Friday 24 February 2017

Ministerial squads eyeing Irish goals with away fixtures in Liverpool and Manchester

Colm Kelpie

Colm Kelpie

Boris Johnson during a visit to Farmhouse Biscuits in Nelson, Lancashire, where he was campaigning on behalf of the Vote Leave EU campaign
Boris Johnson during a visit to Farmhouse Biscuits in Nelson, Lancashire, where he was campaigning on behalf of the Vote Leave EU campaign
Professor Peter Shirlow, Irish ambassador to Britain Dan Mulhall, vice chancellor Janet Beer, Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan and Grainne Mellon, Irish4Europe, at the University of Liverpool. Below, Boris Johnson Photo: McCoy Wynne

Boris Johnson was campaigning in the north of England this week, media and groupies in tow, spewing forth claims about hardening the UK's border and rallying pro-Brexiteers across the region.

Not too far away, another politician was engaging in a rather more subtle rallying campaign.

Hot on the heels of the Taoiseach's visit to the Mayo GAA game in London at the weekend, Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan was courting the Irish expat vote in Liverpool and Manchester.

The Minister is quick to say he's not campaigning, lest he be accused of interference, and that Ireland is simply a neighbour offering friendly advice. The decision on June 23 on whether Britain should abandon its EU membership is one for UK voters.

True. But make no mistake. The Government is campaigning in Britain, but in a much quieter, low key fashion.

And there's nothing wrong with that.

As John McGrane, the head of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce said in Manchester yesterday, Ireland and Britain are joined economically at the hip. The connections, politically, culturally and economically are so deeply embedded, it's almost impossible to believe that if the British vote to pull out, Ireland will not be hit.

Hence the diplomatic push by the Government. Jobs Minister Mary Mitchell O'Connor is in Leeds next week, while Paschal Donohoe is expected to travel to Scotland and Newcastle. Another visit from the Taoiseach is also expected. All backed up by a strategic push from officials at the Irish Embassy in London, and at the Departments of Taoiseach and Foreign Affairs in Dublin.

These visits target the sizeable Irish communities and business connections in the respective regions. Site visits to Irish businesses are also included, to highlight the considerable trade links between the two islands.

Minister Flanagan attended a panel discussion at the University of Liverpool's Institute of Irish Studies on Wednesday, along with shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn, Irish-born British Labour MP Conor McGinn, and Irish4Europe co-chair Grainne Mellon, highlighting how a UK remaining in the EU enjoys almost complete consensus in Ireland.

He spoke at the Irish Heritage Centre in Manchester on Wednesday night and to an intimate, business-focused audience at a British Irish Chamber gathering in the city yesterday, where representatives from some small businesses were present, along with executives from companies like AIB and Grant Thornton.

The Irish4Europe campaign is engaged in a similar offensive to encourage Irish people in the UK to register to vote before Tuesday's deadline. And it's managed to get Bob Geldof on board, with the rocker-turned campaigner appearing in a get-out-the-vote video.

Absent from the events over recent days have been a pro-Brexit voice, for obvious reasons perhaps, although it would make for a much livelier and more balanced discussion. In the case of the University of Liverpool, however, out campaigners have been invited, but apparently refused to come.

Whether these efforts have an impact amid all the noise remain to be seen, because the numbers attending the events are far from huge.

And the Irish dimension has been getting little, if any, attention in the wider debate, although the Minister was interviewed both by ITV and BBC regional during his visit.

It may also be, in some instances, a case of preaching to the converted.

But try they must. With the polls near deadlocked, and with only three weeks to go, every little helps.

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Irish Independent

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