Saturday 17 March 2018

This take on Brexit is rich in detail but far too premature

Non-fiction: Brexit & Ireland: The Dangers, the Opportunities and the Inside Story of the Irish Response, Tony Connelly, Penguin Ireland, paperback, 351 pages, €16.99

Throwaway line: A breakdown in Hogan and Kenny's working relationship is alluded to. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Throwaway line: A breakdown in Hogan and Kenny's working relationship is alluded to. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Brexit and Ireland

Donal o'donovan

The late Chinese Communist leader Zhou Enlai famously told Richard Nixon in 1972 that it was "too early to say" what the impact of the French revolution had been.

If there's a major criticism to be made of Tony Connelly's Brexit & ­Ireland, it's exactly that. When it comes to anything to do with Brexit, it's just too early to tell.

Connelly has been RTÉ's point man in Brussels since 2001 and undoubtedly has the skill, insight and contacts to deliver a magisterial version of the Irish response to a phenomenon - Brexit - that threatens to dramatically alter the foundations of economic and social relations on and off this island.

Connelly's book, subtitled The Dangers, the Opportunities and the Inside Story of the Irish Response, is rich in detail, but inevitably suffers from coming out so far ahead of any real progress towards Brexit itself.

To date, it is certainly the case the authorities here have responded far better than their opposite numbers in London. As Theresa May flounders, and a UK parliament that once ruled a quarter of the world tears itself to pieces for the titillation of Britain's foam-mouthed media, it's a pretty low bar. Until Brexit actually happens, describing the response is akin to narrating a swimming race where the competitors are all treading water. It may seem obvious who's most likely to drown, but until they do, it's not very exciting.

That said, Brexit & Ireland delivers real insights.

In particular, Connelly is brilliantly well informed about Enda Kenny's response to the crisis - which he demonstrates was far more methodical, determined and successful than many have given the former Taoiseach credit for.

That's superbly illustrated when Connelly takes readers behind the scenes to show how Kenny, working in tandem with Mark Durkan of the SDLP, delivered a workable Irish unity clause and inserted it into the EU's formal response to the UK's triggering of the Article 50.

Connelly has encyclopaedic knowledge of European diplomatic processes and the political realities of the Border, and is able to use them to great effect.

Kenny, at his final EU leaders ­summit, managed to skirt opposition from British unionists and French legalists to artfully deliver a unity clause that will likely prove an ­important building block for constitutional nationalists in years to come, and now has the standing of law within the EU treaties.

Connelly is necessarily on less familiar territory when it comes to Leo Varadkar, a newcomer to the top table in Brussels. Unfortunately, Kenny is yesterday's man and managing Brexit will ultimately fall to his successor.

Connelly is occasionally frustratingly coy, however, notably in a one-line description of relations between Enda Kenny and Phil Hogan around the start of this year.

"It's understood contact between Hogan and the Taoiseach had become limited," writes Connelly.

A breakdown in the working relationship between Ireland's European Commissioner and the Taoiseach during a national emergency, which is what's hinted at, surely deserves more than a throwaway sentence. I certainly wanted to know more.

Even if the outcome of Brexit is unknowable, Connelly's well-thought-through chapters succeed in uncovering and presenting with fresh eyes the status-quo before Brexit.

As well as insights from Brussels, Connelly's frontline reporting from home is excellent, documenting what many of us have taken for granted; the benefits of interlocking and overlapping social and economic relations north/south/east and west ranging across industry, food, farming and fisheries and family life.

Brexit may sunder all of that, or some, or none. We just don't know yet.

In 1972, Zhou Enlai had, by all recent accounts, misheard the question. He thought he'd been asked his opinion on the 1968 Paris student riots, not the storming of the Bastille. Even at that, he'd have had four years to form a view, still three more we've had since the Brexit vote.

Donal O'Donovan is the Irish Independent business editor

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