When you've been top dog so long, equality means losing out
The Brexit referendum campaign has given us all a comprehensive insight into the British psyche and polity. Those wonderful unscripted vox pops with ordinary voters on the TV are miles more instructive than all the talking heads and political experts digesting the polls and interrogating the conflicting predictions.
Because we Irish have ‘skin in the game’ and a strategic national interest in the outcome, the Brexit campaign has dominated our news and media. Not only that, our ministers have been campaigning to get the Irish in Britain to support the ‘Remain’ side.
It was worth doing, and given the close margins the Irish vote is influential. But some of my contacts in London were exasperated to report a significant ‘Leave’ vote among the Irish. A measure, perhaps, that they are so integrated they are thinking like British people.
Personally, I would find it impossible to be associated with the themes and people behind the ‘Leave’ campaign. The barely masked racism and narrow British nationalism are characteristics I associate with ignorance and intolerance. But then, how to explain the vigorous support of Brexit amongst so many educated and intelligent Conservative MPs and ministers? Of course, there are rational and arguable reasons to question whether the UK – or any EU country – could prosper and do equally well outside of the European Union.
After a decade of European recession, security threats and unprecedented migration, it is perhaps inevitable a sizeable number of people have grown more sceptical about the value of the European project. The rise of ultra-nationalist parties like Ukip in many other European countries is all part of a shift in political sentiment accompanied by an irritation over loss of ‘control’ to the European institutions. Moreover, there is a searching for someone or something to blame for the ills that have befallen us.
Add to this the fact that the British were always reluctant EU club members. I recall over 20 years ago, hearing a Tory MEP in a debate scoffing at the alleged money-grabbing instincts of the less-developed areas.
“A region,” he bellowed like a character in an Evelyn Waugh novel, “is a place whose fund is coming”. So Euroscepticism among Tories goes back a long way, particularly over the distribution of funds by what Boris Johnson called “unelected tin-pot figures”. Britain’s place in the world and ‘sovereignty’ loomed large in the debate. Having ruled the waves for centuries, won wars, developed into the fifth largest economy in the world, it did not come easy to pool sovereignty with other EU countries and be bound by EU directives.
Parity of esteem and clout for small and poorer countries like Ireland and Greece was hard to swallow. When you’ve been the top dog for so long, equality means losing and ceding power to others.
And to be fair, the complaints of a democratic deficit made by the ‘Leave’ side are not imagined. There has long been a broad acceptance, even by those who support the EU, of a missing link or disconnect in the democratic European project.
As a former minister who attended Council of Ministers meetings in Brussels, I recall it was an underwhelming experience. The permanent representatives of each state, or resident ambassadors, usually have the business done and dusted before the hapless minister arrives off an early flight from Dublin, blinking into the bright lights of the bureaucracy.
This is the so-called loss of ‘control’ so frequently cited by the ‘Leave’ campaign. There is a dull lethargy too in the processes of the European institutions. I remember being in the European Parliament chamber after the 10 eastern European countries joined. I had been asked to consider contesting the European elections. The sheer numbers of seats in the Parliament, having come from the Dáil chamber of 166 members, was awesome. It looked more like a football stadium than a parliament.
Talking to MEPs, I learnt that apart from endless travel, a proliferation of committees and party group meetings comprised the schedule of an MEP. Having served as a minister with executive powers in Ireland, the prospect of drifting around this enormous political campus did not appeal. Nothing was immediate; everything took forever and was unreal, or so it seemed to me as an observer. But for all its faults, Ireland’s membership has been positive overall, not only economically but on social and workers’ rights.
The entire equality agenda emanated from the EU. Our membership of the EU has been a progressive force, liberating us from our traditional dependence on the UK and facilitating direct access to a mass market for our exports. For Ireland to leave the EU would be unthinkable. But our experience has been different to that of our nearest neighbour. Immigration on the scale experienced in the UK is unknown here and, if we are honest, would face considerable public resistance if it came to our door. Ireland of the welcomes is an untested slogan.
Whatever about the economic arguments, the greatest passion in the Brexit campaign has been generated by issues of national identity and immigration. And we know from our own history on this island, identity-based arguments run deepest. Few people expected the referendum would unearth such anger; the white heat of it has upended British politics, polarising parties and communities exposing racism and ultra-nationalism. In the final week of the campaign, a Ukip poster disgracefully showed an image of a long line of refugees. It screamed ‘Breaking Point’. Within hours, a young Labour MP, Jo Cox, a fervent ‘Remain’ campaigner and advocate for Syrian refugees, was murdered in the street. She was killed because of her political views.
Shocking things are being normalised in the course of democratic politics in the developed world. Politics has sunk to new lows of language and tactic. Irish women TDs were right to speak up about the online abuse and threats they suffer for their political views. Time to take this seriously if elected women are not to be bullied off the pitch – or worse – by misogyny.