Brexit and every likelihood of an election, hence the tardiness of politicians to act.

It would be equally difficult to find anyone in Ireland who would not agree that more should be done for Irish Travellers, generally accepted as Ireland’s most marginalised community. The Presidential Election, while it resulted as expected in an overwhelming victory for the incumbent Michael D, did throw up an interesting development – still being digested – in the performance of the runner up Peter Casey; on 1% ten days before the poll, he launched an attack on the Travellers in a radio interview. The lobby were outraged, condemning Casey as racist.

This would normally be enough to silence anyone putting a head above the parapet. But Casey, a millionaire who has spent the bulk of his working life abroad, was unfazed, stuck to his guns and broadened his attack to condemn also the “sense of entitlement “in what he termed a “welfare dependant state,” hijacking in the process one of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s pet phrases, that he stood for “those who get up early in the morning” paying for everything and getting little back. Casey finished with 23% of the vote and, significantly, 10% of the total electorate.

The PC brigade closed ranks, with politicians and the media uniting to condemn Casey and his supporters, writing off the result as a flash in the pan. Yet subsequent revelations that the bulk of local authority monies earmarked for Traveller accommodation this year have yet to be spent, indicates that there remains a problem and that as a society we have still not progressed much beyond that several decades ago when one prominent political commentator observed that everyone was agreed on housing the Travellers – the only problems were when and where.

Just prior to the budget there was finally success for one particular lobby with the passage of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, which, inter alia, sets out minimum prices beneath which alcohol cannot be sold.  The bill passed after a lengthy campaign which saw the health lobby pitted against the powerful drinks lobby. The legislation is a determined attempt by a loose coalition of medical and health experts to curb Ireland’s drinking culture and in particular to address the problem of binge drinking, especially by the young, through a variety of measures.  These include education on the health threats posed by alcohol as well as regulations to control advertising marketing and sponsorship of alcohol, but above all through significant price hikes which will effectively end the availability of cheap alcohol.

Whether the package (including health warnings on wine bottles) will survive legal challenges and EU competition regulations remains to be seen. Ditto with regard to whether the legislation will actually change behaviour and attitudes to alcohol. The health lobby are taking their cue from the tobacco experience, where cigarette prices are now among the highest in Europe, and official consumption has slumped. But this is to ignore what has been a massive cultural shift away from smoking across the developed world, not just Ireland, and also the local booming illegal trade in counterfeit and smuggled cigarettes. And remember, in the 1980s, when disposable income was low and alcohol taxes relatively high, determined drinkers simply made their own. Home Brew anybody?

19/11/18

STRAW IN THE WIND? 1812 CXXV

STRAW IN THE WIND?

One of the intriguing aspects of the Twenty First Century Irish political scene has been the absence up to now of any significant right wing populist political movement along the lines of those to be found elsewhere in Europe and the USA. Last month’s Presidential election gave just a hint that this may be about to change. Certainly the PC Brigade, from the Taoiseach on down, has not been slow to express alarm outrage and condemnation about the support shown for the runner up candidate Peter Casey. Most commentators consider that Casey’s support was a once-off and he a lightning rod for transient political frustrations, but there is no doubt that the election outcome has given pause for thought.

First the facts, which should give considerable comfort to those opposed to Casey and his supporters. On 26 October 2018 Michael D Higgins was re-elected President of Ireland – largely a ceremonial office with mainly residual powers – by an overwhelming majority, polling 822,566, almost 56% of the votes cast and winning every one of Ireland’s forty electoral districts. The turnout at 43.9% was the lowest in any contested Presidential election, probably reflecting in part Higgins’ position as overwhelming favourite (the bookies had him at 25 to 1 on).  Despite the lower poll, Higgins actually increased his vote over 2011 by 17%. His vote represented the largest personal mandate in the history of the state.

