Monday 19 March 2018

'Brits are hard-nosed about the EU. They want to know what they can get out of it'

Facing his own ­'exit' shortly, British Ambassador Dominick Chilcott reflects on a fabulous time in Ireland. He spoke to Colm Kelpie

Dominick Chilcott, British Ambassador to Ireland, pictured for Sunday business. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Dominick Chilcott, British Ambassador to Ireland, pictured for Sunday business. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Colm Kelpie

Colm Kelpie

Leaning across the desk of the greyish office in the British Embassy, a tanned Dominick Chilcott speaks wistfully about his recent French holiday.

He and his wife have a house in the rural south-west.

It's relatively remote. The nearest bakery is about 6km away, and you've little choice but to have a car, he says.

When we meet, it's his first day back in the office, and it's clear he hasn't had much opportunity to ease himself back in.

He had to cut short a work lunch at the nearby RDS to rush back for our interview, and once that's completed, an assistant hands him some papers and he dashes into another room down a longish corridor for a separate meeting, a little behind schedule.

Chilcott is leaving his post as British Ambassador to Ireland at the end of July, but there's no sign of a wind down just yet.

His successor has already been named in the press. But diplomatic protocol insists that an incoming ambassador must first get the approval of the host government, and that hasn't happened yet, so he's giving little away.

Chilcott arrived in Ireland about 10 months after Queen Elizabeth's historic 2011 visit here.

His tenure, he says, has been characterised by the ever-improving relationship between the two countries.

"There's a strong sense that we're finally putting things right between us, and the relationship is going from strength to strength, and the trajectory is relentlessly upwards," he says.

And that's no doubt true.

But the vote next month on whether Britain should remain part of the European Union could, if a so-called Brexit becomes a reality, test that improving relationship (and potentially make it a little more cumbersome for him to keep his house in France).

Irish business is fearful of the potential economic and political fallout for this island, north and south, if voters opt to pull out of the EU. Concerns centre on the plummeting value of sterling and the knock-on effect for Irish exporters, the reimposition of trade tariffs or a customs border, the impact on the common travel area and any negative effect on Northern Ireland.

But are any of these concerns featuring in the debate?

"When you're looking at the headlines, you rarely see the word Ireland in them at the moment," Chilcott says.

"I think it would be fair to say that it's not getting the importance which the subject, in my view, deserves. That may change." Britain has always had a frosty relationship with the EU. The country joined what was then the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, and then had a vote on whether to remain in 1975 - hardly an enthusiastic endorsement.

Chilcott tries to explain that often fraught relationship by arguing that for the UK, Europe was viewed in pragmatic terms. What opportunities could it present for Britain.

"The reasons for the UK belonging as a member state to the European Union are less fundamental to our sense of ourselves, and of the kind of country that we want to be, than for many other member states," he says.

"If you're one of the original six member states, the necessity of avoiding another European conflict, prompted by rivalry between France and Germany, was paramount. For those countries, the European Union is first and foremost a peace project, and faith in it is unshakeable because the experience of a war being fought over your territory was so appalling.

"If you're in one of the Mediterranean countries, the EU is the guarantee that your tolerant democratic political system will remain in place and there'll be no going back to the days of dictatorship from which, in historic terms, you've relatively recently emerged and consolidated by virtue of being inside the European Union. For those countries, the EU provides that fundamental guarantee. For central European countries there's a similar assurance that there's no going back to the days of the Warsaw Pact.

"For the UK, none of those arguments apply. Although we were heavily involved in the Second World War, our national myth is that it was our finest hour, the war wasn't fought over British soil. The experience of the war… was less visceral in the way that it's remembered. In terms of our democratic institutions, they emerged from war stronger, having been tested in the fire of conflict.

"So the European Union doesn't guarantee our democracy, it doesn't guarantee the rule of law, it doesn't guarantee multiparty politics, it doesn't guarantee our liberal economic system. The reason why we belong to the EU is a pretty hard-nosed balance of pros and cons. Does it make you feel better off or not, does it give you more opportunities, does it give you a bigger say in the world?

"It's these kind of questions. And for a lot of people, when you ask them how does the UK being a member state of the EU affect them personally, they find it very hard to give an example."

It's a rational argument. And yet, the debate in the UK has sometimes tended not to be so.

Chilcott accepts that successive British governments have tended not to talk up the benefits of EU membership. And Brussels hasn't at times been helpful in that regard either, he says.

"It's true that some of the signals and messages that one got from the EU institutions were almost designed to annoy people," he says.

"And we have a very vigorous media and they latched on to stories, such as the working time directive, which gave the impression that European Union institutions were legislating in areas where they shouldn't be. That these things should be left to the national prerogative."

It's a confusing topic to address, he says. There's claim and counter-claim, and, until recently, the EU question was "very high up the list of priorities of a very small number of people".

