jump to navigation

Leaving us or us leaving? July 4, 2017

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

Right there in the Summary on page 3 of the Policy Exchange report by Ray Bassett on Brexit and Ireland – heralded this week, a report that calls for Ireland to withdraw from the EU, there’s a chunk of analysis which leads one to wonder how serious the whole exercise actually is.

The post general election scenario, where the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) holds a balance of power at Westminster, strengthens the forces in London that are anxious to avoid the disruption that a physical border would entail in Ireland. The DUP are reported to be pressing for a “significant” central role in the Brexit negotiations. The new Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, is reputed to enjoy a good personal relationship with DUP leader Arlene Foster. This should facilitate strong
cooperation between both parts of Ireland on this issue.

There’s something troubling about this, culled as it is from colour pieces rather than any hard evidence. It assumes the DUP are acting in good faith in their pronouncements in relation to a hard border – something many of us are dubious about, and not just us but others closer to the action. It appears to believe that the DUP’s potential ‘central role’ would be a good thing and further that some entirely nebulous ‘good personal relationship’ is sufficient to win the day.

There’s other problems.

Whatever the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, there will be a price to pay. For Ireland, there is really no upside to Brexit. Officially, Ireland has already made its choice. The Irish Government remains determined to stick with what it calls “Team EU”. The question to be raised is what price is Ireland willing to pay to stand in solidarity with the remaining 26 EU countries? If the Irish Government is
willing to pay that price, will the Dáil, and possibly the population in a referendum, be equally willing to do so?

But, as Bassett is well aware, sentiment in the RoI (and on the island as a whole, including, albeit to a lesser extent Northern Ireland) is strongly in favour of retention of EU membership. Polling has indicated that this is in excess of 80 per cent plus. So it would be both perverse and pointless for an Irish government to act against that – let alone the broader range of factors.

As outlined in the following sections, there is a very strong case for an alternative course. Namely, opting to remain with the United Kingdom in a customs and free
trade area, while negotiating as favourable as possible trade and investment terms with the remaining 26 member states. Access to the Single Market need not be synonymous with full membership of the EU. In addition, the EU itself is facing huge problems and the future direction of that body is hard to predict and though uncertain, it is unlikely to be to Ireland’s taste or in its interests

If this reads as if it were issued from Brexit central with all the anglophiliac tropes of same then note the following:

The Irish political class never really countenanced that Brexit would occur. There was a general assumption that the referendum might produce a close result but
that the Remainers would carry the day. Hence, there was initial confusion in Dublin after the vote, as the Irish Government apparatus scrambled to come to terms with the unexpected outcome. Initially, there was hope that the result
could be reversed but this dissipated over time as the British Government’s policy of “Brexit means Brexit” began to sink in.

In fairness I think that supposed lack of countenancing Brexit was reasonable given the same was true in the UK itself and amongst Brexiteers. To blame the RoI government or political class is diversionary in that context.

There’s also a hugely odd point made here:

Complacency about the outcome of the referendum extended to the Nationalist community in Northern Ireland where there was no serious effort to mobilise an
anti-Brexit vote. The view was that the whole Brexit issue was a row within the Tory party and need not concern Ireland. They also surmised that, in the end, the Remainers would carry the day and local Nationalist politicians were not going to waste their resources in securing an anti-Brexit vote. Hence, there was a low
turnout in Nationalist areas and less than 50% of the electorate in West Belfast even bothered to exercise the franchise. In Derry, a city which would be hugely affected by a decision to leave the EU, only 57.18% voted, compared to a UK average of 72.2%. In fact, no constituency in Northern Ireland even reached the UK average.

But given that Nationalists overwhelmingly voted against Brexit and a good chunk of Unionists (though apparently a minority of same) what exactly is the point being made? Would an higher vote have swayed London in some fashion? That seems to be the implication, but I’m dubious.

If a determined effort had been made, particularly if backed by a strong Irish Government commitment and cooperation with local parties, a pro EU vote in Northern Ireland of well over 60 % would have been obtained. When the Brexit
result became known, anxiety spread in the Nationalist community who subsequently came out in big numbers in the recent Assembly election, partly in a belated attempt to recover the position. Although anger with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and with its leader, Arlene Foster, also played a big role. The prospect of a new physical border and disruption of links with the Republic changed the outlook.