That Higgins was overwhelming favourite was no surprise. He was popular, had done a good job and avoided major faux pas, with the exception of his remarks in praise of Castro. The only strikes against him were his 2011 statement that he would be a one term President and his age- 77, though De Valera had been 83 when he ran in 1966. The expectation early on was that, should Higgins decide to run, he would be returned unopposed, as had been the case with three of his eight predecessors. He was endorsed by all the major political parties except Sinn Fein, which spoiled the “unopposed” scenario by announcing it would field a candidate.

Once a contest was on the cards, four independent candidates entered the field, each endorsed by the requisite number (four) of local authorities. The four included anti-suicide activist Joan Freeman, the 2011 runner up businessman Sean Gallagher, and two other businessmen, all three known to the public from their appearances on the TV show Dragon’s Den” in which wannabe entrepreneurs make pitches to the wealthy panellists for funding in exchange for an equity share if the idea makes money. Yet from the start Higgins was overwhelming favourite and as the lacklustre campaign unfolded, his position solidified, something which undoubtedly helps also explain some of the low turnout – with Higgins a shoe-in why bother?

The chief outside interest for much of the campaign was how well the Sinn Fein candidate would perform, given the party’s role in precipitating the election and its yo-yo showings in various opinion polls – 14% in September, down from 24% in the summer. This time the Sinn Fein candidate was Liadh Ni Riadha, daughter of the legendary Irish composer Sean O Riada and an elected MEP. The immediate question was whether she could better the vote of 243,030, 13.7% of the total, secured in 2011 by Martin McGuinness, with all his Provo baggage, or the 13.8% Sinn Fein  secured in the 2016 general election, thus giving the party a boost in advance of the pending general election.

The campaign, overshadowed by the far more important Brexit negotiations, suddenly ignited just over a week before polling. Higgins appeared to be extending his lead (one poll gave him 68%) with the challengers nowhere and, at the tail of the field Peter Casey, registering around two (2!) percent. Then Casey, a businessman who has spent much of his career outside Ireland, attacked Irish Travellers in a radio interview, disputing official recognition of them aa a separate ethnic group, criticising some travellers in Tipperary who were refusing to move into new social houses built specially for them and castigating Travellers as a whole as “basically people camping in someone else’s land” who were “not paying their fair share of taxes in society”.

The remarks provoked outrage and condemnation from the other candidates and politicians of every hue. There were numerous calls from politicians and pressure groups for Casey to withdraw from the election, with his comments being attributed to a desperate attempt to garner some support. Casey refused to withdraw, stood his ground in a TV debate with the other candidates and went on to broaden his remarks by stating that he would campaign on his belief that Ireland had become a “welfare dependant state” which had led to “a sense of entitlement that’s become unaffordable.” He hijacked one of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s pet phrases, that he stood for “those who get up early in the morning” paying for everything and getting little back. Cue further condemnation and outrage from across the political and social spectrum. The only support expressed for his views came on the social media.

Days later Casey came second to Higgins, romping home with 342,727 votes, 23% of the total and more than the other four rivals combined. Cue dismay and disbelief. For Sinn Fein the result was a disaster, with Ni Riadha beaten into fourth place with 93,987 votes, a mere 6.4%. When the dust had settled the Taoiseach warned against “turning a loser into a winner” – a phrase that could yet come back to haunt him. Subsequently the media closed ranks, with commentators almost universally condemning Casey as racist, deploring and denigrating his support, pointing out that 77% did NOT vote for him and that in a low poll it was to be expected that those holding strong views (i.e. Casey supporters) would be the ones to vote, thus giving a misleading cast to the result. The general line was that attention should more properly focus on Michael D’s achievement in securing the largest and most comprehensive victory in Irish political history, with views known to be totally opposed to those of Casey.

One commentator noted, however, that, deplorable or not, 10% of the electorate voted for him and pondered whether that could be ignored? The nine constituencies where Casey polled over 30% were all in areas in the West and Midlands with visible Traveller populations (but not critical mass; after all the Traveller population is considerably less than one per cent of the total!).  And in only a handful of constituencies, chiefly around Dublin, was his vote below his national average. The post mortems are likely to continue for some time. What does the vote say about public attitudes to Travellers? Was Casey an opportunist? Did he stumble on a vote winner? Was he Machiavellian? Is he a one-trick pony?

