WHO’D BE AN IRISH FARMER? 1903 CXXX

WHO’D BE AN IRISH FARMER?

Looking at the plodding blundering antics currently emanating from London, with all it implies for the final outcome on Brexit, it struck me that, historically, this was how many wars started – misunderstandings (at times wilful), indecision, unwillingness to compromise, and a tendency to let the shouts of hotheads prevail over the voices of reason. There is no risk of a war, of course, though in the worst case scenario relations between the UK and the EU Twenty Seven post March are likely to be bruised and damaged, which does not augur well for future negotiations on trade. The British electorate (or the 52% who voted “Leave”) were sold a pup over Brexit; the sad reality is that nobody in power is now shouting “Stop!” To adapt a phrase of Churchill “never have so many been led astray by so few for so little good reason.”

Public and political attention in Ireland is increasingly focussed on Brexit, which should be a reality by the end of this month unless the hapless May government secures some postponement. We in Ireland can effectively only stand and wait, caught between the proverbial rock (a No Deal Brexit) and a hard place (some deal patched up on the basis of the negotiated settlement of last November) with the dawning reality that not only is collateral damage coming our way for certain (the magnitude the only imponderable) but some form of hard border between the two parts of Ireland looks increasingly likely. It may turn out not to be a military border but controls of some form there certainly will be as Europe lines up in a different configuration, with Britain a third country and Ireland the EU’s frontier. The circle could never be squared adequately were Britain to leave the both the Single Market and the Customs Union.

Even in the event of an eleventh hour deal on the Backstop, it has now dawned on the people on this island (both parts) that serious dislocation, inconvenience and economic hardship (to varying degrees) will threaten in any event. Emergency legislation is being rushed through to meet the worst case scenario but given the uncertainty much of this is being done in a partial vacuum. Even relatively minor items such as cell phone roaming charges, including for smart phones, will be touched as Britain falls into the category of “third country.” More serious could be shortages of medicines and some foodstuffs as supply lines are strained and even fractured. Looming also is the threat of price increases as tariffs are threatened and regulation and documentation replace what had been barrier free trade.

Hardest hit will be Ireland’s agricultural sector which is likely to be most immediately – and seriously – hurt by Brexit. While we have prospered from foreign direct investment and the multinationals established during the last generation or so, Agriculture remains our largest indigenous industry, the backbone of the native economy. Some statistics: the agri-food sector accounts for 7.8% of national Income, over 8% of total employment (roughly 170,000), 22% plus of industrial output and 10% plus of merchandise exports. Last year agribusiness exports totalled €12.1 billion, down slightly in value terms but up in volume. And of that export figure €4.5 billion went to the UK. Therein lies the rub. 40% of the total consists of beef and dairy exports, with Britain taking a whopping 50% of our total beef exports and one third of dairy exports. Total agricultural trade both ways with Britain was €8.5 billion in 2016, with Ireland enjoying a surplus of €1 billion.

The effects of Brexit on this sector could be catastrophic. The hurt actually began in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 referendum, as the value of Sterling lurched downwards by 10% against the Euro. The impact on Ireland’s food exports to Britain was immediate, with exporters’ incomes hit and some price sensitive sectors (e.g. mushrooms) devastated. Established trade patterns and flows between Ireland and Britain, and between the two parts of Ireland built up over decades, were damaged (at my son’s wedding in late 2016 a border farmer commented wryly on the new situation – his income from cross border trade 10% down). In a highly competitive industry – beef and dairy – and at a time when margins were already under strain, such a situation is unsustainable in the long run. Since then Sterling has yo-yoed, but never regained its previous high and most commentators see a further significant decline depending on how the exit fiasco eventually pans out.

Reviewing the prospects post- Brexit the words of Luke come to mind “If they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?” Factor in the further likely fall in Sterling, the need for Britain to protect its own agricultural sector, with the looming possibility of protectionist tariffs, WTO tariffs should there be a hard Brexit and the overarching introduction of the bureaucracy inevitable with the reintroduction of a custom regime, and the prospects for Irish agriculture look bleak, with industry spokesmen warning of developments on a scale from tough to catastrophic.

That, unfortunately is not all. Ireland’s other agribusiness exports, amounting to €7.5 billion, are divided roughly equally between exports to the rest of the EU and the rest of the world. The “land bridge” via Britain has been the major conduit for getting these goods ( and other non-agricultural exports) to market, particularly those bound for the EU. Fine when Britain was an EU member; but how and to what extent the land bridge will work out with Britain as a third country remains to be seen. And what if (perish the thought!) relations between Britain and the EU or Ireland were to deteriorate sharply over trade or political ends? What price then for a smooth transit via the land bridge?

Emergency relief and a relaxation of EU rules is being sought for the agricultural sector from Brussels but how substantial and how effective remains to be seen, while further down the line our farmers (and others) face the prospect of substantial cuts in future EU farm supports as a direct result of the disappearance of the UK and its large net contribution to the EU budget.

As if that were not enough, there is Climate Change. The increasingly vocal and strident environmental lobby here has the agricultural sector – and specifically the beef and dairy sections – in its sights. At present Ireland is highly unlikely to meet its 2020 emission reduction targets, in part a legacy issue from the 2008 bust. One third of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture and most of this is methane generated from cattle. Methane is twenty three times more harmful than Carbon Dioxide and contributes significantly to the 18% share agriculture contributes to total greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Hence the calls from the lobby to reduce meat consumption and demands that Irish farmers switch production away from livestock. The Earth may already have passed the tipping point for permanent environmental damage, but with 1.5 billion cattle worldwide (20% in India alone), even slaughtering the total the Irish herd of 7 million is hardly going to save the planet! Yes; who’d be an Irish farmer?