Frankly the intervention of Dublin in such a vote would have been counter-productive, and Bassett must know that surely. But what difference overall would it have made given that the UK government wasn’t going to amend the situation majority vote for Remain in NI or not?

On we go.

A compliant and generally supportive media, especially the influential Irish Times, has helped give the impression of a very pro-EU country.
This Eurocentric view, however, does not permeate the general population. During the banking crisis and the subsequent deep recession in Ireland, young
people, North and South, headed for the old emigrant destinations – Britain, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. While a small number went to mainland Europe, the vast majority of those who migrated did so to Anglophone countries,
much as their forbearers did in times of past crises. It was a formidable demonstration of where the Irish felt culturally more at home.

I think Bassett makes a significant error here. One does not have to love the EU to feel that being in the EU is better than being outside it. One does not have to be pro-EU, indeed one can be deeply critical of it, while considering Brexit to be a significant mistake. And while it is correct that young people went to Anglophone countries during the crisis that isn’t in and of itself particularly relevant. Neither Canada, nor Australia, nor New Zealand or the USA are members of the EU. And Ireland isn’t and is highly unlikely to be in any political/economic union with them any time soon.

While Ireland was benefitting financially from EU transfers, there was a general acceptance that the country and its citizens needed to be classified as good
Europeans. However, there was never any deep pro-European identification – the connection was essentially based on material gain and not on any emotional or symbolic attachment. Once Ireland became wealthier and eventually a net contributor to the EU budget, attitudes became more measured and public
support weakened.

Is that correct? Current polling would strongly suggest otherwise. That while the relationship is not one of deep and unabiding love Brexit itself has strengthened sentiment to remain to hitherto undreamt of levels. He doesn’t mention actual polling because that’s inconvenient to his case (actually he does, some SBP polling on the relationship with the UK but nothing else).

Then there’s more.

The Brexit process and its outcome represents a catastrophic failure for Irish
Government policy. There was an astonishing lack of wider vision nor=appreciation of the need to support David Cameron during his attempted renegotiation.
While it is debatable, whether Ireland could have made much
difference to the eventual outcome, the country’s national interests cried out for a pro-active response and for Ireland to act as an intermediary between the
Cameron Government and the EU. It was at this point that Ireland should have detached itself from Team EU and indicated strongly that its interests and those of the EU, in this instance, were not the same. This would have strengthened
Ireland’s case in the event of actual Brexit.

But how can Dublin be blamed for a ‘catastrophic failure’ and simultaneously can it be stated that its influence on the final outcome was minimal. And there’s a further point. The UK – despite its own rhetoric has long sat in a semi-detached position from the EU. Whether this was in the RoI’s interest is a very open question. One could make a counter argument that the logic of the UK position has been one of ultimate departure because whatever else eventually it wouldn’t be able to sustain its intrinsic rhetorical hostility to the EU and use of it as a whipping boy. Given that this as a dynamic simply does not exist in Irish politics (except in relation to some very very marginal aspects) it’s difficult to see why we should have followed suit.

And perhaps it is me, but the troubling aspects earlier in the analysis is matched by this in the following…

Despite this huge error of judgement, the authorities in Dublin carried out no post mortem – nobody was hauled over the coals, there were no political resignations, no officials cast out into the wilderness and the Irish official line in Brussels
continued as before, namely strict adherence to Team EU. The same failed formula, Team EU, is to be rolled out again in the Brexit negotiations. In Science, the definition of stupidity is to repeat the same experiment over and over again
and expect a different result. Hopefully, it is not too late to re-think the position and do so more in terms of the Irish national interest and less on how to be the best boy in the EU classroom.

There may be an element of ‘best boy in class’ but in truth there are some pretty hard-headed calculations made about Irish interests in relation to this by this state. Those who are genuinely cleaving to that attitude are those well beyond the state whose breathless pro-EU pronouncements are as risible as their opposite.