And what will he do next? He is still very much around and has signalled his intention to get involved in Irish politics, making not very profound populist suggestions for future policies. He has floated the idea of joining, even leading, Fianna Fail. Not surprisingly this has met with a stony reaction. Will he find a niche somewhere? Or seek to create his own?

14/11/18

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1066 AND ALL THAT? 1811 CXXIV

1066 AND ALL THAT?

A quote to begin:

Gladstone “spent his declining years trying to guess the answer to the Irish Question; unfortunately, whenever he was getting warm, the Irish secretly changed the Question.”

It comes from a marvellously satirical spoof history of England, “1066 and All That” published in 1930 and aimed at debunking British imperial pretensions, mind-set and history as it was then taught in British schools. The quote  suggests that essentially the Irish Problem, which dominated late 19th Century British politics, was not Britain’s fault but rather that of the dastardly Irish who kept moving the goalposts, frustrating Britain’s good intentions whenever a solution seemed close. It’s as good an introduction as any to the Brexiteer view of where the Brexit negotiations are now at.

October’s Brussels Summit failed to make progress on the so-called “Irish Backstop,” the last perceived major obstacle to the divorce negotiations between Britain and the European Union. Discussions are continuing, with the end March 2019 date for Britain’s EU exit looming.

To recap. Britain voted by a narrow majority (less than 4%) in 2016 to leave the EU after a referendum campaign marked (and marred) by basic ignorance and a failure by the Cameron government to educate as to the issues and  complexities involved. The Leave campaign, spearheaded by Nigel Farage of UKIP together with a coterie of wealthy Tories, was to the fore in misrepresentation, and played cleverly on enough working and lower middle class fears over recent and threatened immigration, with its perceived accompanying erosion of living standards and threats to the British Welfare State. After a decade of austerity the vote was a chance to protest about the way society was going.  Subsequent attempts to question the Referendum’s legitimacy have been shouted down on the grounds that “the People have spoken.”

The EU Treaty provided for a two year exit process, inadequate for unravelling and sorting the many strands of British membership. Accordingly, following negotiations, there is now agreement on an additional two year “transition” period to sort out remaining technical issues. This has not sat well with the gung ho Brexiteers in and out of the British Cabinet, since it involves Britain paying extra money to Brussels without a say in how it is spent, but they appear to have accepted the practical reasons for it.

Cue the “Irish Backstop.” In the simple “Yes/ No” Referendum vote, no thought or attention had been given to Ireland, to all intents and purposes no longer on  the British political landscape. Yet what to do about the Border in the North – the only land frontier between the UK and the EU? This rapidly mushroomed into an early hurdle in the negotiations.

Last December the EU and Britain agreed that there would be regulatory alignment between both parts of the island of Ireland in the event of no deal being reached between the EU and Britain. This to ensure that the frictionless open border in Ireland, the central element of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and critical to underpinning the fragile peace in the North, remained completely open to trade, people and services, whatever else happened. Britain had little choice in practice but to agree, to resolve an impasse and allow the divorce negotiations to proceed.

Since then, under pressure from the DUP, which is shoring up the May Government, and the hard line Tory Brexiteers, Teresa May has been thrashing about to find a way to square an impossible circle by sticking to this commitment, which essentially requires some special arrangement for Northern Ireland, without obliging Britain to remain in the EU Single Market and Customs Union, something which would negate the whole decision to leave. Various formulae have been explored and found wanting.

The latest idea being floated is that the transition period be extended somewhat to allow more time to find a solution acceptable to all, with Britain sticking to the mantra that “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” a phrase included in December’s agreement document. This useful negotiating device has been employed in various fora in recent decades where negotiations were deadlocked and bean-counters were holding up progress. It could, however, have a downside on occasion, by putting a metaphorical gun to the head of a recalcitrant party where only one relatively minor point remains outstanding.

