Tuesday 19 November 2019

Old enemy has turned out to be our most valued and trusted ally

The presence of David Cameron and William Hague here last week was hugely significant, says Daniel McConnell

Don't be fooled. Last week's historic visit was more to do with current and future politics and economics than it was about history.

In the shadow of Queen Elizabeth, two of Britain's most senior politicians, Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague, were not here simply to make up numbers.

This was extraordinary. While it is normal for a foreign secretary to accompany the monarch on a trip, it is virtually unheard of for the prime minister to be present.

They came to get business done. And that business was alliance-building, to act as a counter-balance to the dominant bullying of France and Germany, of which Ireland has been a repeated victim of since 2008.

Our leaders will do well do make the most of the British overtures of solidarity, given how well we are being treated by our German and French 'friends'.

Last November, Britain also extended an additional bilateral loan to Ireland, separate to the IMF/EU/ECB loans worth €3.8bn, because we were a "special case".

Remember at a recent international meeting of European leaders, it was not Angela Merkel or Nicholas Sarkozy who spoke up in defence of Ireland, but George Osborne, the British chancellor.

Then, last week while in Dublin, standing beside his new best friend, Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, we had William Hague castigating our European friends for not doing enough to foster trade.

So, why all this love bombing from the old enemy?

Of course, the fact that we are massive trading partners is a big consideration.

CSO figures from 2009 showed that Ireland was the UK's fifth-largest export market, with about €28bn exports in total trade.

This accounted for 10 per cent of the UK's two-way trade.

In return, the UK (including the North) buys 16 per cent of Ireland's total exports and is Ireland's largest trading partner, just ahead of the US. Ireland exports €13.5bn in goods to the UK.

Mr Cameron has led business delegations to China and India this year, but trade with Ireland is still greater than its business with the huge Bric emerging economies -- Brazil, Russia, India and China -- combined.

Also, British retailers such as Tesco and Marks & Spencer have a high-profile presence in Dublin, and Ireland is also a crucial market for goods produced in the North -- which is trying to wean itself off reliance on the British public sector for employment.

But Britain's willingness to stand "shoulder to shoulder" with Ireland must also be seen in the wider context of European politics. The solidarity shown toward Ireland since last November is driven by a desire by the Cameron government to re-assert its influence on the European stage, and according to well-placed sources in London, is hoping to exploit the rising disquiet within Ireland over its abusive relationship within Europe.

It is to my mind the case that Britain wants to form an alliance between itself and ourselves to counter-balance the dominance of France and Germany, both at European Commission level but also within the ECB.

Indeed, crucially, Mr Cameron himself instigated his presence here in Dublin last week, as confirmed to me by Enda Kenny's office.

"The Taoiseach and the prime minister agreed when they last met to hold a bilateral meeting.

"Following this, with the Queen's visit taking place the prime minister suggested that this may be an appropriate time to have the bilateral.

"The Taoiseach was more than happy to welcome the prime minister and have the bilateral coincide with the visit," Mr Kenny's office told me on Friday.

Taking a step back from the heightened emotions of last week, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this fact is the clearest signal that Mr Cameron and Mr Hague were here to alliance-build with Ireland.

Even in her speech, no doubt written/cleared by Mr Cameron's officials, Queen Elizabeth subtlety supported such an alliance.

"The lessons from the peace process are clear; whatever life throws at us, our individual responses will be all the stronger for working together and sharing the load," she said.

For decades, the natural and logical close alliance between Ireland and Britain was scuppered due to a deep sense of Anglo-phobia within the Department of Finance and Irish politics generally.

Such pigheaded opposition to a very natural alliance is hopefully consigned to history. As one senior government figure said to me at the weekend, the new Irish-British Chamber is "massively overdue". Ireland, in its weakened state, needs real friends, who seek to do right by us, and at present, Britain is such a friend.

Enda Kenny and his Government should explore, to the fullest, any such alliance, as in my view it can only be in Ireland's interests to pull away from the abuse we are currently suffering at the hands of Germany, France and the ECB.

As this country rightly and proudly celebrated the visit of the Queen here last week, it must be remembered that our oldest enemy has shown itself to be our closest friend.

Sunday Independent

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