There’s much more including a rather specious section on the relationship between the state and the EEC/EC/EU. He berates the RoI for not joining other organisations, unlike other members. But given the nature of some of the organisations, NATO, the Commonwealth, Francophonie, etc he seems oblivious to our neutrality or other factors (sure, we could like the UK send an observer to the Arctic Council but I’m not sure what that would prove).

There’s far too much elision of euro-critical and euro-sceptic. For example there’s an argument that there’s been a ‘strong history of Euroscepticism’ in Ireland. This simply isn’t true in the sense of that Euroscepticism having any strong base – its political power has been extremely limited and neither Nice nor Lisbon negate that analysis. Quite rightly citizens were antagonistic to those referenda but not to the EU. It’s an absolutely crucial distinction because it explains why now, despite Bassett arguing that Ireland’s relationship with Europe would never be the same again after the bank bailout of 2010 those polling figures remain so strongly in favour of Remain.

And that’s where the problem in his analysis comes sharply into view. He keeps having to pretend that things are other than they actually are. So therefore he exaggerates and elides euroscepticism with eurocriticism, argues that the Irish/British relationship is deeper than it actually is – ignoring entirely how the context of EEC/EC/EU membership in and of itself has coloured that relationship in the past forty five years… and comes out with some frankly zany stuff…

The Irish/British relationship is one of the closest between two sovereign countries. Neither country regards its citizens as foreigners. Both countries allow each other’s citizens to vote in Parliamentary elections and immediately access social benefits in each other’s jurisdictions. The countries have been joined in some form of political association for nearly 700 years.

Well yes but…er… no,  and he has to admit:

That political relationship was often fraught and fractious. However, in recent years the old animosities have died away, especially since the signing of the Good
Friday (Belfast) Agreement, which largely settled the mechanisms whereby each country could bilaterally pursue its interests, as well as bringing the last round of civil disturbances in Northern Ireland to an end. The two Administrations worked very closely and successfully with the political parties in Northern Ireland to bring about that agreed settlement.

But wait, again those recent years were shaped by both states being in the EU. And he has to admit that too!

The excellent working relations in the Northern Ireland Peace Talks have been mirrored by work in the EU. At the Council of Ministers and in EU working groups, the two countries have found that there is a huge commonalty of interests
between Britain and Ireland. This has become more pronounced as issues relating to the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) became less dominant in Brussels. Ireland has moved from being a net recipient of EU funding to being a net contributor, albeit on a much smaller scale than the UK. Hence, Ireland has become much more conservative in relation to any proposed increase in budgets
for the EU.

There’s a lot more, not least a run through of trading links with the UK which manages to ignore the level of our trade with the Euro Area (for more on that check out Finfacts here – useful I’d think ). What is telling is how little he seems to care about how EU membership has changed our engagement with Europe and reshaped it with the UK.

Much is made of the number of people of Irish descent in the UK but again, that’s not really an argument for anything (or if it is why does the same not hold true of the US or Australia or…).

And then there’s this:

At every level of society, there are huge interconnections between the two
countries. The two countries share English as their main language, Ireland inherited its Westminster style Government and public service from the British, as well as its use of Common law, its University structure, etc. Having been joined
together for so long in a single administrative unit, it would be extremely difficult to even enumerate the multiple linkages. Any impediment to these links, which are at all levels of society, would be extremely disruptive and, given their scale,
almost impossible to calculate.

Indeed (and let’s not try to pick apart the text before that where he makes some extremely contestable statements about the ‘shared’ aspects of the two ‘countries’).

In a way the oddity of Bassett’s position is that he seems to think Ireland has, at best, a half-sovereignty – that we can be swapped in or out pretty much at will from the EU and into some new arrangement with the UK.

And there’s yet further naiveté. Check this out…

While there are a lot of storm clouds around and future uncertainly about the sustainability of Ireland’s business model, access to the Single Market remains of vital importance. Hopefully, the European side should understand that Ireland would be a reluctant EU departee and did so out of
necessity, rather than choice. Canada has concluded the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with the European Union, which allows over 98% of its goods tariff free access to the Single Market. Surely, the EU would offer at least the same terms to a former Member State, Ireland, which had been
forced by circumstances, outside its control, to depart from formal membership.