While discussions are ongoing, the notion of a longer transition period is anathema to hard line Brexiteers. An extra year would take Britain’s effective exit to the end of 2021, over five years since the Referendum and costing Britain billions extra in payments into the EU budget. It would also, of course, encompass another general election – due at the latest in June 2021 – with who knows what outcome, perhaps even a Labour government!  As I write it is by no means certain that May will get agreement to an extra year transition from her Cabinet, let alone her Party, let alone Parliament! Yet if it worked, a comprehensive deal on all issues would render the need for any backstop unnecessary. The European Union regularly resolves the insoluble through some type of fudge. This may prove more difficult this time around since Britain’s exit must be clear and definitive and in a legally binding document.

For even the most intransigent Brexiteer the penny must have long since dropped that the Brave New World after Brexit is a chimera and that even achieving Brexit is more arduous and expensive than they thought.  Put simply, there are no magic new trade deals with third countries that are likely to yield very much over what has already been achieved through EU membership, and nothing to match what could potentially be lost in terms of existing trade with EU member states. The Irish economist and columnist, Colm McCarthy brilliantly exposed the grim realities of this following Teresa May’s August dancing tour of Africa and Boris Johnson’s earlier visit to Latin America. His articles in recent issues of the Irish Sunday Independent should be required reading for all British politicians, not just Brexiteers. Put simply also, the alarm signals from British industry and from every reliable think tank on Brexit have been negative. As the former top civil servant in Britain’s Trade Department put it some months ago, Brexit is like trading a lavish dinner now for a packet of potato chips later.

Faced with this whiff of reality, Brexiteer reaction has been a mixture of hunkering down, circling the wagons and finding suitable scapegoats, whether the EU Commission, the Puppet Masters in Berlin and Paris, or, most visibly, Ireland and the “Irish Border.”  The rhetoric from certain Brexiteers, and in the tabloid press, has been to attack the Irish government, and politicians, as unreasonable and to downplay and ridicule the Border’s significance. Some of the comments have been denigrating, derogatory and blatantly offensive in ways reminiscent of British anti -Irish rhetoric of earlier times.

One thing is certain. When wealthy Tories sneer at Ireland, watch out. The Irish comedian, Daragh O Briain, probably spoke for most Irish people home and abroad when he commented recently that UK references to the “Irish Border” are simply inaccurate. It is rather the British Border in Ireland. The Irish Border is the beach!

29/10/18

 

 

 

 

DUBLIN,AN INSIDER’S GUIDE 1810 CXX111

DUBLIN, AN INSIDER’S GUIDE

Your genial Editor, Cliff Carlson, has tasked me with the impossible – to provide an Insider’s Guide to Places to Go in Dublin in 1200 words. It simply can’t be done, not even in 12,000 words!  Obviously I could list the places I like to (re)visit, the restaurants and pubs I frequent, but much of this is personal to me – the memories associated, the people I know, the sports I like to watch and play, the music I like to hear, and wouldn’t necessarily translate – and might even disappoint – for someone else. So I’ll eschew the task and present instead more of a type of Outsider’s Guide for the casual or first time visitor.

Dublin is a great city, and as a native I never tire of it. There are parts of it, moreover that I hardly know and I still enjoy exploring. But in this era of Trip Adviser and other on-line forums it would be presumptuous of me to give opinions or to attempt to compete with the Lonely Planet or the many other available guide books. What follows is an attempt is to sketch out a template of how to explore Dublin in at least some of the many possible ways. I’m assuming a minimum of a week’s stay, with a value-for-money tag. But be warned; there are so many places that are “must see” or “must do” that fitting them in in one week (or even two) cannot realistically be done. So a return visit will be necessary (my pitch on behalf of Dublin tourism!)

Starting with the basics, Dublin is a relatively compact city in that most of the main tourist attractions are centrally located, and can be visited on foot or by public transport, while the coastal suburban attractions are easily accessible by rail. Dubliners may complain about their public transport but for the visitor it is regular, not too pricey, quite efficient, and safe, but be prepared for crowding at rush hours.  The available options are bus, light rail and train. Taxis are plentiful and also quite reasonable to reach places (and at times) that public transport won’t. Dublin is a fairly safe and friendly city, with the caveat that there is always some crime and it behoves everybody to take some care.

