Diverging views on EU pose serious threat to Irish-UK link
Date:
10 November 2012
Publication:
The Irish Times
SUMMARY:
On the surface relations between the Republic and Britain and between the two parts of the island of Ireland have never been so good. The governments of the two states are co-operating closely in the organisation of the decade of commemoration to remember the events of a century ago that led to the rupture of the United Kingdom and the foundation of an independent Irish State.
ORIGINAL ARTICLE:
  • Bookmark this article:
  • bookmark this story on Facebook
  • bookmark this story on Delicious
  • bookmark this story on Digg
  • bookmark this story on reddit
  • bookmark this story on stumbleupon

Inside Politics:A century on from the tumultuous events that led to Irish independence, powerful forces are in motion that could alter the political landscape of Europe again. The implications for this State are profound.

On the surface relations between the Republic and Britain and between the two parts of the island of Ireland have never been so good. The governments of the two states are co-operating closely in the organisation of the decade of commemoration to remember the events of a century ago that led to the rupture of the United Kingdom and the foundation of an independent Irish State.

The current warm relationship between the two states was marked during the week by the participation of Ministers from Ireland and the UK at the opening of an exhibition at the Battle of the Boyne site to mark last year s hugely successful visit by Queen Elizabeth II.

All of this has become possible as a result of the political structures established in Northern Ireland under the Belfast Agreement, which have managed to heal many of the wounds arising from partition.

The irony is that just as the two countries have put their relationship on a solid neighbourly footing, political tremors that have the capacity to widen the gulf between the two parts of the island and reinforce partition are beginning to make themselves felt.

British withdrawal

The countervailing pressures arise from the drive for much greater integration in the euro zone led by Germany on the one hand and the increasingly irresistible pressure for a British withdrawal from the European Union on the other.

Going by the referendum on the fiscal treaty a majority of Irish people share the Government s view that the Republic s interests lie in closer European integration and protection of the euro currency.

By contrast public opinion in Britain has become increasingly hostile to the whole European project. The pressure to exit from the EU appears inexorable, with the bulk of the British media fanning the flames of isolationism and forces in the City of London determined to do all they can to undermine the euro.

British prime minister David Cameron has been forced to hold open the door to the prospect of a referendum on leaving the EU and the Labour Party has pushed it open even further by trying to exploit the situation for party advantage.

An opinion poll during the week showed that 49 per cent of Britons would vote to leave the EU, with 28 per cent saying they would vote to stay. Predictions are that in the European elections of 2014 the United Kingdom Independence Party could win more seats than the Tories.

While that might not mean a lot in practical terms it would be likely to push the Conservatives into an even more anti-EU frame of mind and make it impossible for Cameron to hold out against a referendum. From the Irish point of view one of the deep ironies of the whole situation is that the three political parties in the UK most hostile to the EU are the Conservatives, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin.

Considering the sinister role played by the Tories in blocking an independent all-Ireland parliament a century ago, there is something comic about Sinn Féin joining them and the heirs of the Ulster Covenanters, 100 years on, to fuel the anti-EU paranoia that underpins the British drive for withdrawal.

When Irish voters go to the polls in the inevitable referendum, or referendums, that will be required to sanction deeper European integration, Sinn Féin is again likely to be at the head of the forces campaigning against co-operation with our gallant allies in Europe .

Irish voters would have the choice of staying with the EU and the euro or returning to being a British dependency and resurrecting the link with sterling. Just to add spice to the argument, the campaign might even take place in 2016.

If European integration proceeds apace while the UK simultaneously withdraws from the EU, the implications for the Republic will be enormous.

Border

Instead of the Border continuing to wither away it might have to be re-established as an actual barrier for people and trade. How North-South institutions and bodies would continue to operate and how the Irish-British relationship would develop is anyone s guess, but it would be a very different world.

A range of other pressures, including the campaigns for Scottish and Catalan independence, will also have an influence on the shape of the new European order that emerges from the shock of the economic crisis, but, one way or another, big changes are afoot.

On the domestic front exorbitant pensions paid to a privileged elite continue to hit the headlines with the Taoiseach and his Ministers fulminating about the entitlements of bankers. But they might be well advised to take a hard look at their own pensions as well.

Ministers appear oblivious to the public outrage at their pension entitlements, but the message has got through to Government backbenches. During a Dáil debate on politicians pensions, Dublin South TD Olivia Mitchell outlined how the pensions of private sector workers had been cut with no mention of the legal difficulties cited to protect the pensions of bankers and senior public servants.

In the same debate Labour TD Róisín Shortall, who resigned as minister of state for health, made a powerful case for tackling pensions paid to the leading lights of politics, business and banking who presided over the economic collapse.

Public service pensions over EUR 100,000 had a 20 per cent levy imposed last year but a strong case exists for a much more substantial tax on all pensions, private and public, over that amount as the first step in a reform of our pension system.