Really? He thinks? Or this:

Ireland internally would probably wish to ensure that some current EU programmes, which have strong local support, such as Farm Supports, Erasmus, INTERREG, Leader, etc., could be taken over by the Irish Government and where they involve a cross border element, with co-funding from London and/or Belfast.

With a Tory party wedded to austerity?

And this:

There is also a pressing need to work closely with parties in Northern Ireland.
There is a large commonality of interest between the Irish Government and the DUP on the need to avoid creating new barriers within Ireland and between the two islands, Britain and Ireland. The position of the DUP in London should ensure that this approach has a sympathetic hearing on the UK Government side.

Which appear to be pie in the sky and entirely detached from the actual power relationships at work.

But what strikes me is how all this is presented as something the RoI must do to fix matters, not the UK. Bassett doesn’t demand of that latter state that it must modify Brexit to the softest possible position in order to accommodate Irish needs. The term soft Brexit or indeed hard Brexit doesn’t arise.

He doesn’t want the UK to join EEA or EFTA. Nothing about the customs union, nothing about the single market. Not at all.

He asks nothing of the British but everything of the Irish.

Essentially the RoI must effectively row in behind our larger neighbour, completely refashion the relationships with 27 other states, accept a lesser dispensation in relation to them and well… well what? Hope for the best?

He doesn’t actually work through the economics of all this.

But it’s not difficult to see that we’d be lashed economically and in other ways, sort of kind of, to a neighbour whose capacity to weather the coming storm appears a lot less robust today than it did even a month ago given the sheer lack of professionalism and preparedness in its engagements to date with the EU. And what are we then, a mini-me to a UK that will by sheer dint of circumstance be pulling out all the stops to solidify its position globally – stuck in a race to the bottom with a state whose leadership has already pondered publicly the merits of attempting (however absurdly this might be) to follow the sterling example of Singapore.

Some future.

So what alternative does Bassett offer? Fairly remarkably he argues for the RoI post-Irexit to join the North Atlantic Free Trade Association.

Come again. The NAFTA?  What august body is this, pray tell?

…there is every prospect of [NAFTA’s] emergence encompassing the US, Canada and Britain… this would form part of an alternative trade strategy for the UK should Brexit discussions with the EU turn sour. There is a strong sense of kinship in these countries with the UK. Given Ireland’s geographic position, its trade links and its ethnic connections with these three countries, it would be very foolish of any Irish government not to engage in these discussions and to have a plan B in its sights. …

So his belief is that Ireland should reorient towards an association of economics – large economies too, very very large economies with no smaller ones to mitigate the obvious effects of that – that does not exist. 

That’s one hell of a Plan B.

If that seems panglossian. Well, hey…

Oddly the border is touched on least. Perhaps because under any schema with the UK outside the EU it is difficult to clearly envisage one that is ‘frictionless’. And by that I mean that short of some enormously comprehensive agreement with the UK in relation to customs/freedom of movement/tariffs, etc… which would see them dictating those terms and arguably impinge on our sovereignty to an even greater extent than the EU does – and no mistake – we’re still in problematic territory. Still he’s hopeful.

Hopefully, there will be a deal done in the end that preserves full freedom of movement within the island of Ireland and allows for unrestricted North/South trade, i.e. a continuation of the present arrangements. However, how this would work in practise, with one jurisdiction outside the common customs area and the other inside, remains a mystery. If it does not work, then the Irish Government will find it difficult to explain to its electorate why it would agree to endanger one of the greatest achievements of the last 25 years, the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement.

Very good but perhaps they might point a finger at the UK government. Just perhaps.

Joe made the point today, and it’s a very important one, that there has to be some cool-headed appraisal of our interests and the positives and negatives of the choices (or more accurately the paths) opening ahead of us. That has to include consideration of remaining and – however remote some of us might think the feasibility might be – of departing the EU.

