Keeping Britain in the EU is best for Ireland - so we need Conservatives to lose
Published 03/04/2015 | 02:30
This week marked the beginning of Britain's general election campaign. The May 7 vote will decide whether David Cameron stays in Downing Street or whether his Labour rival, Ed Miliband, moves into Number 10 in his stead.
It is in this island's interests that Cameron exits.
Before setting out the reasons why, recall that no country is more important for Ireland than our nearest neighbour. Britain is our biggest trading partner. Our labour market is, de facto, part of Britain's. Three million people cross the water to visit the Republic each year. Tens of thousands of jobs depend on Irish companies exporting to the market next door and on British companies based here. Nor is it, by any means, all one-way traffic. Britain's exports to Ireland are worth more than its exports to Brazil, India and China combined, countries whose populations together account for well over a third of the planet.
Apart from mutual prosperity, there is the ever-important matter of the North. Good relations between Dublin and London are crucial to maintaining the stability of the North.
This is one reason why the British election is so important for Ireland, and why a Labour-led administration is in this island's interests.
The Dublin and London governments act as guarantors of the North's very fragile political process. They work closely together because they have a shared interest in the stability of the North. But if one of the administrations became beholden to a party in the North, its interests would change.
If Sinn Féin had a say in government in the Republic, that administration would have to consider its own survival and not just what's happening north of the border. Among other things, that would cause the other Stormont parties to trust Dublin less.
Equally, if the DUP holds sway over the next British government, it will be able to leverage its position. The other parties in the North will be put at an immediate and significant disadvantage. They will question the motives of London and watch every decision and action from Whitehall for evidence of undue DUP influence. It is hard to imagine a more efficient means of destroying the already limited trust that exists among the parties.
The North's political institutions have never lived up to the hopes of the Good Friday agreement. And they have become increasingly fragile during the age of austerity. If the DUP were to begin lording it over the other parties because of its clout in Westminster, it is not hard to see the institutions collapsing (again). And, given that the DUP would wield influence in London, it is easy to see why DUP leader Peter Robinson might prefer a return to direct rule from the British capital rather than the continuation of Belfast's messy power-sharing arrangements.
Every opinion poll for many months, if not longer, points to a hung parliament in Westminster after May 7. Although the campaign may change things, neither the Tories nor Labour look like winning outright majorities at this juncture. All parties are eyeing each other up to see what post-election deals could be done.
The DUP has said - quite bizarrely, given any objective analysis of the North's interests and given how it narrows the party's own options - that an in-out referendum on membership of the EU will be a condition for its support in the next Westminster parliament.
Because Miliband has ruled out such a vote, and looks unlikely at this stage to reverse that position, the chances of a Labour-DUP link-up are next to non-existent. By contrast, because Cameron long ago promised a plebiscite on EU membership, a Tory-DUP pact is all too easy to envisage if the Conservatives need a handful of extra MPs to make up the numbers.
The second reason a Labour-led government is in Ireland's interests again relates to the referendum issue. Because Miliband does not intend to put Britain's place in the European order at risk, he disagrees with holding an in-out referendum on EU membership. As such, a 'Brexit' is much less likely under Labour than under the Conservatives.
Although Cameron has said that he wants Britain to remain in the EU and that he will campaign for that end in the referendum he has promised to hold before the end of 2017, there are many reasons to believe that it could go the other way. These include a deep-seated discomfort about sharing sovereignty (particularly among the English), Europe's continued relative economic underperformance and the inherent uncertainty that goes with almost all referendum campaigns.
If Britons were to vote themselves out of the EU it would be very bad for Ireland in many ways.
The exit of one of Europe's big three powers would give Germany even more relative clout in the bloc than it already has. That is in nobody's interests. Not even Germany's.
Because Ireland and Britain take similar positions on many issues that are decided on in Brussels, our neighbour's absence would mean we would be less likely to get our way when differences of opinion emerge.
Perhaps most important would be the economic implications. Because so much of Ireland-Britain commercial relations are conducted on the basis of EU rules and regulations with the European single market, there would be huge uncertainty if Britain moved towards the exit. What sort of trading relationship would there be between the UK and the EU, including Ireland? Would tariffs be imposed on trade? Might some continental countries see it in their interests to put up barriers to Britain? Given all this, what would Brexit mean for the border on this island?
While there could be some advantage to Ireland of a Brexit - some companies servicing the European market from the UK would probably move their operations here - the cons far outweigh the pros. The best way to push the prospect beyond the horizon of the next Westminster parliamentary term is for Labour to win the election.
Irish people with a vote in the British election might bear that in mind on May 7.