"Now the awareness of the campaign and what is at stake is rising all the time," he adds. "But there's a risk that a number of people may take the view that it's all too difficult. It's possible that because of that, turnout may be low."

As an ambassador, Chilcott's role vis-a-vis the campaign is two-fold. Firstly, he must explain why it is that the British government has taken the decision to push for the UK to remain in the EU, and to explain that publicly and in private dialogue with the Irish Government. His job is not, he stresses, to be a campaigner for the 'remain' side. Secondly, he must encourage British nationals living in Ireland to register to vote.

"I would particularly encourage Brits living in Ireland to register and appoint somebody to be their proxy and make sure their voice is heard," he says.

Chilcott, although admitting to an odd bet on the horses, won't take a punt on the referendum. And he's wary of the swing in the opinion polls.

"There's quite a lot of volatility in the opinion polls, which is another reason to be cautious about reading too much into them. People are still in the stage of absorbing the information and the arguments. Many of them may not really have decided how they will come down," he says.

As for the consequences of a Brexit, it's just too unclear at this point to make any determination. Will a border be reimposed between Northern Ireland and the Republic? Will the UK economy implode, and is there a risk that the UK itself could ultimately fracture if England votes to leave, and Scotland opts to stay? Or are all the doomsday arguments perhaps overblown?

"Honestly we don't know and it would be wrong to suggest that we would know what life would look like, if the UK were to vote to leave," he says.

What is clear, he says, is that whatever arrangement is put in place will be between the UK and the EU as a whole. There'll be no special side deals.

"The UK won't be allowed to have, and Ireland won't be allowed to have, a different relationship than the relationship that the UK has with the EU overall. So whatever is in that relationship with the EU will apply on the island of Ireland between Northern Ireland and the Republic."

While it may be tricky dealing with Brexit, he speaks with ease about his time in Ireland. His proudest achievement is "helping to maintain the positive momentum in British-Irish relations over the last four years".

"For my wife and me, it's been a fabulous time. It's been the posting of our lives," he says. The couple have Irish blood. For Chilcott, his grandmother was a Dubliner who had been brought over to England by her mother in the 1920s. His wife has two Irish great uncles.

"One of the great tragedies of the Troubles, was that if you were British, it discouraged you celebrating the Irishness that you might have. It's nice to put that right."

He speaks fondly of Glencairn House, the traditional residence of the British Ambassador, and of its gardens in particular. He describes it as "homely", and says it looks bigger from the outside than it feels from the inside. He's a keen hill-walker and heads out at weekends.

As for his next posting, the 56-year-old is remaining tight-lipped. In the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), staff must apply for certain postings.

What's on his shortlist? "I better keep that under my hat," he says.

He and his wife, Jane, will likely spend a year in London, with Chilcott working at Whitehall, before going abroad again. His 30-year career has seen the couple live in many locations, from Ankara, to Lisbon, Sri Lanka and Tehran, all while raising four children, who are now grown up. His time in Iran was short-lived when the British Embassy was overrun by an angry mob. His dog, Pumpkin, was left behind in the melee and was ultimately returned to him, prompting much coverage in the British media. The little dog became something of a celebrity.

She has "thrived in Ireland", Chilcott says. "She seems not at all traumatised. My residence in Glencairn has a large garden so the dog is incredibly spoiled and is a great favourite with the staff, and, like me, her favourite thing to do is on a Saturday morning to get up early and go for a walk."

Globe-trotting has been a feature of his life. His father was in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps.

"As an army family, we moved around a lot," he says. "I was born in Hong Kong and before the age of 10 had lived there, in Germany and in Singapore, as well as in many different parts of Britain."

And that lifestyle influenced his decision to join the FCO. "The experience of moving often and living abroad meant that I could not imagine, as a young man, settling into a job that involved living in the same place for long periods of time."

Before he leaves, he's set himself the challenge of following Enda Kenny's example and cycling around the Ring of Kerry.

"He was something of an inspiration, so I thought I'm going to have a go at that, too."

Job worries, being thrifty and helpful in-laws

The best piece of career advice I ever received was... "A line manager whose professionalism and skills I greatly admired once told me not to worry about feeling inadequate or insecure in the job. Almost all of us in the FCO, he said, felt that way. He did. It was perfectly normal. That someone who was so evidently competent might also question his abilities did a lot to boost my own confidence and morale."

My attitude to money makes me... "I remember my childhood as being very happy, though we didn't have a lot of money. Most of my clothes were second hand. And for many years, we didn't own a car. I was heavily overdrawn as a student. As a result, I find it difficult to throw anything away, am cautious about spending money and tend to look hard for value for money."

I was at my most skint... "In the late 1980s, on a relatively junior official's salary, when mortgage rates were about 10pc. We had just bought a house, had three small children and were living in London. Fortunately, my wife's generous mother lived just round the corner."

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