Tuesday 25 October 2016

Electorate and elites at one on Brexit dangers

A poll finds we are hostile to Brexit, and a study finds Ireland is among the least corrupt countries globally

Published 12/06/2016 | 02:30

Passion: Former London mayor Boris Johnson is campaigning to leave the EU Photo: PA
Passion: Former London mayor Boris Johnson is campaigning to leave the EU Photo: PA

Apart from a handful of people such as the indefatigable and long-term opponent of European integration Tony Coughlan, almost everyone in Ireland who has thought hard about Britain leaving the EU, or whose economic interests will be impacted, believes a Brexit would be bad for us. That "elite" opinion so heavily supports the Remain campaign in the UK referendum in 11 days' time is not surprising.

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Any cold, rational calculation of Irish interests can only come down very strongly in favour of Remain. With the one possible upside (some jobs moving here from Britain) only partially mitigating the other economic and non-economic downsides, the case is open and shut from an Irish perspective at least. It is the proverbial no-brainer.

Click here to view full-size graphic
Click here to view full-size graphic

Despite a lot of talk in recent times about elites becoming disconnected from electorates, in this instance at least there is no such gap between the average voter and so-called elites in Ireland.

A new Millward Brown poll finds that the views of the Irish public closely reflect the views of the country's political class (including Sinn Fein), its economic interests, officialdom and - for what it is worth - we, the commentariat.

Fewer than one in 10 people polled here believes the Brits should quit. Of the eight other EU countries also polled, support for a British exit was lower only in Poland, unsurprising given that the almost one million Poles living in the UK could lose their automatic right of residence if Britain pulls out. (Also unsurprising, it might be added, is that the French were the most enthusiastic about getting rid of the Anglo Saxons, with more than one third backing Brexit.)

Asked if a similar in/out EU referendum should be held in Ireland, only one in eight wanted such a poll. In the other countries surveyed it was between twice and three times greater. While this is undoubtedly related to the fact that we, unlike any other EU member country, have voted on every change to the bloc's basic rules over decades, it also likely reflects a recovery in support for the integration of the continent.

The most recent EU-wide Eurobarometer opinion poll, conducted bi-annually on behalf of the European Commission, showed that we Irish had the third-most-favourable opinion of the union among its 28 members, with 57pc having a positive view. Only 14pc viewed it negatively. Although the positive/negative split has not returned to where it was pre-2008, it has moved sharply in that direction since the worst of the recession and euro crisis in 2012.

The comparatively high levels of support contrast with our nearest neighbour. The most recent Eurobarometer poll had Britons at the other end of the table in terms of how they view the EU. Fewer than one in three had a positive view, the fifth-lowest in the bloc.

It is extraordinary how differently two peoples who share so much can have such different views on our shared European system of government. One could write volumes on the issue, but a point that many make, particularly on the pro-EU side, seems to me to be very wrong.

That view is to attribute British hostility to a handful of Eurosceptic media moguls who manipulate the gullible masses. While the reporting as fact of many untruths and half-truths about Europe in some British papers is a disgrace to the profession of journalism, it seems to be more about playing to consumers' existing preferences and prejudices than creating them in the first place.

Nothing proves this like the Daily Mail. It has Irish and British editions. Comparing them on any given day is revealing. While a great deal of the non-political and human interest stories are carried in both editions, the more contested and political content is like chalk and cheese.

Hardly a day passes without the UK edition covering immigration. It is usually in a panicked tone that reinforces the views of many that Britain is being inundated with foreigners. Almost all stories on immigration focus on the negatives - pressures on public services, housing and the (in theory) wage-depressing effects for lower income earners. Membership of the EU is invariably portrayed as a reason for the migration phenomenon, if not the root cause.

If one read nothing other than the Daily Mail in the UK, it would be impossible to conclude that the move-ment of people across borders was anything but a disaster for British society and its economy. Much the same could be said for EU membership.

But if the Mail group of papers was so wedded editorially to these stances, why are there so few negative stories on the subjects in the Irish edition? The reason is because Irish people don't fret endlessly about either matter.

Despite Ireland having proportionately twice as many foreign-born people living here compared with the UK, Irish commentary on immigration is generally at the other extreme. I detect a degree of self-censorship, with people afraid to mention the downsides of immigration in any public forum for fear that they might be labelled a little Irelander, a bigot or even a racist.

Having said that, the almost complete absence of negative stories on immigration in the press here reflects the very different attitude of we Irish to immigration compared with the UK. The same could be said of the EU itself.


How corrupt is Ireland? There is no shortage of people in this country who believe we are little better than a banana republic. This view is not confined only to crazed conspiracy theorists. Those who hold the view point to very real examples of cronyism, palm-greasing and brown envelope-dispensing as evidence to support the banana republic belief.

There is, of course, corruption here, just as there are other forms of criminality. Human nature being what it is, corruption and crime exist everywhere at all times. But because there are abundant examples of all sorts of crimes being committed, it does not logically follow that Ireland is a nation of criminals.

In order to answer the question "How corrupt is Ireland?", one needs to make comparisons with other countries. Last week, the first attempt to compare cross-country levels of corruption was published (there is a long-standing measure of people's perceptions of corruption, but as the scholars who published the new study correctly stress, perceptions can often differ from reality).

The study is worth mentioning, not least because I could find no mention of it in any Irish media since its publication.

The Global Integrity Index, which can be accessed with the link at the end of this article, measures a range of things, from judicial independence to freedom of the press. Compiled by the European Research Centre for Anti-Corruption and State-Building in Berlin, it predictably put Nordic countries in the top three for probity across the world.

However, the index ranks Ireland as the eighth-cleanest country among the 105 it assessed, one place behind Sweden. That is not at all bad, and certainly does not support the banana republic thesis.

We have many problems in the way we govern ourselves - incompetence, inertia and short-sightedness to name a few. While new measures have been put in place in recent years to combat corruption, there is always more that could be done. However, as anyone who has seen a bit of the world knows, the extent of politicians and officials lining their pockets to live like kings in Ireland is limited.

To highlight that is not in any way to be complacent; saying that we are not the worst for everything in Ireland and that focusing attention (and anger) on the things we are genuinely bad at would make it more likely that the place is run better.

Sunday Independent

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