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We must be careful that we don't sleepwalk into an economic no man's land like Brexit


Theresa May tried to reassure EU leaders including Taoiseach Enda Kenny at talks in Brussels Picture: Reuters

Theresa May tried to reassure EU leaders including Taoiseach Enda Kenny at talks in Brussels Picture: Reuters

Theresa May tried to reassure EU leaders including Taoiseach Enda Kenny at talks in Brussels Picture: Reuters

Hard Brexit, soft Brexit, slumping sterling, fat fingers, soft borders, hard borders, crumbling Europe, disuniting Kingdom, Article 50 - words and phrases that were virtually unknown a year ago have become common parlance in the lexicon of life following the UK's decision to quit the European Union.

At the moment, any notion that Ireland might follow suit and leave the EU is fantastical, a suggestion mostly dismissed with a sniggering scoff. However, we should note with more than a degree of caution our neighbour's recent history in relation to this matter. As we all know, history has a nasty habit of repeating itself.

The UK's debate on leaving the EU started with a whimper and ended with a bang, brought on by the schoolboy bravado of one David Cameron. This debate on leaving Europe began a decade ago innocuously. Little England Tory MPs vented their disdain as colleagues would rise to their feet to lambaste the chamber about the latest Brussels directive, claiming it threatened their sovereignty as they begged for more bendy bananas.

Since 1993, when true believers in Ukip formed together officially, there has been a sustained period of lobbying for liberation from Europe at any cost. Claims were rarely rebutted with anything more than an eye roll. Mr Cameron captured the national attitude towards the party most effectively when he dismissed members as "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists". Foolishly, he never took seriously those people he didn't rate politically and whom he didn't rank socially. Moreover, British politicians often used the EU as cover for all the bad things as they pointed the finger of blame towards Europe with cries of "they made us do it".

As Brexit rumbles along, the devastating casualties of a rudderless EU continue to wash up on European shores in rubber dinghies like unwanted driftwood. Some politicians would prefer they would just drift back to sea thus becoming someone else's problem. The floating death vessels serve as a daily reminder that the socio-economic political objectives of Project Europe have failed spectacularly. British Prime Minister Theresa May seems determined to prove her detractors correct by doing everything humanly possible to demonstrate that when it comes to Brexit, the plan is to have no plan. Having moved towards a firmer time frame, she then outlined the next stage of her master plan to the European Council of Ministers. The ridiculousness of the UK asking for the same things that they could not achieve when they were actually card-carrying members of the EU seems completely lost on her.

Reduced to the role of an unwanted guest, the reality of becoming the first nation in the history of the EU to break away is beginning to dawn. The greater challenge may ultimately be to keep the UK together, outside the EU. Ireland must look to its own to find solutions for the way forward.

Word on the streets of London is that "Regrexit" looms over the skyscrapers as money men and City workers suffer the hangover inflicted by their brethren. Here in Dublin, the first substantive public discussions will commence in the coming weeks with a Government-appointed All Island Civic Dialogue seeking broad-based views on the implications of the big "B" for Ireland. A laudable initiative by our Government, it will essentially be a cathartic exercise in political expediency, effectively a talking shop allowing all vested business and civic interests to have their say in a semi-public forum. Undoubtedly, many man hours will be lost and a few thousand trees will be felled in a rainforest somewhere - as endless sheets of paper are circulated enabling everyone to have their say.

In the short term, the plan must concentrate solely on prosperity and peace, by firstly addressing progress and then focusing on politics, not the other way around. Protecting business and business interests is paramount if we are to hang on to our tentative recovery. More importantly, business leaders are the people who are best placed to exploit opportunities that might arise from Brexit.

The medium-term goal, presumably, is to stop the assembled representatives from draining all the oxygen from the debate by arguing between themselves while scoring political points for weeks and weeks. It may prove really difficult to prevent parties from playing their party cards, particularly in relation to Northern Ireland. The "unique relationship" we share with the UK will be analysed more closely than a season finale of 'Game of Thrones', with a lot less sex but even more hyperbole. Organisers need to be really careful not to stoke a national debate that results in Ireland going all Eurotrash on the Brussels-based, monolithic EU.

But what of Ireland's longer-term European goals? Together with the Apple tax ruling, Brexit is undoubtedly our greatest challenge. Both complex issues prompt a more fundamental question. Not what our place in Europe will ultimately be, but whether we have one at all.

By default and not by design, we have an ideal opportunity to have a substantive debate about our future place in Europe now. But that will only happen if the people who are the most important are placed at the centre of the debate. Business leaders and economic experts must inform and lead the discussion from the outset so that we can all understand fully the implications of any options that lie ahead.

One hopes that the body politic has learned from the mistakes made during the EU/IMF process. In particular, that the considerations and conclusions of the debate are shared with the public proactively and in a timely and cogent manner.

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Ireland joined the EU initially as an economic alliance, grounded in providing better jobs and more favourable economic conditions for Irish people. A return to the core principal would be a helpful starting point before politics and point-scoring cloud the imaginative thinking we would like to see. Consolidating the associations built and nurtured during the peace process in north-south, east-west relations are crucial, so are our European contacts and the knowledge base of our civil service.

Radical new ideas must be explored to prevent us making the same mistakes as the UK, which sleepwalked its way out of the EU. The handling of the referendum and what happened in the immediate aftermath made the British political establishment look like a slapstick horror movie that fell somewhere between Dad's Army and Suicide Squad. No one wants a sequel. The word Brexit itself is currently at the top of worldwide popularity for dictionary look-ups. Small wonder that it holds first place in the US, Australia, Canada, and India. Ironically, it does feature in the UK top 10, but only comes in at number four. Bewildered Brits are occupied with looking up other things - such as democracy, racism and xenophobia. Maybe if the British establishment and civic leaders had done a better job of explaining these things before the referendum took place, they may have avoided the international pickle they currently find themselves now.

Let's not fall in to the same trap. As this paper has urged before, the Government must appoint a Minister for Brexit, and maybe not a political one.