It is not properly understood yet in England just how big will be the impact of Brexit on Ireland. Prime Minister May is like Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1914 surrounded by Prussian generals promising the easiest of victories against the rest of Europe if only they are given orders to march into France and Belgium. In addition to the well-known cabinet ministers like David Davis and Boris Johnson who have been denigrating the European Union for more than two decades she has brought back Michael Gove as an arch anti-European with a long history as a journalist of briefing his fellow NUJ members against anyone who is not on Gove’s ideological wave-length.
Mrs May disliked immigration from Europe even if the biggest number of EU citizens working on the 2012 London Olympics site were Irish but most of recorded speeches on Europe before becoming Prime Minister show a steady middle-of-the-road pragmatic approach.
But like the Kaiser in 1914 she is surrounded by hawks gagging to smash into the enemy no matter the cost. European MEPs, in the centre-right European People’s Party have been instructed to stay out of Britain’s Brexit debate. The view is that almost any intervention delivered in a German or French accent on the BBC or Sky will be counter-productive.
There is one exception to this rule. Irish men and women have been and are part and parcel of English political discourse. Irish ministers from the previous and current administration have issued plenty of eloquent warnings and Ireland’s hugely respected ambassador in London, Dan Mulhall, now off to Washington DC to charm President Trump, has been tireless in telling the truth of the consequences to the £1 billion trade a week between Ireland and the UK if the hard Brexit of leaving the Single Market and Customs Union as espoused by the Brexit Prussians in the cabinet takes place.
But no-one much listens to politicians or diplomats on the basis of “They would say that, wouldn’t they?” But Ireland has a hidden weapon that soon may need to be deployed and should be.
It consists of the 50,000 Irish directors of British companies and the 1,200 Irish-owned businesses in Britain with a turn-over of £32 billion in 2015. British business and the City are concentrating on lobbying UK ministers with meetings at No 10 or in the Jacobean grace and favour ministers’ retreat at Chevening where David Davis met with CBI big-wigs recently.
The City has hired ex ministers from the David Cameron-Nick Clegg government to lobby in Brussels and EU capitals. But this assumes anyone in the EU27 or in Michel Barnier’s team believes there is a half-way house – a classic business type deal – in which everyone goes home having won a bit.
On the contrary, for the EU27 governments as I discovered researching a new book, Brexit is existential. They respect the British plebiscite decision but are not going to offer a special category of British membership in which London keeps most of the advantages of EU membership but rejects any bits of the EU that UKIP and Boris Johnson do not like.
To reach a compromise of any sort English political and public opinion has to change. This is where Irish business leaders can play a role. Not in any direct challenge to Mrs May but in quietly organising seminars, meetings, visits, or public adverts that explain to England outside of London that full-on Brexit will be a totemic lose-lose disaster. In 2009, Michael O’Leary spent €500,000 of Ryanair’s money campaigning in Ireland to stay in the EU after the Irish cousins of the UK Brexit crowd won their No vote with a campaign of lies on the Lisbon Treaty.
Mr O’Leary has been good on the dangers to aviation in full Brexit happens. He took apart a poorly briefed Kirsty Wark on Newsnight. But the odd headline or BBC interview is not a campaign. Greencore has more business in Britain than in Ireland and Irish banks are a power in the City. The costs of helping to support responsible groups trying to educate people about Brexit are little more than the launch of a new product, sponsoring a rugby tournament or the annual business party.
British business is still pulling the duvet over its head for fear of offending anyone in the Brexit dominated cabinet. But as elections to head House of Commons Select Committee showed moderate
Tory and Labour MPs swept the board against pro-Brexit fanatics.
These are the MPs who need help with quiet campaigns well away from the London spotlight to nudge political activists, left as much as right, into a deeper understanding of what a disaster Brexit will be for all residents of the British Isles. Can Irish business rise to the challenge?
From The Irish Independent, 15 August 2017
Denis MscShane is the former UK Minister of Europe. His latest book is Brexit, No Exit. Why (in the End) Britain Won’t Leave Europe (IB Tauris). He is a senior Advisor at Avisa Partners, Brussels working on advising governments and firms on Brexit policy and politics.