Sunday 18 August 2019

Brexit: why we always get a cold when Britain sneezes

A UK exit from the EU could be disastrous for us, but our economic relationship with our powerful neighbour has always had its highs and lows

Good neighbours: President Michael D Higgins with Queen Elizabeth during his state visit to the UK in 2014.
Good neighbours: President Michael D Higgins with Queen Elizabeth during his state visit to the UK in 2014.
Enda and David: Please don't go.

Damian Corless

At the start of the week, addressing the Confederation of British Industry, Taoiseach Enda Kenny urged Britain to stick with its membership of the European Union. A British exit would be "a major strategic risk for Ireland". The following day, British Prime Minister David Cameron laid out, in detail, the sort of changes London will be demanding from Brussels.

Enda Kenny's worries were not understated. While Ireland's membership of the EU since 1973 has broadened our economic network, Britain remains by far our most important trading partner, in what has always been a deeply lopsided business relationship. The fortunes of the two islands has been entwined for centuries, and mostly, but not always, to the disadvantage of the place disparagingly known as John Bull's Other Island.

By the time of Britain's wars against Napoleon, Ireland was already the bread basket of the fledgling British Empire, supplying cattle on the hoof, dairy and grain to Britain's serial wartime economy. The benefits went both ways. Embittered with his lack of advancement in England, Jonathan Swift said that we should "burn everything English but their coal", but the fact is that anyone who could afford English coal was shovelling it on their fires. Not only did English coal burn much hotter than Irish turf, but it also had snob value. And so too had the dwellings we think of as traditional Irish cottages. It seems we imported the design from Britain some 400 years ago.

One hundred years ago, with Britain now embroiled in the Great War, the Irish economy was doing quite well, again by supplying our neighbour's war economy. The 1916 Rising broke a bond of trust that had grown between our merchant class and their British counterparts, but after the hostilities of the War of Independence, WT Cosgrave's first Free State administration set about mending fences. This was as much out of self-interest as the national ­interest. Cosgrave's Cumann na nGaedheal party was intimately linked to big farming and business.

Those mended fences were smashed down with the arrival of Éamon de Valera to the seat of power in 1932. De Valera quickly made good on his promise to stop paying residual rent to landlord Britain, sparking an Economic War which would last until 1938. Dev's ­Fianna Fáil placed punitive tariffs on imports from Britain, hiking up the price of everything from cigarettes to sweets. Britain retaliated by placing an embargo on Irish exports and demonstrating who was boss in the relationship.

De Valera made no apologies for the hardships caused by the British boycott which he'd provoked. He bluntly told the country's exporters: "You could not have got out of the rut you were in without having a little shock here or there." Cosgrave told the voters that he would make a deal to restore normal trade with Britain within three days of getting back into office. The voters put their trust in Dev's Ourselves Alone ­mantra. The Times of ­London ­accused Dev of pursuing a ­dangerously insane experiment with 'autarchy', which it described as a "fantastic belief in self-­sufficiency". The hostility expressed by The Times reflected that of Britain's ­establishment, and ­Britain's economic sanctions ­crippled our economy.

No sooner had the Economic War been brought to an uneasy peace than World War II exploded. Ireland's neutrality was viewed in Britain as treachery. By 1943, with the lines to our neighbour cut and damaged, Ireland had settled into a stagnation that would last two decades. It was a sign of the grim times that one of the main planks of Fianna Fáil's 1943 re-election campaign was that we had the most generous sugar ration in Europe.

And the truth was that, compared to our neighbours, we did eat well. While Britain starved on sawdust bread and tiny rations until 1954, good plentiful food was available here to those who could afford it. Shortly after the war ended, Billy Butlin announced he'd be opening a holiday camp in Mosney, Co Meath. This wasn't aimed at Irish ­holidaymakers, but at luring the British in their hordes. The main attraction wasn't the Red Coats or the fun rides but just food glorious food.

Despite the turmoil of 1916 and the following years, Ireland's special relationship with Britain was recognised at the time of independence when it was decided to allow freedom of movement without passports. The rules have been tweaked over the decades but both states largely maintain the Common Travel Area.

In the post-war years, when Ireland plumbed new depths of stagnation, this arrangement opened opportunities in a manner that provided Britain especially with labourers and nurses, while starting a fresh tide of emigration.

In 1951, Ireland's population bottomed to a low not seen for 200 years, with thousands taking the cattle boat to England by the week. The census of that year recorded that tens of thousands of mostly young Irish people were emigrating each year to work in British factories and labour on the rebuilding of England's industrial cities which had been bombed by the Germans.

In the Dáil, questions were tabled to ministers under the heading ­'Emigration of Girls'. One opposition Fianna Fáil Deputy suggested that young Irish girls were being lured under false pretences to ­England, where they were being led off the straight and narrow. He wanted them stopped at the ports.

An Irish priest in Birmingham told of Irish construction workers sleeping "in relays" because they only had access to their beds and tiny flats on a timeshare basis. He remarked: "They have no home life and are forced to spend their leisure in dance halls and public houses where they meet bad characters." Irish journalists following up the story reported that Irish workers over there had to endure living conditions only slightly better than those of "the negro".

Taoiseach De Valera urged the departed masses to return home, although he was short on details of how his moribund economy would welcome them back.

A little boom in the 1960s brought a small reversal in ­emigration and EEC membership in the 1970s poured cash into ­agriculture, but in the grim 1980s, Britain would once again become our nation's economic safety valve.

By that point Ireland had ­survived our decision, in 1979, to break the link with sterling which had joined the currencies in parity, on and off, since the reign of King John in 1210. Even at that distance, the plan was all about England, allowing Irish silver to flow into England to finance John's war with France.

The good news for Enda is that top Tory veteran Edwina Curry has come out in the past week and said she doesn't believe there's any serious prospect of Britain cutting its ties with the EU and putting our special relationship at undue risk.

She argues that while the Brits don't like Europe much they know which side their bread is buttered, and nobody sells them butter like we do.

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