END

22/2/19

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IRELAND AND THE EU AFTER BREXIT 1902 CXXIX

IRELAND AND THE EU AFTER BREXIT

It would be a brave person indeed who could forecast how the Brexit saga will end. Currently, following the overwhelming Commons’ defeat of the draft agreement Teresa May’s team had negotiated over 18 months with the EU, May has just told Parliament how she intends to proceed. We shall see.

Most media and public attention has focussed on what will happen to Britain after Brexit, with virtual unanimity among commentators that the prognosis is bad, and that Britain faces a tough period after a self-inflicted wound. In Ireland the concern is that in trading and economic terms the country will be hit as hard if not harder than Britain and this quite apart from the issues generated and revived over the Border. Geographically Ireland will be isolated, no longer linked physically to another member state, and uniquely reliant on transit via a third country to access its markets (with trade twice that with Britain) within the Union.

Relatively little attention has been paid to what the EU will look like after Britain leaves. Yet the EU will be a much altered animal after Brexit, politically as well as financially, and not necessarily in ways that will favour Ireland.  Take finances first. An immediate direct effect when Britain leaves will be the shake up in the EU’s finances, whether the exit is hard or soft. A major plank in the Brexit Leave campaign in 2016 was Britain’s position as the second largest economy (15% of total GDP) and the third biggest net contributor to the EU budget, with the dubious assertion that the savings made by not paying Brussels could be used to fund domestic improvements, including Britain’s cash-strapped National Health Service.

The EU’s income is comprised of various levies on each member state, based on the size of the country’s economy. The EU’s expenditure consists in the main of grants back in the form of direct payments to farmers together with various programmes in and grants to the Member States. Even including the special budget rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher, Britain still pays a net €9 billion or so annually, or roughly 13% of the EU budget, behind Germany, with 21%, and France with 16%.  When she leaves, that money will have to be made up by the other nine current net contributors, including Ireland (the other eighteen, chiefly those countries who joined from 2004 onwards, receive more in grants and payments than they contribute).

Ireland became a net contributor in 2014 after forty years of receiving more than she paid in, the cumulative total received of €50 billion plus being of inestimable value in building up the Irish economy and utterly transforming the country. This infusion, and the obvious benefits derived from it, accounts in part at least for the continued popularity of the EU in Ireland. However, the net amounts paid by Ireland since 2014 have been rising steadily – payments in in 2018 were €2.7 billion and the adjustment when Britain leaves will add at least €400 million annually to this. With Ireland facing penalties from the EU after 2020 for not meeting its environmental commitments under the Paris Agreement to counter climate change, it will be interesting to see whether and how the popularity of the EU here will fare.

Moreover, after Brexit the dynamic within the Union will alter. Britain was one of its four major heavy hitters and colouring Britain gone creates a new situation.  The “Solemn Declaration” signed at the 1983 Strasbourg Summit committed the then ten Member States “to progress towards an ever closer union between the peoples and countries of the European Community.” The catalyst for the growth in Euroscepticism in Britain can probably be traced to this Declaration, which developed and grew at a political level in parallel with the actual moves towards “ever closer union” including the European Single Market and the Customs Union in the 1990s.

In retrospect Britain’s decision not to abandon Sterling and join the Euro at the turn of the Millennium was a watershed, a public demonstration that there was a limit to British participation in “ever closer union.” Thereafter Britain acted as an effective brake on moves towards greater integration, securing opt –outs from a number of signature EU policies. These included not signing up to Economic and Monetary Union, opting out of the border-free Schengen area, and opt-outs from the Lisbon Treaty in justice and home affairs legislation.

Equally significant, and most important from Ireland’s point of view, was Britain’s blocking of attempts by the Commission to “harmonise” tax policy in Member States, i.e. to remove from member states their national powers over taxation. Ireland’s Company Tax Rate, currently 12.5%, has long been a target of the Commission; it has also been one of the bedrocks of Ireland’s economic development and prosperity and was certainly vital in attracting inward direct investment, much of it from the USA, over the past half century. The favourable rate has not sat well with the Commission or with some other member states who have accused Ireland of poaching investment and jobs. Recent revelations that multinationals such as Apple were paying far less than 12.5% have not helped.

Having Britain in the same corner over national control of taxation was an undoubted plus for Ireland and, with Britain removed from the scene, pressure on this front will undoubtedly intensify, with Germany and France, very much the major funders of the EU after Britain leaves,  both favouring some type of uniform taxation. Ireland is not alone in wanting to preserve the status quo. Several other smaller member states, particularly from the 2004 Enlargement, are like minded in this regard (I recall the Estonian Prime Minister asking me rhetorically just before accession what else had a small country on the fringe of Europe to offer). One card in our favour could be our very peripherality, which will be more pronounced after Brexit, and could merit special treatment in addition to special sympathy. But with those paying the piper in favour of change, expect some interesting negotiations on this in the future.

Finally, there has already been a rejigging of the seats in the European Parliament to deal with the loss of Britain’s 73 seats. The size of the Parliament will be reduced from 751 to 705, with 46 of Britain’s seats being reserved for future new member states, and the remaining 27 divided up among some of the existing members (Ireland will gain two seats, to thirteen). Consider. Unless Norway or Switzerland apply to join the EU (unlikely) or Britain reverses Brexit (!) the only potential new member states are in the Balkans or Eastern Europe (Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, FYROM, Ukraine, Moldova, Albania).

Further enlargement like this could take decades, and may never happen in several cases. But it represents a further shifting of the balance within the EU away from the countries located to the West. Britain’s departure will leave a big hole in this regard and accentuate the growing hegemony of Germany. In a column some years back I wrote of the gradual emergence of a European super state, built around Germany. Thanks to Brexit this may happen sooner rather than later.

END

23/1/19

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