But that deserves better than reports from the Policy Exchange and it requires considerably more than an appeal to a supposed fellow-feeling between this island (or this part of it) and the one to the East. It needs consideration of where trade, growth, employment, etc is going to come from in the years and decades ahead, what the impacts of remaining and leaving actually are, in other words it needs what wasn’t done in relation to Brexit by pretty much anyone in the UK – a comprehensive assessment.




By the by Policy Exchange is a most intriguing operation. Rated as on of the least transparent think tanks in the UK in relation to funding it has a fascinating pedigree. The centre part of its ‘centre-right’ definition is difficult to discern. In amongst those involved have been Dean Godson, Charles Moore, Michael Gove (a founder no less). Quite a line-up. Throw in a few controversies and away we go.

Bassett is one who likes to hunt with the hounds and run with the fox in relation to Brexit. For every moderate pronouncement salted in amongst his writings in the SBP there is another which paints the EU as the primary problem here and ignores or minimises UK culpability in all this.

And I think for me that’s a crucial problem. He appears to come to this already convinced that Ireland’s place is outside the EU rather than reading into it. Fair enough. But that’s precisely why we need a more open report than that which is presented.



1. Polly. - July 4, 2017

I don’ t disagree with any of your commentary, I would just ask, why bother treating either the think tank or the writer as worth taking seriously enough to examine in the first place. Neither is going to reach a wide audience,, and no informed or influential one will find them credible.


WorldbyStorm - July 4, 2017

That’s a deeply troubling question – in a good way. I guess my answer would be that I find it useful to interrogate my own thoughts on this in order to ensure I’m not just allowing my intrinsic bias (which is towards critical of the EU Remain rather than Irexit) is kept honest. In other words that by analysing that I’m engaging with the arguments not just dismissing them out of hand.

In a way that’s what is so frustrating for me about that report and other Brexit and Irexit stuff, that it’s so thin – at least so far. I say so far because the Brexit context does change things in and of itself contextually so that what holds true today may not be six or twelve months or five years down the line and consequently it may be that circumstances propel us to a redefined relationship with the EU (I think that last is doubtful, I genuinely think the balance of evidence is that this state would be overshadowed by the UK in every area in the event we followed them out, but it’s faintly possible). I hope that makes sense.


2. EWI - July 5, 2017

Complacency about the outcome of the referendum extended to the Nationalist community in Northern Ireland where there was no serious effort to mobilise an anti-Brexit vote.

For a certain set in Dublin, everything ends up with blaming Northern nationalists, it seems (or their ‘spectre’ in PSF). No mention of the insignificance of northern nationalist numbers in the greater UK scheme of things.

And on the other hand, no blame to be found in Unionism, which actually (unlike their nationalist counterparts) actually voted for the damn thing. I noted the contortions of the IT, post-Brexit vote, to avoid stating the bald fact that the areas which voted Leave were the sober, responsible etc. Unionist enclaves.


3. GW - July 5, 2017

Thanks for reading through that for us WBS. I read your post and started asking the question you should first ask about any think tank – i.e. what interests do they represent?

And you supplied the answer at the end – Gove / Mercer / Cummings / Koch bros. territory.

Does the DUP channel money to them, as it did to the Brexit campaign, does anyone know?


4. FergusD - July 5, 2017

Is this nonsense really just a sign that leading UK Brexit idealogues are desperate to bring some other countries with them? In the case of Ireland do they dream of an Anglophone “union” led by the UK? Commonwealth + RoI? Empire 2?


oconnorlysaght - July 5, 2017

I think that, in the same vague way that they projected Brexit, many of them do hope for such a result. What is more, there is reason to believe that there are mugs here who are so hostile to the EU that they will go along with it.


5. Alibaba - July 5, 2017

My strong impression is that the Policy Exchange think tank commissions a report to be written by none other than Ray Bassett, a former Irish Ambassador to Canada, in the full knowledge that he would suggest what they wanted, that is, potentially leaving the EU in order to keep a close relationship with the UK. They get what they paid for, that’s my prejudice. But the WBS appraisal is very welcome, of course.


ivorthorne - July 5, 2017

Well, that is how think tanks frequently work.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: