Monday 20 May 2019

A national unity government can help us navigate uncharted waters

Taoiseach Enda Kenny spoke in slow motion; his face ashen beneath the make-up. Behind the scenes, officials scattered to compose briefing papers for ministers soon to be pressed for intelligent answers Photo: Tom Burke
Taoiseach Enda Kenny spoke in slow motion; his face ashen beneath the make-up. Behind the scenes, officials scattered to compose briefing papers for ministers soon to be pressed for intelligent answers Photo: Tom Burke

Liz O'Donnell

I have lost count of the umpteen media references to divorce since last Friday. Brexit has correctly been likened to a messy divorce, with all the related trauma for the parties concerned.

As with divorce, both sides are confused about the future, worried about money, security and potential isolation down the road. Irreconcilable differences remain between the parties.

But as the dust settles and some of the doom-laden predictions materialise, there is even a temptation to return to the familiarity of the status quo. Divorcing couples can be so overwhelmed by the magnitude of change that they consider a reversal of the break-up. Newly divorced couples can feel violated, abandoned, anxious and short-changed.

Enlarge these feelings a thousandfold and superimpose them on a country and you get an insight into how the populations of the United Kingdom are feeling this week. Because the Leave outcome was unexpected, politicians in both camps were equally wrong-footed. Voters were left staring at the TV, waiting for political direction on what it all meant.

Nigel Farage, having almost conceded defeat the previous evening, quickly adapted to the surprise win. Boris Johnson - who yesterday bowed out of the race to succeed David Cameron as prime minister - emerged wordless and blinking into a media scrum camped on his doorstep. At the first press event, the nervous Tory victors appeared shell-shocked while delivering phoney eulogies about the outcome and regret for Cameron's resignation.

Out in the real world, the currency and stock markets were crashing. There followed a week of turmoil, including a leadership heave against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and Theresa May had squared up to Boris Johnson in the race for leadership of the Conservative party. European leaders struggled for words, with mixed messages emanating about the departing Brits.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny spoke in slow motion; his face ashen beneath the make-up. Behind the scenes, officials scattered to compose briefing papers for ministers soon to be pressed for intelligent answers. Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin correctly identified a "green jersey" moment where all parties should collaborate to protect Ireland's strategic interests in this challenging new landscape. Dáil Éireann contains an abundance of political and ministerial experience. Our diplomats and officials are second to none and enjoy powerful networks in the EU. But it occurred to me that given the scale of this national economic threat, which will be protracted, Ireland would be better served by a national unity government rather than a vulnerable minority administration beholden to the support of others.

It was unsettling this week that Independent ministers were angling for a free vote on a private members' abortion bill. At a time of an unprecedented challenge to the national interest, a strong government capable of making bold and even unpopular decisions is required.

For the current Irish Government, a Brexit is the stuff of administrative and political nightmares. There are so many fronts to be protected: trade, agriculture and fisheries; currency; the common travel area; a shared border with the North; and the rights of Irish people resident in the UK.

Small wonder the Taoiseach gave short shrift to Sinn Féin's premature call for a border poll on reunification.

To be fair, there is legitimacy in the concerns that a devolved part of the United Kingdom like Northern Ireland or Scotland could be swept out of the EU against the democratic will in both jurisdictions expressed in the referendum. Enda Kenny's expression of this predictably raised Tory hackles.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been admirably sure-footed and Scotland will be in a strong position to argue for a second poll on Scottish independence as an alternative to being forcibly decoupled from the European Union. So the irony is that British nationalism, which so fervently fuelled the Brexit, could be instrumental in breaking up the Union and triggering a constitutional crisis.

By voting Remain, Northern Irish voters went against their First Minister, Arlene Foster, and the Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers. But the signs are that all sides will pull together now to safeguard the economic social and political status of the North post-Brexit. Ireland is well placed in ongoing EU discussions to be helpful to our UK neighbours as well as securing our own strategic interests.

Blaming and punishing the UK for the Leave vote is not the way to proceed. It would better serve the European project, under threat from widespread populist anti-EU sentiment in several countries, to seek a common purpose and talk up all that is good about the Union. Like it or not, EU officials and leaders must accept that the European Union is a political as well as an economic construct. If the politics fails, as has occurred in the UK, the project is democratically unsustainable and no amount of chiding will change it. As US Secretary of State John Kerry said, "nobody should go off half-cocked" or "start ginning up scatter-brained or revengeful premises".

Real efforts too must be made by all to calm down the societal tensions related to immigration which have emerged, particularly in the UK. Grievance about immigration and a perceived loss of sovereignty is widespread in other EU countries and it would be deluded to ignore or make light of the issue, given that it has triggered the current crisis and could prompt copy-cat behaviour in other states.

Having said that, the unfortunate conflation of irregular or illegal migration with a genuine refugee emergency is dangerous. The abject failure of the EU countries to respond competently to the refugee crisis arising primarily from the Syrian war has been a tipping point.

When governments appear incompetent and ineffectual in dealing with challenges like mass migration, the natives get nervous fearing there are no controls. For the last four years that has been both the impression and the reality.

As Europeans, we are now grappling with a shared fast-moving crisis. On Wednesday, veteran journalist Jon Snow ended the Channel 4 News with: "That was the news tonight, heaven knows what will happen next."

Irish Independent

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