Thursday 22 August 2019

Yes, all politics is local, but we neglect external factors at our peril

David Cameron and Enda Kenny
David Cameron and Enda Kenny
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

'All politics is local."

This quote, attributed to many different people, is used a lot in Ireland. Expect to hear it trotted out frequently in the months ahead as the General Election approaches.

At best, it is only partly correct; at worst, it panders to parochialism and breeds complacency.

Politics is about all forces and interests that affect peoples' lives. That amounts to a huge and rapidly broadening range of things. It includes the local, of course, but increasingly it includes the non-local.

Understanding non-local factors, and debating how and why Irish governments can and should try to influence them, is an important aspect of politics.

It is becoming ever more important as they exert ever more influence on everyone's lives.

Last week three events of great significance took place that illustrates this very well.

Terrorists attacked Paris. The Taoiseach went to London to make a direct intervention in the forthcoming British referendum on EU membership. And the boss of the most valuable company that has ever existed came to Ireland.

A great deal has already been written about the awfulness of Paris, so let me say just this: many political choices have to be made to mitigate the (seemingly low) threat level to Ireland.

Questions about surveillance and security, about the education system and integration policies that are chosen to best absorb non-nationals; and about the level of diplomatic and security involvement that is undertaken with our closest allies - European and American - will all have to considered, debated and answered. Ignoring the risks could be very costly.

The Taoiseach's extraordinary and unprecedented intervention in Britain's domestic politics early last week received less comment than it deserved.

"I believe that continued British membership of the EU is in Britain's own best interests", said Enda Kenny to British business leaders 10 days ago. He rightly and accurately described the prospect of Brexit as a "major strategic risk" for Ireland, and, although he didn't say it explicitly, the entire island.

For the leader of one country to go to another country and give his view on his host's interests is usual in international affairs.

It is unprecedented in the relations between the Irish and British states.

Britain drifting away from Europe has always been the stuff of strategic nightmares for Ireland, as it inevitably means being torn between the vital interests of maintaining ties with both Britain and with the rest of the continent.

The need to maintain that balance was to be seen in a comment in the speech that raised eyebrows. The Taoiseach described Ireland's commitment to the EU as "unqualified". This was curious.

Realpolitik demands that states act in their own interests. Although it is hard to see a scenario in which Ireland's interests would not be served by remaining part of the EU, it is not impossible, hence no foreign commitment can ever be unqualified.

As such, it is hard not to interpret this comment as a signal of reassurance to the rest of Europe. Most countries on the continent know how important our link to Britain is and see how great an effort Ireland is making to help secure a deal for David Cameron that he can sell to voters in a referendum. The downside is that it creates, and in some cases reinforces, a view that Ireland is an appendage of Britain or is similarly sceptical about the European layer of governance that is the EU.

If the Taoiseach's intervention was diplomatically unusual, Tim Cook's public utterances a few days later were much more conventional. The California-based boss of Apple was in Ireland as part of a European tour. He arrived here bearing good news. The technology giant, whose total share value (or "market capitalisation" in the jargon of financiers) is the highest of any company in the world now or ever, announced a big additional investment in the company's Irish operation. This is great for Ireland and for Cork, where the jobs are being created.

That Ireland is the European base for many of the most cutting edge global firms is a massive success. They are the most dynamic and innovative part of the economy and are the most important reason Ireland stopped being the poor man of north western Europe in the 1990s.

But being a small country that hosts so many mega corporations is not without its own challenges. While it is in Ireland's interests to give these companies the best possible environment in which to do business, their intrinsic importance means that there is a risk that they "capture" the institutions of state to do their bidding when rules are being made for Europe's single market (access to which is the reason they are here).

Suspicions that Ireland lobbies for non-European companies around negotiating tables in Europe are not uncommon.

The motivation behind the recent case of the shooting down of the transatlantic data sharing deal is a case in point. The Austrian citizen who took the case has been sharply critical of Ireland's data protection set up. Whether these criticisms are fair or unfair, they are widely held across the continent.

Another commonly held view across the continent is that Ireland has facilitated aggressive tax avoidance by multinationals, with Tim Cook's company top of the list. The European commission is expected shortly to publish its conclusions on whether it believes Ireland and Apple broke rules forbidding state aid and, if it does, Apple could be told to pay back-taxes running into the billions.

If the commission finds that the Irish state gave a sweetheart tax deal to Apple, the Government, given that it has so consistently denied doing so, has stated clearly that it will appeal the finding.

It has been observed frequently that it will not be easy for the Government to explain to voters why it is appealing a ruling that would lead to large windfall tax gains.

If such an appeal were to look strange to voters, it will look stranger still to the rest of Europe, and could easily serve to reinforce the suspicions that parts of the Irish state have been captured by multinationals.

The local will always matter to all of us. But the world is getting smaller and intruding in a growing number of ways. A political system that does not adapt to the increasing importance of non-local matters will ultimately fail citizens.

Irish Independent

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