Despite doomsayers, Ireland can benefit from Brexit - by hook or by crook . . .
Published 04/05/2016 | 02:30
'By hook or by crook' is a wonderful, outdated expression. It's the sort of thing my grandfather used to say. We all know what it means, but where does it come from? I heard it the other day while at the wonderful O'Sullivan's pub in Crookhaven watching a dogged Leicester City grind out another result against Manchester United. With pints and toasties in front of us, we watched as Leicester had a man sent off in a belt and braces final five minutes, when the old fella beside me declared: "This Leicester outfit are determined to win the league by hook or by crook."
The expression dates from the days of the first Norman invasions of Ireland, when rudimentary sailing boats left from Bristol or Pembroke bound for Ireland. The first Norman king of Ireland was Richard III, whose remains, incidentally, were dug up a few years ago under a car park in the centre of Leicester.
Back in his day, depending on the weather, the voyage to Ireland could be extremely hazardous and many ships didn't make it.
For the Normans, the two most extreme points on the Irish southern coast with harbours where they could possibly dock were Hook Head in Waterford to the east, and Crookhaven in Cork to the west. If you didn't make land between Hook and Crook you were going off towards the wild Atlantic and the treacherous west coast, where the seas were huge, the ports few and the native Irish not too friendly to the hapless Normans.
Therefore, the Normans vowed to land in Ireland "by hook or by crook" and deploy any means necessary to do so because to miss the stretch between Hook Head and Crookhaven meant the voyage was a total failure.
Thus, "by hook or by crook" is to achieve your aim by any means possible, fair or foul.
Listening to the Brexit debate and the extraordinary lengths to which the Establishment in Ireland, Britain and Brussels is going to snuff out the 'Vote Leave' movement, "hook" and "crook" spring to mind. The Bank of England, the UK Treasury and, of course, the OECD have all come out with "serious" documents predicting economic calamity if the UK votes to leave the EU.
The 'Remain' camp paints a picture where, largely because of a fall-off in inward investment, the UK economy will plummet downwards, sterling will weaken and, ultimately, the UK will lose its influence in the world because it will be isolated. In addition, this view - mainly articulated by the Remain campaign - makes the point that the UK will not have free trade with the EU and so trade will stop or be massively hindered, further ratcheting down growth.
In contrast, the Leave people suggest that unbound by the EU's bureaucratic shackles, a free-wheeling, free-trading UK will become hyper-competitive and the economy will accelerate rapidly. It will become a type of Singapore in the North Atlantic. Their economic analysis, which is, incidentally, getting much less press either in the mainstream papers or from the BBC, points to 5pc growth rates as a direct result of leaving.
The truth is that no one actually knows what will happen.
One plausible argument is that the UK - with its 60 million-plus population, the reasonably well-run sixth-largest economy in the world with its own currency, huge wealth around London and excellence in finance, advertising and, increasingly, tech start-ups - will be fine after an initial wobble. This is the middle-ground view. It's not the stuff of posters and sexy campaigns, but it's probably more accurate than the evangelical zealotry of both sides.
The question is: where do we stand?
The most reasonable estimation of the future if the UK is out of the EU is one where the complexion of the UK economy changes. If there are doubts over trade deals and the treatment of UK capital and produce trading with the EU, as the Remain camp argues, then direct foreign investment into the UK will falter. The UK will suffer from complicated trade deals and a lack of clarity as to how things will pan out. This means something very clear for Ireland. If direct foreign investment, particularly American direct foreign investment, doesn't go to the UK, where will it go? What is the country that feels, smells and tastes like Britain, but isn't Britain? Where would US executives feel most at home, with tax rates that are attractive and full access to the EU? Yes, you guessed: Ireland.
Far from it being in our interest for the UK to stay in the EU, it is in our commercial interest for the UK to be mired in red tape, uncertainty and fog. So why is our government actively campaigning for the UK to remain in the EU? Why are we doing Brussels' job, when it's not our job to advocate anything in the domestic politics of a quasi-foreign country.
I say quasi-foreign because England isn't foreign in the traditional sense of the world; after all, O'Sullivan's, close to the western-most tip of Ireland, was jammed with Irish people roaring on Leicester City, the home of royalist Richard III. It's not foreign, it's an ambiguous, complex, intertwined relationship. For example, Irish citizens living across the water can vote, whereas French citizens living in the UK can't.
However, in economic terms it is unambiguous. Britain is our main trading partner. We still feed the UK. Close to half our total agricultural exports go to the UK, so unless they stop eating after Brexit, there's no reason to think that we will not continue to feed them. The only reason there would be a problem with UK trade is if the EU got vindictive after Brexit and put up trade barriers, and if we did not use our veto at the Council of Ministers to block such an adolescent reaction. The veto is reserved for extreme events, which dramatically affect our national interest. Trade barriers and border checks with the UK are such events.
Can you imagine an Irish government that goes along with a spiteful EU diktat punishing the UK to prove a geo-political point, which would be against our fundamental national interest? Maybe there are enough Europhile zealots in positions of power deep within the Irish establishment that such a self-harming decision is not out of the question.
In short, Brexit may actually be good for us in the long term, particularly if the damage to the UK's investment image is as bad as the Remain camp claims it will be if the UK leaves. Clearly, British-bound investment will be diverted elsewhere. Remember, our country is 15 times smaller than Britain and therefore we only need a small amount of that diverted FDI for it to make a massive difference. If we veto the EU's vindictiveness, we insulate ourselves from the extremes of Europhilia and arrive at a sensible conclusion.
Despite this obvious scenario where we can play a canny game, official Ireland is doing Brussels' bidding campaigning to make sure that the UK stays in the EU . . . by hook or by crook.