News Shane Ross

Friday 28 October 2016

All eyes on Brexit as public tunes out of our own politics

Shane Ross

Published 24/04/2016 | 02:30

In the UK, the Brexit debate has become a battleground for the leadership of the Tory party. Pictured are London Mayor Boris Johnson and Prime Minister David Cameron. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
In the UK, the Brexit debate has become a battleground for the leadership of the Tory party. Pictured are London Mayor Boris Johnson and Prime Minister David Cameron. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

A silent prayer this Sunday: Would RTE and all other media outlets give us a 'government formation'-free day ? The nation's eyes are glazing over with tortuous tales from the political battlefront. For 57 days, the media pack has been hanging around, queuing up to tell us in a variety of ingenious ways that nothing is happening. The nation is bored to tears.

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Down in Dail Eireann, the Government opted to bore the nation with something else. Last Thursday morning, Enda Kenny rose to his feet. A general air of expectation filled the chamber. Was he about to make a statement? Or even head to the Park for a chat with President Michael D?

No, the battered Taoiseach was not ducking another Dail defeat. Instead, he was ploughing on as though nothing was happening off stage. Enda addressed the assembled TDs about Brexit.

The Dail yawned.

Brexit has been a crashing bore. It has forced its way onto the floor of the Dail only because legislation is off the agenda.

On Thursday, Enda trotted out all the well-oiled no brainers, the reasons why we in Ireland should bust a gut to keep the Brits in the European Union. The nation hardly noticed. Nor did Europe; least of all the Brits.

Brexit has not yet caught the Irish public's imagination. Dark warnings of the collateral damage to Ireland if Britain heads for the door have failed to alarm the ordinary citizen.

Yet last week, Enda made a tepid effort to ignite an Irish campaign to keep Britain in Europe. His speech in the Dail sought to persuade Irish residents with friends and relatives in Britain to pick up the phone and urge them to vote 'Remain' in the upcoming UK referendum.

Of course, Enda's mind was elsewhere as he read his speech. Brexit may have featured in his script but his attention was down the road in Trinity College Dublin at the ailing Fine Gael talks with Fianna Fail.

Enda was not the only signed-up member of the forlorn 'Phone-a-friend' against Brexit brigade. At exactly the same time, Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's former press secretary, was speaking in Dublin's RDS on 'Why the Irish need to get involved in the Brexit debate'. Campbell was bang on message, insisting unconvincingly that "Ireland is not impotent in this debate". On the same day he had penned a piece in the Irish Times - a message from the Brits to the Paddies - about how "you can have a say, and you must. Each of you have friends and connections. I would urge you to contact all of them and tell them why it matters and why - if this is your view - you want them to stay".

Campbell was addressing the big-business group Ibec's annual conference. In the parallel newspaper article, he listed the "serious organisations" (meaning the rich and powerful) like the OECD, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Bank of England, Deutsche Bank, Shell, BMW, Rolls Royce and many more who had set out "serious arguments against Brexit".

He could have added every bank in Ireland on his host, Ibec's membership list. The big battalions have lined up behind Brussels, bankers and bureaucrats to give the thumbs down to Brexit. Campbell and the Taoiseach were ad idem, yet no one expects the phones to start buzzing across the Irish sea.

A day after the eloquent Alastair had landed in Dublin, a far more important ally of the anti- Brexit campaign landed in Britain. No less a person than the President of the United States rode into London town to lend his friend, David Cameron, a hand in his hour of need.

Obama, the most powerful man in the world, was following Enda's lead, deep into the bosom of UK domestic politics. He displayed none of Enda's reserve, but waded straight into the political swamp. The US president did not politely urge support for David Cameron's 'Remain' campaign. Instead, he threatened the British people with economic fire and brimstone if they voted for the 'Leave' side. In a staggering statement, he warned British citizens that they would be "at the back of the queue for a trade deal with the United States" if they voted the wrong way.

It was the old pals' act in action at the highest level.

David Cameron positively smirked with suppressed joy and responded by calling Obama "my friend Barack" as the two men told weak jokes and related forced stories of their ping-pong games, suggesting a long, but hitherto undiscovered friendship. It was a deeply contrived, embarrassing dialogue. They were an unlikely combination, a liberal US democrat joining forces with an old Etonian Tory.

The folksy display of unity gave the opportunity to another old Etonian Tory, London Lord Mayor Boris Johnson, to launch a highly personalised broadside against Obama, calling him a hypocrite, a "part-Kenyan president", referring to his "ancestral dislike of the British Empire". It was an outrageous and possibly racist, response.

Johnson's remark was unforgivable. Yet others from different backgrounds responded angrily to Obama's intervention in a local political campaign. Former Labour minister Kate Hoey called the president's words "insulting and patronising". Suddenly the US president's intervention had made the dull Brexit debate an international controversy.

It is a fair bet that Barack was making amends to his 'friend' David Cameron after a very strained recent relationship over Libya. Obama certainly compensated for his earlier criticism - in spades.

Enda could do with a similar leg-up from Obama in his current troubles. Help is unlikely to emerge from that quarter. He is hardly in the same global league as Cameron, although in the past he has undoubtedly benefited from the increasingly common practice of incumbent heads of government of giving each other a dig-out in their domestic political battles.

Tony Blair kindly invited his chum Bertie Ahern to address the House of Commons when Bertie was in the height of trouble during the 2007 election campaign. Bertie accepted, duly reminded the Irish nation of his status as a peacemaker and so pulled the fat out of the fire .

On the eve of the recent General Election here, the British prime minister wrote to the Taoiseach, saying that he was "profoundly grateful" for his support in recent Brexit negotiations.

He went on to wish Enda "my very best wishes for tomorrow's elections". Such unorthodox support was accompanied by a handwritten note wishing him "Good luck".

Somehow, such heavyweight private support instantly found its way into the public press.

Only a month earlier, Cameron had come even closer to an outright electoral endorsement of Enda as he pointedly and publicly "looked forward to working with you in the months and years ahead". He will hopefully find out before polling day on June 23 whether his wish will come true. Not that such sentiments helped the Taoiseach's cause...

The threat of Brexit to Ireland has been lost in the middle of the domestic contortions of government formation.

It took a spat between Obama and Boris Johnson to set Brexit alight in Britain last week, but few of our citizens are aware of the dangers lurking around the corner for us on June 23.

Although the downside for Ireland in Brexit is self-evident, especially for employment and the agri-food sector, on this occasion our plight cuts no ice with either Cameron or his nemesis, Boris Johnson. We are fighting this battle on our own.

In the UK, the Brexit debate has become a battleground for the leadership of the Tory party. In Ireland, we are relegated to the status of helpless spectators with a lot to lose. For once, the open Irish economy is not at the mercy of global economic storms. Instead, we are potential victims of the whims of the British electorate. That is why the Taoiseach and Campbell have been reduced to urging us to Phone a Friend.

Sunday Independent

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