Thursday 18 July 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Those hit hardest by the crash must take priority as Brexit nears'

The real fear which haunts the increasingly toxic shouting match over Brexit is that of a second economic crash

BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATERS: Physical infrastructure on the Border, like the Belleek Bridge that links Northern Ireland to the Republic, could be a target for dissident republicans keen to find a trigger to arouse nationalist resentment
BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATERS: Physical infrastructure on the Border, like the Belleek Bridge that links Northern Ireland to the Republic, could be a target for dissident republicans keen to find a trigger to arouse nationalist resentment

Eilis O'Hanlon

Someone once observed that their father would only ever admit to weakness by projecting his feelings on to the family pet. So if asked how he's doing, he'll reply: "I'm fine, but the dog's a bit depressed."

There's an argument to be made that a similar thing is happening in Ireland with Brexit. If pressed, senior politicians will insist that their main concern when it comes to agreeing a withdrawal agreement with the UK, including a legally binding backstop to preserve friction-free movement of goods and people across the Border following Britain's exit from the European Union, is the peace process, and the imperative of not allowing violence to return to Northern Ireland.

But how much of that is just a cover for a far deeper psychological anxiety - namely, a fear that the financial crash is about to play out once more and that this time there may be no getting back on our feet? The North has become the family dog on whom all fears and anxieties can be projected without risking hurt by acknowledging the real terror. That's not to say Northern Ireland isn't important. Physical infrastructure on the Border would be an obvious target for dissident republicans keen to find a trigger to arouse nationalist resentment. It's vital to proceed with caution to deny them that easy recruiting sergeant. There's still something profoundly annoying, though, about the Irish establishment suddenly playing the white knight, riding to Northern Ireland's rescue.

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It's as if those mad Northerners are only ever one small step away from picking up a gun, and need well-meaning outsiders from more civilised places to keep them on the straight and narrow. The assumption is that they couldn't see a customs official checking a lorry load of pigs without pulling down the rifles from the thatch. This attempt to co-opt the North now that it's useful to a wider argument for once, is worse than condescending. It's cynical opportunism.

Whether the politicians at the forefront of promulgating this new wave of nationalist unity realise yet that the North is simply their dog, and that they're using it to express feelings by proxy, it would be astonishing if what really lay at the back of the current political tension was not the economy.

The memory of the financial crash has been seared into the Irish collective consciousness. The country never really got over it.

How could it? Recovery may be under way, placing Ireland at the head of the pack in Europe when it comes to growth; employment figures remain positive; wages are going up - for some. But the crash was a hammer blow from which many have never recovered. Some never will. People lost jobs, and houses - no, let's correct that. They lost homes. Even those who kept their heads above water saw family and friends slip under the surface. Stress took its toll on mental health. Too many took their own lives. Suicide increased by at least 5pc in 26 countries of the EU during the recession; the one exception was Austria.

After the crash, people were even more likely to report poor physical health. Whether they really were sick or not, they felt that they were. They were hurting, even if no medical scan could pick up a physical cause. Psychological trauma doesn't show up on X-rays.

Even those who'd managed to put a little bit aside for that metaphorical rainy day found that the downpour was too heavy, and the value of those nest eggs was quickly diminished, firstly by the fiscal squeeze, and later by dipping in to help out struggling children and other family members.

A paper published in 2012 argued that the financial crash satisfied all the criteria to be characterised as a traumatic event equivalent to severe violence. Freud defined trauma as "any excitations from outside which are powerful enough to break through the protective shield". The author of the contemporary study explained that the nature of such trauma invariably lay in a shocking encounter with "the Real". It describes with chilling accuracy what happened in Ireland.

The beautiful illusions which had sustained the country during the Celtic Tiger were, in an instant, exploded by reality. People's psychological defences were whipped away, leaving them exposed.

As with all cases of post-traumatic stress, that undermined subsequent feelings of safety and equilibrium. If the ground beneath our feet could rock that heavily once, then it could do so again, without warning - not least because of the realisation that, despite being largely intangible, everything which makes up what we call "the economy" - international capital; the markets; money itself - held within it the destructive force of natural disasters.

They can undo and reshape the world in an instant.

Looking back at World War I, the phenomenon of soldiers returning from the front with shell shock is now well documented, but economic wars have casualties, too. The most unfortunate were buried, but many more are still stumbling around, the walking wounded.

Surely the real fear which drives the national disaffection over Brexit is that of being pitched into another economic meltdown, through absolutely nobody's fault in Ireland itself, a double whammy of pain barely 10 years after the last one. Fear is paralysing; it seeps into every part of your life and won't let go. Isn't this what's driving the current anger?

One can see it in the Taoiseach's eyes sometimes when he talks about Brexit. He has The Fear. Leo Varadkar became Taoiseach in 2017 when the hard decisions had all been taken, and the economic indicators were largely positive; the Taoiseach could concentrate on boosting the feel-good factor, through a programme of liberal reform that would teach the country how to be at ease with itself.

