News John Drennan

Wednesday 3 September 2014

John Drennan: When Enda met Dave -- it was the start of a beautiful bromance

As a financial pariah, Ireland can take comfort that the UK is watching our back, writes John Drennan

Published 18/03/2012 | 05:00

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IT would probably be excessive to suggest that Enda Kenny's meeting with David Cameron resembled the diplomatic equivalent of When Harry Met Sally.

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It was, however, a damn close-run thing for, while it was Cheltenham week, relations in Downing Street bore a closer resemblance to a Valentine's Day date.

And, intriguingly, given our respective places in the world, the majority of the loving was coming from our UK 'friends'.

In Downing Street, Mr Kenny, who can rarely be accused of being circumspect in the company of foreign leaders, was almost modest in his claim that the Anglo-Irish "relationship is at an unprecedented high level of co-operation''.

But, though a state and a leader, still desperately trying to escape from the international tar-pit Brian Cowen and Bertie Ahern dumped us into, are always embarrassingly grateful when foreign leaders treat them like normal people, Mr Kenny did not bring over a visible application form to join the Commonwealth.

Mind you, such is the level of intergovernmental work between leaders and top civil servants that is being planned we have in essence become a shadow member of the Commonwealth.

The British were even more convinced we were in the 'beginning of a beautiful friendship' territory. Not even the best efforts of Boris Johnson could impact on Cameron's Ode to Joy over "all the friendship between our peoples, the shared culture and sport ... flowering to their true and fullest extent''.

Mr Cameron continued to say it in flowers as he reiterated that in his view, "I think we have seen a great flowering in the relationship. It's got enormous potential and a lot more to come and I'm very excited at the prospect of working with Enda in the coming years''.

The spontaneous warmth certainly indicated just how thorough the revolution in Anglo-Irish affairs has been since the stormy era of Charlie Haughey, Georgian teapots and Margaret Thatcher.

One of the most curious features of the evolution of that special relationship has been the happy, though accidental, serendipity that has accompanied the various prime ministerial couplings over the recent decades.

Albert Reynolds and John Major were pragmatic idealists whilst the Bertie Ahern/ Tony Blair axis was one of political twin brothers.

Even the pair of political depressives, Biffo and Gordon Brown were, in their psychologically flawed manner, perfectly matched graduates of the Mr Hyde School of leadership.

On one level it might appear surprising that Kenny and Cameron have so successfully continued this tradition of personal compatibility.

One is a smooth child of privilege (no, we're talking about Mr Cameron) who appeared to almost inherit rather than win the PM's office and yes, we're still talking about Dave.

If Mr Cameron is a thoroughly modern man who is as comfortable with celebrities as politicians, Enda, in contrast, is a sixty-something dynastic politician who spent 20 years attempting to make a mark in the psyche of his country.

However, there are also plenty of similarities which have built a level of empathy between the new premiers to rival that of Bertie and Blair.

Both had blighted legacies and nervous coalition partners whose struggles to secure power meant they came into government in a psychologically damaged rather than energised condition. Rather like the Bertie-Blair axis their political personalities also dovetail when it comes to strengths and weaknesses.

Both Kenny and Cameron have boundless, if somewhat unfocused energy and a liking for bicycles or pursuits that emphasise their masculinity. They are, however, equally careful to cultivate the concept of being loosely in touch with women's issues and the environment and are enthusiasts for a level of happy thoughts that on occasion would almost embarrass the habitues of one of those afternoon evangelical American self-help programmes.

On the negative side such traits leave both of these benign conservatives open to the charge of suffering from a debilitating lightness of being when it comes to the intellectual aspect of their jobs.

Kenny Lite, however, has Michael Noonan to do all the heavy lifting in that arena while Mr Cameron has no shortage of heavyweights who leave him free for critical prime ministerial tasks such as enthusing, cheerleading and waving.

Of course, while it is always better when people such as Enda and Dave get on, behind all the smiles, politics, no matter how much politicians deny it, is always about issues rather than personal skills.

Personality does help, for while Ireland was once a bad news story for British PMs involving, as Mr Cameron noted "political processes, parades and policing'', in the wake of the Queen's visit we are associated with cheerful Cork fishmongers and politicians desire nothing more than to be attached no matter how peripherally to images of success.

But, as they basked in this new entente cordiale, Enda and Dave were playing other critical games.

One of the key factors in Mr Kenny's position is that when it comes to foreign policy, even small powers have interests, not friends.

Ireland may traditionally have, courtesy of our shared farming interests, cultivated a close friendship with France while diplomatic ties with Germany were also carefully tended once Charlie Haughey somewhat grandiosely gave his backing,as the then President of the EU, to German reunification.

The distaste of Mrs Thatcher and the UK undoubtedly sweetened this position, but Ireland reaped a far more pragmatic reward courtesy of the subsequent divvy-up of the Structural Funds.

However, like marriage when the money runs out, our former French and German friends could not drop us swiftly enough, after Ireland lost its 'clever pet' status and became the German hausfrau's burden.

Then miraculously, as we hung around a deserted area of the EU diplomatic playground trying to avoid being photographed with the Greeks, Europe, courtesy of the walkout by the UK from the Fiscal Compact debacle, acquired another pariah.

There can be no doubt Mr Cameron likes Ireland in a vague disengaged sort of fashion but the ardour of the current British courtship is undoubtedly influenced by its isolated status within a German-dominated Europe and its obedient Franco-Italian satraps.

Britain needs allies and, ironically, given our respective geographical positions, Ireland is by culture and language ideally positioned to act as Britain's EU factotum.

Ireland's status as the best of the bailout bad boys has even enhanced our usefulness as a sounding board for a British state that is as separated from the heart of the European power game as bit-part states such as Hungary.

The Government and Mr Kenny, meanwhile, are all too aware that in the new cruel international dispensation, whether it is China or in this case Britain, the most important thing any small country must secure is the status of being modestly useful.

There are, of course, other reasons for the enhanced closeness.

Britain's speed out of the traps in offering a loan when our fiscal crisis escalated was undoubtedly influenced by the scale of trade between the two countries and the level of debts British banks in Ireland have to deal with.

Like the cautious shop-keeper that he is, Mr Kenny, now that Ireland is no longer the master of the universe, is also minded to protect Ireland's relationship with our biggest trading partner.

Mr Kenny knows that if we don't mind the British pounds, the pennies from Brazil, Russia, India and China will do little to make up any losses in the UK market.

And when it comes to the ongoing fiscal health of the

IFSC and the City of London, Ireland and the UK are getting ready to protect each other if our sticky-fingered EU bureaucrats attempt to, heaven forbid, tax bankers in the same way as the rest of us.

Ireland may have successfully fought off French designs on our corporation tax but it is always no harm in such squabbles to have a big brother lurking in the shadows.

It is indeed ironic that after the faux political divides of the Ahern era over Boston versus Berlin that in the current time of strife Ireland instead now says 'Downing Street, please!'

There again we should not be that surprised for when the world is so uncertain it means, more often than not, we reach back for the hand of nurse.

Sunday Independent

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