Sunday 15 December 2019

Ireland's attempt to influence Brexit vote is worth a shot

'There are up to half a million Irish-born people in Britain who are entitled to vote; there are 1.2 million Irish voters north of the Border; and there are an estimated 140,000 British citizens living in Ireland who are entitled to vote. In a tight contest, that is a chunk of political trade well worth bidding for.' Photo: John Stillwell/PA Wire
'There are up to half a million Irish-born people in Britain who are entitled to vote; there are 1.2 million Irish voters north of the Border; and there are an estimated 140,000 British citizens living in Ireland who are entitled to vote. In a tight contest, that is a chunk of political trade well worth bidding for.' Photo: John Stillwell/PA Wire
John Downing

John Downing

It is all too easy to dismiss Enda Kenny's visit to Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow, which starts today. Guessing the Irish reaction to a British prime minister visiting Cork, Limerick and Waterford to urge a particular EU referendum vote requires no great leap of imagination. The kindest response would be to ignore it - but the nationalist 'rhetoricometer' would probably do handstands.

But this one definitely is different when viewed from the other side of the telescope. Yes, this is an issue for the British people - and they alone must make up their minds.

Still, the outcome of next Thursday's vote has huge implications for everyone on both islands on Europe's periphery. Ireland is entitled to strongly state its view - even though citizens in this jurisdiction do not actually have a vote.

Britain is our biggest trading partner and Ireland is a very important customer for British exports in world terms. The unique position of Northern Ireland has totally interlinked the interests of both islands. Britain and Ireland have worked effectively together as EU member states for 43 years.

There is also the simple reality that many Irish people actually have a vote in this referendum. There are up to half a million Irish-born people in Britain who are entitled to vote; there are 1.2 million Irish voters north of the Border; and there are an estimated 140,000 British citizens living in Ireland who are entitled to vote.

In a tight contest, that is a chunk of political trade well worth bidding for. Irish political leaders must have some influence here.

These groups may be added to by a number of British people who feel some affinity with Ireland and might factor in some consideration of that into their voting decision.

Millions of people in Britain claim some kind of link to Ireland and their goodwill has survived some trying and dark days.

Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan has insisted he has no wish to "over-egg" Irish potential to influence the vote. There are a total of 46 million people entitled to vote in this referendum - the would-be 'Irish element' of this could be in or about 10pc.

But you must then consider turnout. In the last British general election of May 2015, 66pc of voters came out to vote. That of itself adds to the case for Ireland making a bid to have its voice heard.

It is hard to overstate what is at stake here.

So far, the Irish effort has focused on influencing British business in Ireland, Irish business in Britain and the Irish communities. And thus far, the message seems to have been reasonably well modulated.

It has been couched as "friendly advice from a good neighbour, stressing mutual benefits". Of course, it has antagonised some urging a 'Leave' vote. And it has been rejected by some in the Irish community who feel they have been "excluded".

It has not, however, encountered any mass hostility. Does that mean Ireland's effort, which has seen senior ministers visiting Britain for some weeks now, is ineffective? Perhaps it is just that. It will be a hard one to gauge, whatever the outcome next week.

And what is the view in political circles around Leinster House on what that outcome will be? One senior official recently confided: "My head says they'll stay. My gut says they will leave."

Politics is first off a 'gut business'. We may well be bracing ourselves for some very challenging times.

Irish Independent

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