Dublin pubs are world famous and come in every shape and size. Prices for drink can vary though generally the spread in bars is quite limited (plus or minus 20-30%), even in tourist venues like Temple Bar. The current rate for the ubiquitous pint of Guinness is €5.20 on up, with lager and craft beers about €1-1.50 more per pint). Prices in cocktail lounges and Five Star hotels will be considerably higher. Wine in both pubs and restaurants is generally expensive – an indifferent bottle will set you back €20, a “glass” for €6 up – not surprising, given that taxes on alcohol are among the highest in Europe. Pub grub varies widely in both price and quality but can normally be relied on for a snack at least, with some pub fare rivalling that in restaurants. Word of mouth can be important here.

The inward migration of the last two decades has transformed eating out in Dublin, with every variety of ethnic restaurant and food now available at prices to suit all. Dining out is not cheap but, at the lower and medium end, good value is to be had. Many of the smaller restaurants offer two course lunches for around €10 and many more offer “ Early Bird” evening menus (normally before 19.30 or 20.00) for roughly double, with restricted choices at a considerable discount over a la carte. It’s worth remembering that prices normally include service, so tipping for good service is very much a matter of choice, though most people round up. Anyone on an expense account or to whom money is no object will find top class restaurants at top class prices.

So. What to eat? With only a week to explore the culinary options, a different ethnic meal every day is one option. Another is to pursue exclusively good Irish food, now more available than ever.  Lamb and fresh fish tend to be excellent, though Irish stew with lamb might be difficult to source – as also corned beef. Steaks are good, ditto burgers but there is a health ukase against serving rare cooked meat. As in other cities, restaurants packed with people are a good guide to quality.

What to see offers a wealth of potential experience. Any first time visitor, and even others, could do worse than take one of the walking or bus tours to get familiar with the city and its layout, as well as the time taken to move between locations. Dublin’s climate is mild but it can rain a lot so appropriate precautions should be taken (raincoats and/or umbrellas). Don’t try to cram in too much and above all pace yourself. And don’t forget to factor in lunch and dinner wherever the fancy takes you.

Begin with the “Must See’s.”  Thirty minutes on the Internet, supplemented by a guide book and a map, will yield around a dozen recommendations from several sources. The list is familiar, with most probably already flagged by relatives or friends. Most cost money and some require advance booking.  Next sort out transport modalities and purchase tickets – again there are discounts available. The “Dublin Pass” is worth looking at since it includes free admission to many attractions as well as a bus shuttle between sites. Queries and further information can be got from the nearest Tourist Office (there’s one in Andrew Street, 200 m from Trinity College, as good a place as any to start exploring).

When they’re out of the way (or pencilled in on the calendar) I suggest spending a Day on the Bay, visiting and exploring the various coastal suburbs on Dublin’s North and South coasts. Malahide, Howth, Blackrock, Dun Laoghaire, Dalkey and Greystones are some of the places to be found along Dublin’s rapid transit DART system, which features spectacular scenery as it runs along the coast. My particular favourite is the fishing village of Howth, which could be a holiday destination in itself, with some superb seafood restaurants and pubs with musical entertainment. But all the venues mentioned are interesting in themselves with plenty to see, explore, eat and drink.

Another day, at least, should be spent visiting Dublin’s excellent – and free – Museums and Art Galleries, all user friendly and packed with fine exhibits and art. My favourites are the Hugh Lane Gallery in Parnell Square and the Chester Beatty Library within Dublin Castle, though the National Gallery, with a Vermeer, a Caravaggio and a fine collection of Irish Art should not be missed. This is not to neglect the other fee-charging venues which also merit attention but will probably require advance booking. And spend one evening in Temple Bar for the convivial atmosphere and the music.

Running out of time? Try visiting the main parks, cemeteries, churches and cathedrals. Try the Ginger Man tour, the James Joyce pub tour, the 1916 Tour, the Brewery and Distillery tours, Moore Street, and more…..  Oh, well.There’s nothing for it but to plan another visit!

18/9/18