Saturday 21 September 2019

Yes, Angela, we are a special case and we are due some payback

German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photo: Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters
German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photo: Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters

Eamon Delaney

The phrase about rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic as a metaphor for pointless activity at a time of crisis is often overused, but there is no better way to describe the current Irish political scene as we blithely gaze down at the icebergs and wreckage of Brexit.

Having ignored the issue during our recent election, our main political parties continue to evade their clear responsibilities and instead watch each other more closely than they do the international situation, as they play the 'who'll pull the plug' game on their ramshackle 'new politics' arrangement.

Truly, we are in the 'Republic of Limbo', as both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil play to their own interests rather than those of Ireland - both parts of Ireland, given the way Brexit is playing out.

Last week, in Berlin, a depressing slap-down took place which has almost been lost sight of. At a press conference, the Taoiseach was rebuffed by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who told him we would be just one of the voices to be listened to amongst the 27 EU member states.

Merkel said she was not prepared to issue any 'guarantees' to the Irish Government and insisted the concerns of all states would be treated equally at the negotiation table.

Kenny had been making the quite reasonable argument that we are a special case, given we have a land border with the UK, and more particularly, we have a common area called Northern Ireland in which a fragile peace has been built on the clear understanding of a removal of a hard border, security controls and a fluidity between the two parts of Ireland.

Northern Ireland may still be part of the United Kingdom, but the peace there is based on a clear understanding of an acceptance of the Irish dimension.

If Merkel doesn't get this, then she needs a history lesson. Yes, there are plenty of contentious borders in Eastern Europe and areas of ethnic tension, but Northern Ireland saw one of the most prolonged and difficult conflicts in the world, but most importantly, in Western Europe, and Merkel should know well that it was a running sore in Europe, and for the EU, with immense divisions, misery and grief.

Any return to this instability and conflict would be unthinkable.

In an unusually eloquent and passionate response, the Taoiseach quite rightly described the North as a "fragile entity".

"We have had, over 30 years, 3,000 people blown up and shot and killed," he said. "We also have some people who are still missing from that time, and they are called 'the Disappeared'. I always remind people of the value of the EU, which is itself a peace process."

The latter is a point that should particularly resonate with the Germans and the French.

Wake up, Angela.

Lest one thinks this is a dramatic reference, just look at the warnings about Brexit made before the vote by Jonathan Powell, one of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement. Writing in the 'Financial Times', Blair's former adviser said Brexit was entirely against the whole spirit of the agreement.

But his warnings went unheeded in London and in Belfast. And in Dublin, incidentally, where we meekly accepted that the Northern Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, a supposedly strict neutralist, could campaign to have Ireland split between EU and non-EU.

But now Brexit has happened, and we have to live with it and the North has to live it. So the least that the EU, and Germans, could do is treat us, and the North, as a special case. (And, how easily we accept, incidentally, that the Germans speak for the EU, a distortion which fuelled the recent Brexit vote and is fuelling Euroscepticism here. Watch this space.)

We have to hope that Merkel's dismissal is an initial holding response, characteristic of her usual caution. But if this is the attitude, then it is very worrying. Granted, we cannot expect an immediate dispensation, or opt-out, and Merkel did acknowledge the existence of the Common Travel Area since 1922, long before the EU was ever thought of. But her tone-deaf inability to see our special situation is very worrying.

We've been here before in expecting special favours from the Germans, and the EU. We were supposed to be 'exemplary Europeans' enjoying best pupil in class status for exiting the bailout, but we got nothing.

And we weren't allowed to burn the unsecured bondholders in Anglo Irish Bank when we took a hit for the European banking system.

So much for Germany being our friend, or indeed, of Enda having a special relationship with Merkel. But then didn't Merkel and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy (the famous old 'Merkozy' axis of the EU) try to get Enda into a corner and force Ireland to surrender its gold-plated 12.5pc corporate tax rate, as a condition of the EU bailout.

And so much for German payback for when we supported them on German reunification in 1990, well in advance of the UK and French who wanted a go-slow. That was another special case, surely of a divided country - and a tricky EU context.

In reality, the Northern Ireland peace process is actually a great US foreign policy achievement, right through from the Clintons to George W Bush and peace envoys like Gary Hart and Richard Haass. A corresponding conspicuous involvement from the EU has been absent, apart from throwing money at it in regional funding.

And here's the further proof of this hands-off attitude, with the German Chancellor's slap-down of our special situation.

Does Merkel, and the EU, even get it, or get the North and how fragile it is?

Well, now is the chance for the EU to show the same seriousness that the US has and see it as a special case and take the same chances for enduring peace.

It is payback time surely, and if the EU won't take heed we may have to pursue our own path, including with the non-UK itself.

Irish Independent

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