Monday 24 October 2016

Commons' sense shows up parochical Leinster House

Published 05/12/2015 | 02:30

A woman weeps outside Britain’s House of Parliament this week after a vote was taken to bomb Syria. Getty
A woman weeps outside Britain’s House of Parliament this week after a vote was taken to bomb Syria. Getty

There are times, like this week, when the UK and its politics feels very distant from ours. Their parliament is definitely a global stage while ours can seem local, even parochial, by comparison.

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The House of Commons debate to extend air strikes against Isil into Syria was rowdy and passionate befitting the gravity of the matter. Divisions in the Labour party including downright opposition to the proposal by the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn provided a fascinating backdrop. But removing the labour whip facilitated the numbers to achieve a clear majority. So 67 Labour MPs including half the shadow cabinet voted against their party leader's position. Hillary Benn's speech advocating air strikes was a triumph. Tensions were high. As Tony Blair discovered in 2003, embarking on a war when public and political opinion is divided is not for the faint hearted and can be political suicide.

The British are bellicose as a nation with a long and distinguished military heritage. When they go to war they mean business; the ink was hardly dry on the motion when the airstrikes began. But the Foreign Secretary stressed that military strikes on this occasion are only part of the solution. There is a clear political and humanitarian plan along with a military strategy agreed with allies in Geneva and a UN resolution.

For neighbouring countries with ties of kith and kin, Ireland's diplomacy and international relations could not be more different to the UK. Ireland has long been militarily neutral and nonaligned with a tradition of peacekeeping, untied development aid and participation in multilateral organisations such as the United Nations.

From the beginning, membership of the European Union has been our way out of a dominant relationship with our nearest neighbour giving us access to trade in wider European markets. Our geographical location made us an ideal launching pad for US multinationals into EU markets. Joining the EU in many ways has been the making and modernising of Ireland, opening access to structural funds and new markets for our exports. The EU institutions helped us to look outwards and embrace progressive politics and social reform. The European Union through the Peace Programmes has been a key stakeholder in ending the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Our diplomats and officials move naturally and effortlessly in the corridors of the EU institutions, many rising to the top in leadership positions. Not surprisingly successive Irish governments have been enthusiastic supporters of all things EU. Leaving the EU would be unthinkable.

But there has always been anti-EU sentiment expressed particularly strongly at times of referenda on EU treaties. The arguments are always the same: loss of sovereignty, too much bureaucracy, democratic deficit, fear of being lured into military alliances, immigration. A list very similar to that outlined by David Cameron in his letter setting out his key concerns and reform demands before he can support remaining in the EU with his "heart and soul".

The debate in the UK on the in-out referendum is undoubtedly coloured and made necessary by growing nationalism as represented by UKIP, who garnered 4 million votes in the last general election. This little Englander sensibility has been fuelled by a cohort of Eurosceptic Tories who blame membership of the European Union for the influx of migrants and abuse of free movement within and from outside the European Union. David Cameron lives with constant internal dissent on EU membership. It's not so easy to be a good European in the UK; the popular mood is against it. And the reality is the UK has been a semi-detached member of the European Union from the beginning, harbouring suspicions about "closer ever union" or creeping integration which many perceive as an assault on sovereignty. Worryingly, nationalism bordering on xenophobia appears an acceptable political viewpoint in political discourse. Anti-EU sentiment is also growing in other member states caused mainly by tensions over the Syrian refugee crisis.

So as it happened, on the same day as the Commons debate on airstrikes in Syria, Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan was issuing a "call to arms" to a British Irish Chamber of Commerce gathering in Iveagh House to mobilise "a broad coalition of advocates" in favour of the UK remaining in the EU. Arguing strongly that UK membership is in Ireland's strategic interest he said that Ireland will be the worst affected of all countries in the event of a Brexit. He pledged Ireland's support at EU level in the negotiations on Cameron's reform proposals.

Two senior British businessmen for and against Brexit outlined the principle boundaries of the argument. Both men spoke eloquently, exploring mainly economic and trade issues. Alex Story of "Business for Britain" linked to the Leave campaign was a lone but ardent minority voice. Peter Wilding, lawyer and Director General of British Influence, outlined the main arguments against a Brexit.

Alan Barrett of the ESRI outlined the Institute's recent doom laden report on the negative consequences for us of a British withdrawal. The UK is our largest trading partner; our bilateral trade in both goods and services amounts to approximately €1bn per week. So the Minister is right. We are stakeholders in this UK referendum. We share a land border. Irish residents in the UK can vote in the referendum.

Here in Ireland we know all about the unpredictability of voters in referenda when the political establishment tries to herd the public in a particular direction. Hence the call for civil society and business to mobilise against a British withdrawal. A referendum campaign in Denmark this week on an opt-in on Justice and Home Affairs laws has been skewed by concerns about the numbers of refugees being accepted by neighbouring Sweden and Germany.

My own view is that the outcome of the UK EU referendum will be determined by the public mood and the state of British nationalism at the time of the poll in 2017. Like it or not, the emotive issues of migration and nationalism, rather than business and trade, will be decisive. Ireland knows from experience that the answer in referenda is not necessarily a reply to the question put.

Irish Independent

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