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Independent.ie

Wednesday 12 December 2018

We need to get lucky twice to soften the blow of Brexit

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Jim O'Brien

Jim O'Brien

"We need to be lucky twice. We need to be lucky in that the Brits don't go for a hard Brexit. And we need to be lucky in that the final settlement allows us to breathe inside whatever the EU is going to look like."

This sombre quotation from an Irish EU Commission official closes Tony Connelly's marvellous book, Brexit and Ireland: The Dangers, the Opportunities, and the Inside Story of the Irish Response. Connelly has been RTÉ's European Editor since the early noughties and his knowledge of all matters European is highly respected in the halls, salons and press rooms of Brussels, Strasbourg, Luxembourg and London.

His book is certainly a tour de force... it represents as comprehensive an overview of the Irish export economy as you are likely to find. Written in rapid-fire journalese, it is an eminently accessible page turner. The book seldom flags even as it navigates the morass of acronyms and bureaucracies that litter the landscape of his topic.

Connelly hangs the book on stories of real people. He opens the chapter on fisheries with a gripping and poignant account of the last tragic hours and moments of the ill-fated trawler, the 'Tit Bonhomme'. The vessel sank near Union Hall in West Cork on January 15, 2012, with the loss of three lives.

One crew member, Abdelbaky Mohamed, an Egyptian, survived but his brother Wael perished along with Kevin Kershaw, a young Dublin apprentice and the skipper Michael Hayes. After the tragedy Caitlín Ní Aodha, Michael's widow, took over the fishing licence, bought a new boat and while she herself does not go to sea, its crew of five net prawns for the Italian market.

Access to British waters is vital for Caitlín and her livelihood. The book is peppered and enlivened with such stories.

The conundrum of the 'Irish border' is like the ghost at the feast, it stalks every corridor, it sits in menacing silence at every table and confounds every solution.

The Border problems posed by Brexit for the dairy industry are illustrated on the farm of Nigel Heatrick whose 250ac holding between Glaslough in Co Monaghan and Middletown in Co Tyrone straddles the border. On his beef and dairy farm the 200ac portion in the south produces beef and dairy while the 50ac in the north is a beef operation. His 50 cows in the south supply 1,000 litres a day to LacPatrick in Monaghan. The tanker collecting his milk crosses the border twice on the way there and twice on the way back.

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The story of Baileys Irish Cream also illustrates the conundrum. According to Connelly, every day thousands of litres of milk are collected from farmers north and south of the border, brought to Glanbia in Virginia, Co Cavan where it is processed.

The cream is taken off the milk and shipped to Mallusk in Antrim or to Dublin. In Mallusk it is blended with whiskey to make Baileys cream liqueur where the major bottling and packaging work is also done. "Brexit is now threatening that seamless operation," Connelly writes.

The author visits the Laois farm of IFA's Jer Bergin to explore the impact on the beef sector and quotes Agriculture Minister Michael Creed who summarises the challenges facing much of the agriculture industry. He tells the Seanad that in 2015 a total of 55,000 cattle went north for breeding or slaughter, some 400,000 lambs from the north were processed in the south.

Half a million pigs from the south were sent north to be slaughtered and processed, with some product coming back south or going on to Britain. As Connelly remarks, "this is made simple by mutual membership of the single market and a border made transparent by the Good Friday Agreement. But the simple has become complex overnight, thanks to Brexit".

The book takes us on a comprehensive tour of every aspect of the Irish political and economic scene as it faces Brexit. It is also comforting as it gives a sense of the strength and diversity of the Irish economy after the UK leaves the EU.

There is a fascinating chapter on the successful struggle to insert an Irish unity clause into the principles informing the EU's official response to the UK request to leave the Union. The clause was designed to ensure that in the case of Irish unification the new political entity would be fully accepted as part of the EU. It was Enda Kenny's last great battle before he left office.

The ultimate urgency and gravity of what could face us is summed up in an observation by a PSNI intelligence officer quoted by Connelly, "when you put police officers down into a border situation, inevitably they will be carrying guns. They will be using armoured vehicles and they will themselves present a target opportunity for murder, or attempted murder, by dissidents".

Tony Connelly has written a great book and made an invaluable contribution to our understanding, not only of Brexit but of modern Ireland and where she stands at this crucial point in her history.


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