Monday 24 October 2016

Britain is looking after its own interests, now we must do the same

If handled well, Brexit could be the greatest opportunity for Ireland since 1922, writes Gay Mitchell

Gay Mitchell

Published 26/06/2016 | 02:30

No more cosy chats: British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, left, talks with Finance Minister Michael Noonan during the EU finance ministers’ meeting in Brussels. Photo: AP
No more cosy chats: British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, left, talks with Finance Minister Michael Noonan during the EU finance ministers’ meeting in Brussels. Photo: AP

After June 2019 there will no longer be a British EU commissioner, and no British presence at the Council of Ministers, including the European Council, or at the pre-council meetings of ministers and heads of governments. The 73 British MEPs will disappear, including the three Northern Ireland MEPs.

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Policywise, there will now be a gradual, negotiated agreement of withdrawal from the European Union for Britain.

The Republic of Ireland did everything possible to assist the Remain side but now our relationship with the UK is, in these forced circumstances, about to change. Our Government will be one of those the British will have to negotiate with. While we wish them well and will, of course, do all one can to assist with a smooth transition, the Government, the Oireachtas, and our MEPs must put Ireland's interests first.

Already we are a member of the euro, while Northern Ireland and Britain are not, we drive in kilometres per hour, they have kept miles per hour. This will be just one more difference. How this difference is defined, however, will be critical to Ireland's future.

In my view, if this is handled well it could be the greatest opportunity for Ireland since 1922.

Up until now, foreign direct investment seeking an EU location where English is the working language, and a common-law jurisdiction prevails, had the option of the UK or Ireland.

Northern Ireland had commenced the process of negotiating a lower corporate tax rate so as to compete with the Republic. A corporate tax rate in a jurisdiction outside of the EU will be of little assistance to them and I predict that some of those who were planning to invest in Northern Ireland will now reconsider.

The United Kingdom (if it remains united) now has two political alternatives.

1. To try to negotiate a trade agreement with the EU, in which case its financial services industry will greatly suffer as there is unlikely to be a facilitation of what are called passport arrangements (for example, set up in one member state and you can trade in others). In that scenario, a flight of the financial services industry to Paris, Frankfurt and Dublin seems likely.

2. Try to stay in the single market of 500 million consumers - David Cameron's expressed preference. However, if the UK can successfully negotiate to remain in the single market they will have to accept all of the rules that go with that (including future rules decided by Ireland and others).

This means free movement of goods, services and people. Pulling up a drawbridge on immigration is not possible in such circumstances.

This was stated repeatedly by the Remain side during the UK referendum campaign. The truth of this statement will now become apparent.

All of this has caused uncertainty for the UK and resulting instability in currency and other markets. Ireland is not, and must not allow ourselves to become, in any way uncertain about our future and our priorities.

I expect, in these circumstances, that many British people living in the Republic (a sizeable number and probably the second largest non-national population after Poles) will apply for an Irish/EU passport while retaining their British one.

Applications for passports directly from Northern Ireland residents may also increase in time, giving both Unionists and Nationalists the facility to have dual citizenship.

There are about 400,000 people of Irish birth living in the UK. These population exchanges, the busy commercial traffic between both countries and the magnitude of two-way trade means that Britain and Ireland must continue to nurture good relations.

In their absence from the EU institutions, Ireland could even help put the broader Anglo-Irish case, such is the good state of relations between Ireland and Britain.

That said, Britain will look after its own interests. It is our duty to ensure we put our best foot forward and that we maximise the benefits for Ireland, while minimising the fallout.

To this end, consideration should be given to creating a confidential committee of former politicians and activists, as well as former senior civil servants. This could be chaired by former EU Commission Secretary-General, Catherine Day, and could include, for example, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, Ray MacSharry, Bertie Ahern, Peter Sutherland, John Bruton, Alan Dukes, Eamon Gilmore and David Beggs, as well as former senior civil servants/diplomats Noel Dorr, Dermot McCarthy and Noel Fahy.

The Government has already published "key actions" to be taken. This confidential committee could consider these actions, and others, and report to the Government on a regular basis.

In relation to the land border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, there is no need to fret about possible two-way controls.

There are ample precedents of non-EU countries and EU states sharing porous borders: Norway, Switzerland, Monaco, The Vatican, Lichtenstein, and San Marino come to mind.

The UK, including the Northern Executive, does not want a series of frontier posts between both parts of Ireland, nor does the Republic. So it should be relatively easy to come to agreement with other EU states on this matter.

Between the island of Ireland and Britain, the current security situation has caused some tightening of identity checks. This may be stepped up a couple of notches, but people have got used to carrying photo identity cards already.

When the golfer Gary Player was winning major trophies he was asked if luck played a part. His response was: "Yes, luck plays a part. The funny thing is, the more I practise the luckier I get.".

We make our own luck. This is not a time for doubt, uncertainty or instability as far as Ireland is concerned. We have no doubts.

We are committed to the EU, the single market, the euro, our corporate tax rate, our common-law system and our "can-do, open for business" attitude. We need the benefits of sagacious advice so that we protect our interests and secure Ireland's future. After 43 years of membership of what has become the EU, we are fortunate to have a rich pool of wise and experienced politicians and civil servants available to us. Let's put them to work.

We have nothing to fear but fear itself.

Gay Mitchell is a former MEP and Minister for European Affairs. He was campaign director for five EU referendums in Ireland

Sunday Independent

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