Brexit did cast a shadow over his early months, but the moment of truth still seemed some way off. There was time enough to head off the danger. In the meantime, critics were encouraged to cast aside their qualms by climbing on board the patriotic bandwagon.

By the end of 2017, it seemed that Varadkar might indeed be spared the challenge of having to follow up on his bullish threats to derail the withdrawal agreement, as British Prime Minister Theresa May signed up to the backstop. The champagne was cracked open. Warnings that all might not be as signed and sealed as hoped, and certainly not delivered, were brushed aside as negativity.

In recent weeks, that confidence has begun to unravel as it hit the reality (that great enemy again) of British internal parliamentary politics. Now the deadline for Britain to leave the EU is just weeks away, with no obvious way to avoid the least favoured no-deal option.

A report published last year by the Government warned of "severe macroeconomic and trade impacts" on every corner of the economy if such a scenario came to pass. The latest figure is for 55,000 jobs to be at immediate risk. There is talk of seeking state aid from Europe to cope with the economic fallout of losing access to friction-free trade with the UK overnight. That report predicted Irish GDP would drop by 2.8pc were Britain to settle for membership of the European Economic Area; 4.3pc if it signed up to a Customs Union; and a terrifying 7pc in the event of no deal and a chaotic reversion to WTO rules.

According to the free market think tank Open Europe, every single Brexit scenario will result in the Irish economy taking a greater hit than Britain. The harder the terms, the harder the hit. One figure put forward was for a permanent loss of 3.1pc GDP by 2030. The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) calculates the cost at around €1,400 a year for every household in Ireland. Is it any wonder that Leo Varadkar has panic in his eyes?

The Taoiseach didn't sign up for this. He was supposed to be a young and vibrant leader for the good times, not the economic equivalent of a war lord. He might even be wondering if he's up to the challenge. Hence the uncharacteristic blunders of late, such as raising the prospect of having to despatch troops to the Border.

Officials said he was under strain. That's putting it mildly. After months making the country's flesh creep with talk of how disastrous it would be to erect any physical infrastructure on the Border, while insisting that, of course, the Government wouldn't do so under any circumstances, Varadkar has now been forced to concede that they may be powerless to stop it.

Did the Taoiseach and Simon Coveney know their assurances were false, or were they also deceived? Whatever the murky truth, they must be starting to question whether they will be left holding the package of blame when this political game of Pass The Parcel comes to an end. Opinion in the UK will waste no time blaming Ireland's alleged intransigence for whatever chaos ensues. United against Britain for foisting Brexit on its neighbour against our will, Irish opinion will stand with the Taoiseach for a while; but if the economic trauma becomes too great, that loyalty will not last.

And perhaps he will have earned some share of the blame. Politics is the art of the possible. How can demanding what seems impossible from the UK prime minister be a sensible negotiating strategy? If it's not unpatriotic to say so, there does seem to be a contradiction in our own negotiating position, after all.

Brussels insists that the British have no need to fear the backstop because it's in everyone's interests to negotiate a new deal quickly, meaning the backstop need never be activated. But if the EU is so sure that the backstop will never be implemented, why not agree to put a legally binding time limit on it to concentrate minds?

If the British shouldn't fear a backstop, why should the Irish fear a time limit? Likewise, if Brussels doesn't trust the British to come to an agreement before time runs out, why should the British trust Brussels not to keep them trapped in? The UK government has behaved badly, not least in the past week, but the EU is hardly St Francis of Assisi when dealing with the weak, as Ireland knows to its cost.

Whatever the right thing to do - and there might not even be a right thing to do in the circumstances; all options may be woeful - the fact is there is no mood at the moment for giving way, either in London, Brussels or Dublin. Irish public opinion appears to be hardening behind Leo's stance. Everyone's waving the green flag. That old tribal mantra, "you can't trust the Brits", is increasingly heard, and from surprising quarters.

It's hard to have a rational discussion about anything when there's so much negative emotion swirling around. Trying to have it when the country is starting from such a psychologically damaged place is more difficult still. Wise decisions are rarely made from a base of hurt, injury, resentment.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs says "we need to hold our nerve". He may be right. All the cross party representatives and the commentators egging on the Government to stand firm may be right as well. Looking back on the current period with the benefit of hindsight, as we now do on the crash, isn't it at least possible, though, that we'll be asking in 10 years' time whether the path now being taken was as self-destructive as all decisions by damaged people generally are?

The last time the Irish economy hit the buffers, the financial powers that be, internationally and at home, pulled a mind game on the people by saying it was their own fault, for partying too hard, for not reining in the banks, as if everyone else hadn't been making exactly the same mistake in letting amoral money men run riot in the markets. There's no reason to trust a single one of them not to blame the victims of whatever may be about to happen for any pain that it inflicts. These wolves are pitiless.

Having endured the country's worst-ever recession, followed by the humiliation of a bailout that left the country indebted and demoralised as never before, there are swathes of Middle Ireland which simply wouldn't survive being plunged into another crash from which recovery might not be possible for a generation or more, much too late to save them.

Those people need to take priority, but they're not getting a look in right now as the air thickens with macho stubbornness on all sides.

Sunday Independent

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