Sunday 25 September 2016

Our independence doesn't mean we sit on the sidelines as Britain leaves EU

Published 01/04/2016 | 02:30

British Prime Minister David Cameron. Photo: John Stillwell/PA Wire
British Prime Minister David Cameron. Photo: John Stillwell/PA Wire

Marking the centenary of the Easter Rising was always going to be a delicate task. But in the round, the official celebrations were respectful, inclusive and blessed with good weather. Many of us learned more about the emergence of our State than we previously knew. For too long, perhaps, any detailed exploration of the Rising was avoided for fear of glorifying the physical force and revolutionary elements involved. For example, the 75th anniversary of 1916 was not marked by the then government for fear of legitimising the IRA campaign of violence still in play. There was no such reserve this time.

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Our Defence Forces were central to the official events, allowing citizens to marvel at the professionalism so admired all over the world where they serve as UN peacekeepers. Proclamation day on March 15 was a huge success. It could become an annual event, engaging young children in the values we claim to hold dear and introducing them to the dignity due to our national flag. Most welcome, in my view, was that the official programme of events was not just an honouring of the rebel leaders but of all the 485 people who died during the Rising, including British soldiers, Volunteers and civilians, 40 of whom were children.

Monday's centenary concert, a musical tribute featuring the best of Irish music and culture, was a triumph and, for me, the highlight. Like many people, I wished my beloved deceased parents, of that great generation that built the State, could have enjoyed it.

So now that it is over, we are left with a refreshed view of history and a new confidence in our national identity. As President Higgins said: "We must ensure that our journey into the future is a collective one in which the homeless, the migrant, the disadvantaged and the marginalised and each and every citizen can find homes."

On a less political note, his passionate address at the centenary concert was vintage Michael D the poet at his best.

But too much reflection can be maudlin. Time to move on now and get down to work in restoring our country to prosperity and greater equality. Mindful that there are still those who believe in advancing their aims through violence, we should not take peace for granted.

It was gratifying to see Martin McGuinness attending the official ceremonies in Dublin but disappointing to note the absence of any senior unionist representative. But the British Ambassador, Dominick Chilcott was, as always, engaged and respectful.

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams did his own thing in Belfast, which looked discordant but no doubt was politically strategic for Sinn Féin, given the release of an unrepentant Real IRA founder, Michael McKevitt, from prison.

As the weeks drift by, one hopes that soon we will have a functioning government. Politics is lived in the here and now and while the 2016 commemorations have been a useful distraction, public patience with our politicians is running thin.

Quite apart from the imperative for a new government to address problems in healthcare, housing and looming industrial unrest, there is the critical matter of a possible Brexit after June 23.

The implications for Ireland if the referendum mandates a UK exit from the European Union are enormous. To date, there have been relatively low-key statements in appropriate places by Irish ministers about the strategic importance to Ireland of the UK remaining in the EU. But as time passes and with the polls now showing a two-point lead in favour of leaving, beads of sweat are appearing on Iveagh House heads.

Our own experience of referenda is instructive. Often the answer to a straight question such as in/out is more influenced by extraneous and emotive political events than by a rational analysis of the proposition.

David Cameron is losing ground, thanks to the naked ambitions of senior party colleagues on the Leave side and ferocious pressure from Ukip and Tory eurosceptics.

The refugee crisis, which is wrongly conflated with the terrorist threat post Paris and Brussels, is also playing into the hands of the Leave side. There is a simplistic view that if the UK was outside the EU, some mythical drawbridge could be raised to keep the hordes of migrants/jihadis out.

A disgraceful comment blaming the Schengen free-travel arrangements was issued shortly after the Brussels attack by the Ukip defence spokesperson and this week the Leave campaign published a list of murders and rapes perpetrated by foreign EU nationals in the UK. Anti-Europe sentiment based on fear is commonplace now in the UK, even among top business people.

Complacency is dangerous. Many Britons could be sleepwalking into a Brexit without realising the implications. The OECD has warned that Brexit would "be bad for the UK, bad for Europe and bad for the global economy". A Brexit would be hugely disruptive to world trade.

But because of our historical and trade links with the UK, Ireland would stand to be most grievously impacted. The ESRI has calculated that even with a new bilateral trade agreement in place, it would cost the Irish economy €3bn a year.

Food and agricultural exports would be worst affected and a raft of new bureaucracy and restrictions would be required for imports and exports. North-South trade, which has been carefully nurtured for the last 18 years as part of the peace process, would be disrupted; customs checks would reappear at the Border.

Irish people are not just passive observers in this. Over 400,000 Irish-born people living in the UK are entitled to vote in the referendum and as many as 1.5 million claim Irish parentage.

These votes will be decisive and the Irish government should be mobilising voters in favour of Ireland's strategic interest. Equally important are the 300,000 Britons living in the Republic, who need to be persuaded to cast their votes in Ireland's favour.

It is a delicate diplomatic dance not to be seen to interfere in another country's polity. But in this case, it is a dance worth doing. Even as we mark our independence from the UK, it would be a national folly to deny our interdependence with our nearest neighbour. Like it or not, despite a long struggle for sovereignty, the UK and Ireland are nations entwined by kith and kin.

If the UK leaves the EU, it will be to our immense economic cost; we have skin in the game.

Irish Independent

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