Wednesday 18 September 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'Are we sure we picked the right team in Brexit wars?'

As Leo hailed Brexit victory, did it strike us at all that our interests could be more closely aligned with the UK's than those of the 27, asks Brendan O'Connor

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Downing Street
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Downing Street
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

It is easy to roundly condemn those who booed God Save The Queen at the Aviva last Thursday night. We all nod our heads and stroke our beards and agree that this is appalling, but then possibly connected to the treatment of James McClean over the poppy. But there is an undercurrent as well of classism. The unspoken sentiment among middle-class pundits and right-thinking people is 'You wouldn't catch the rugby lads booing the British national anthem, would you? But these soccer fans… there's a certain element there, isn't there?'

No one considered, that in the current political climate in this country, it's no surprise that people would be booing God Save The Queen. The whole political establishment here has been doing a high-brow equivalent of that for the last two years. We love to talk about how people like Trump create a climate that allows and emboldens racism. Do we stop to consider at all the toxic climate we have created in this country towards our nearest neighbour, our closest ally, and a country to which we are inextricably bound by ties of family and friendship?

As soon as the Brexit deal that wasn't done could be talked about last week, Leo Varadkar was pretty much gloating that we had got far more than we expected. Metaphorically high-fiving a great win and his best day in politics before the dust had settled, before anything was clear. What was clear was that the Taoiseach was seeing this as a zero-sum game. There's a certain amount of pie there and if the Brits got less, we got more. So we had won, taken an extra slice. It wasn't far off gloating. There was talk of a snap general election to capitalise on this great victory over the Brits.

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As it became clear that the deal was less than done, we swapped high-fiving for popcorn in this country as we settled in, yet again, to watch our nearest neighbours tear themselves apart. We might not have adopted quite the smirky smug gloating of the unelected Eurocrats who are enjoying so much teaching the UK a lesson, but we weren't far off.

Our politicians have been clear on this from the beginning. This massive act of self harm has been committed by Britain on itself. And it's not our problem to fix their internal issues. We were clear what side we were on here. We are one of the 27. The UK is not negotiating with us, it's negotiating with the EU. Indeed there was even a warning issued to our government ministers at one point not to get drawn into conversations about Brexit with their UK counterparts.

It was like a couple breaking up who refused to talk to each other directly but did all the talking through the lawyers. Not always a great idea as we know.

Other politicians here took the whole Brexit confusion as an opportunity to start punting for a united Ireland, even running a lame-duck presidential candidate whose primary goal was not to get votes but to keep mentioning a united Ireland. We were in general, all gone a bit Flurry Knox, wondering how we could use the confusion to hoodwink the Brits in some shape or form.

It is true that the UK did this to itself, and it's not our fault or our responsibility. But then again, the EU, of which we are a part, didn't help. It was the EU who humiliated Cameron with a pathetic offering of reforms that were never going to wash at home. And now they've done it to Theresa May.

May was sent home with a deal that was never going to wash, a deal that arose out of a philosophy that Britain needed to be punished or humiliated for wanting to leave the EU. Donald Tusk smirkingly acknowledged this by more or less saying as he was handed the agreement by Barnier that hopefully this will make the Brits decide not to have a Brexit at all.

It was all but acknowledged that the deal on offer was in fact just a strategic move to show the UK that Brexit was a bad idea, to show them who's boss, to show them we had them by the you know whats.

And here in Ireland we firmly only see one side of the battle. We forget that we have spent decades moaning about the EU, that the EU hasn't always been good for us, and that there are very legitimate criticisms of the EU, and that if more was done to address them there might never have been a Brexit.

Giddy from the loyalty shown to us by the other 26, we have decided to sell our biggest trading partner and our closest ally down the river, and to side with the gang against them.

Obviously we weren't going to become Brexit cheerleaders, but would a little bit more nuance not have been the natural position for us? To buy hook, line and sinker into this zero-sum notion, that the worse deal the Brits get the better deal we get, was daft. The truth is of course, and we all know this in some rational part of our brain, that the worse the UK does out of all this, the worse we do.

But we did nothing to help them. We washed our hands of it all, and we created this toxic atmosphere on these islands.

In a way our attitude to Brexit has been similar to that betrayed by Tusk last Thursday: that if we make it hard enough for them, they'll decide not to leave. But that's some gamble we're taking. It's our own version of magical thinking. There'll be another vote, and it will all go away.

No one is foolish enough this weekend to try to predict what happens next, but it seems that a no-deal crash-out is a distinct possibility at this stage.

And when that happens, and it wreaks havoc in our country and in the lives of our brothers, sisters, cousins, friends and trading partners in the UK, will we enjoy so much then the fact that we 'won' these negotiations?

Or will we wonder if we should have taken less of a hard line against our closest neighbour, our biggest trading partner, the country with which we share more in terms of language, culture and blood than we do with the rest of Europe put together?

And what, I wonder, will our friends and allies, the other 26 do for us then, as we become a victim of a bad Brexit, in a way that none of them are? And never forget that. We do not have what you might call goal congruence with our allies in the 27 here. An outcome that could be merely unfortunate for them could be disastrous for us.

You could even argue that, in terms of outcomes here, our interests are actually much more closely aligned with those of the UK. Let's just hope we didn't pick the wrong team.

Sunday Independent

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