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We need a de facto western alliance to rebalance EU

ABOUT 20 years ago, when I had even less sense than I have now, I got into the habit of unburdening myself of the opinion to eminent people that I believed 1916 had been a wrong turning in our history.

When I put it to John Hume, it was to my surprise that he replied simply, "I agree with you."

I got an entirely different reaction when I put the same thought some time later to Charles Haughey.

He went ballistic, fulminating about my lack of patriotism and my complete failure to understand Irish nationalism.

When I pointed out that John Hume had agreed with me, his reply was venomous: "Hume was always a f***ing Redmondite." There were few greater insults in Charlie's powerful pejorative vocabulary.

I, being a bread-and-butter man myself, have an ingrained habit of running everything I see and hear through an economic filter. Therefore, I searched in vain for some irony in Mary McAleese's marvellous speech in Dublin Castle last Wednesday evening, when

she said: "I am deeply proud of Ireland's difficult journey to national sovereignty."

Fair enough, but in the last few years, we have managed to give a lot of that very sovereignty away to Frankfurt-Brussels, and unfortunately they are the bits that really matter, our bread-and-butter, no less.

With hindsight, I believe we would have been better off to have rejected the Lisbon Treaty. It would, I am convinced, have enhanced rather than diminished our leverage with the EU.

The powerfully moving events of the Queen's visit last week will be closely watched in Frankfurt. But their cold eyes will fall particularly on the roles of David Cameron and William Hague.

They seemed to me to be men with a purpose that went well beyond the magic of the Queenfest itself. It was a purpose both economic and political.

Their contribution to our bailout was real recognition of how important our trade is to them, and their belief is that we will have to grow our economy again if they are to get their money back.

Hague put it pithily: "Commerce and business are the only way to create jobs and opportunities, and not government spending. The EU could be doing more to foster trade."

How often do we hear such thoughts from an Irish politician? Next to never, in my recent memory. They prefer to pretend that they have the power to create jobs (incidentally, I think few people believe them anyway).

It is my hunch that Cameron and Hague have an historic agenda, apart from monthly trade figures. It is to explore ways of pushing back the ruthless economic hegemony of Germany and its French collaborators.

A de facto western EU alliance of Ireland and Britain which, from our point of view, must be focused on retaining access to the single market while loosening the stranglehold of the euro (rather as Britain has done) would certainly cause more than a little bit of angst in Frankfurt.

Much has been said in the last few days of our tormented two-way history, and the iconic and powerful symbolism of the state visit should help to ease at least some of that trauma.

The Queen could hardly have put it better: "Of being able to bow to the past, but not be bound by it," she said in Dublin Castle.

It does not really need saying that we have much more in common with Britain than we have with Germany. Our blood ties are very strong, the "golden thread" as the Queen called them,

And, after all, they gave us 12 points in the Eurovision.

My hope is that our side will have the independence of mind and vision to go strongly for a rebalancing of power in the EU

I don't see much sign of it, but I believe that Eamon Gilmore will be more receptive than most to the ideas put forward by Hague when it comes to building commerce, trade, as well as developing economic and political muscle in Europe. Gilmore's anathema to the 'Frankfurt prescription' is on the record.

For me, one of the heartening moments last week was the reference by GAA President Christy Cooney, in yet another of the week's several fine speeches, to that greatest of Irish conmen, the brilliant Brendan Bracken.

Bracken has languished long in a black hole of history somewhere in the middle of the Irish Sea, regarded here as a man who betrayed his birthright (Templemore-born, his father JK Bracken was a founder-member of the GAA) and regarded with suspicion in London as an opportunist and an adventurer of very dubious origin.

Cooney used the Bracken story as a metaphor for the tangled history of Ireland and Britain.

Bracken, a staunch friend and ally of Churchill's through the wilderness years (much to Clementine's disapproval) was rewarded with the Ministry for Information on Churchill's remarkable rehabilitation and ascent to power in July 1940. As a superb financier and journalist, he was pivotal in the establishment of the Financial Times, still published in Bracken House, the Irish edition of which is printed today in Midland Web Printing in Birr, only 20 miles from Bracken's birthplace.

Cooney could not have picked a better example in order to capture in one man's story the complexity of our relationship with Britain. Bracken, like tens of thousands of Irishmen and women, arrived in London with small savings (put together in Australia) but like them with boundless confidence and optimism.

He blagged his way into the British Establishment, was elected Tory MP for Paddington (without any help from Churchill) as a young man, and became very rich and influential.

Not all Irish emigrants did as well. Some did, some didn't. Many ended up in lonely rooms in Shepherd's Bush and Kilburn, the pub their only true home. But they hung in there rather than go back to Ireland where their failure would be plain for all to see. They were fine, decent, good and often ridiculously generous people. And they, too, are part of the story.

That is just one of the reasons why I am certain the people of Ireland, quietly in their sitting rooms, took the Queen to their hearts last week. After the first 24 hours, the interminable, nit-picking babble about the pros and cons died away as this magnificent elderly lady earned our respect and affection for her real interest in what we were up to, for her sheer staying power, for her beautiful coats and dresses, and for the strong sense we got that she was fulfilling a long-held, deep desire in coming to see us.

And, indeed, we were pleased to see her, too!

Sunday Independent