Dan O’Brien on Brexit

Ire­land needs to be the adult in the room — and join­ing the Com­mon­wealth would demon­strate that, writes Dan O’Brien

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Front Page -

IT is not of­ten that the Bri­tish me­dia pays at­ten­tion to Ir­ish for­eign pol­icy de­ci­sions. It is even rarer for an Ir­ish for­eign pol­icy de­ci­sion to get more cov­er­age in Bri­tain than in Ire­land. That is ex­actly what hap­pened last week.

Last Thurs­day, Ire­land for­mally be­came an ob­server mem­ber of the Or­gan­i­sa­tion In­ter­na­tionale de la Fran­co­phonie, an or­gan­i­sa­tion that is the fran­co­phone equiv­a­lent of the Com­mon­wealth. That it was re­ported by Bri­tish jour­nal­ists, but not by Ir­ish ones, is of a sig­nif­i­cance that I’ll re­turn to be­low.

What of the de­ci­sion it­self ? Sign­ing up to the global club of 88 mem­bers and ob­server mem­bers, a grow­ing num­ber of which are not French-speak­ing, was a smart move.

Ire­land is one of the most in­ter­na­tion­alised coun­tries in the world and needs to be plugged into in­ter­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tions and struc­tures. Be­ing at tables, mak­ing con­nec­tions, ar­tic­u­lat­ing na­tional per­spec­tives in in­ter­na­tional fo­rums and, ul­ti­mately, max­imis­ing the num­ber of chan­nels through which Ir­ish in­ter­ests can be pur­sued is vi­tal. Small states need to be en­gaged in this way be­cause they can’t fall back on raw power to de­liver re­sults in a way big­ger coun­tries can. While there are some ben­e­fits of be­ing small, there are more down­sides. In a world where power is still the prin­ci­ple deter­mi­nant in in­ter­na­tional af­fairs, small states must con­stantly work to mit­i­gate the down­sides of their rel­a­tive pow­er­less­ness.

Get­ting in­volved in La Fran­co­phonie de­liv­ers on a num­ber of ob­jec­tives. First, it is a clear sig­nal to France that Ire­land is se­ri­ous about strength­en­ing the two coun­tries’ bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship. This has been a for­eign pol­icy pri­or­ity for Ire­land since Bri­tain de­cided to leave the EU. It is well recog­nised that when Bri­tain ex­its the EU, France and Ger­many will be­come rel­a­tively more pow­er­ful. One only has to con­sider how the pol­i­tics of the eu­roarea func­tions to see that. Hav­ing closer re­la­tions with the EU’s big two is more im­por­tant than ever now that Bri­tain is leav­ing.

A sec­ond ben­e­fit of par­tic­i­pat­ing in La Fran­co­phonie is greater ac­cess and deeper in­ter­ac­tion with coun­tries Ire­land has not tra­di­tion­ally had strong ties with, no­tably in French-speak­ing Africa and south east Asia. That can be of ben­e­fit in many ways, from boost­ing trade to gain­ing votes at the UN when they are needed.

More widely still, join­ing such a club un­der­scores in a con­crete way Ire­land’s sup­port for mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism as a means of man­ag­ing the world. It is a core na­tional in­ter­est of small states to pre­fer rules-based mul­ti­lat­eral or­gan­i­sa­tions which level the play­ing field with larger, more pow­er­ful states.

That brings us nicely back to Bri­tain and Brexit. Join­ing the then EEC along with Bri­tain al­most half a cen­tury ago was a strate­gic gift for Ire­land. In­stead of hav­ing al­ways to deal bi­lat­er­ally with a much more pow­er­ful coun­try, which could dic­tate the terms of en­gage­ment and most of the out­comes, some strands of Ire­land-Bri­tain re­la­tions were mul­ti­lat­er­alised when both coun­tries joined. More strands were in­cluded as Eu­ro­pean in­te­gra­tion deep­ened. A con­crete ex­am­ple of the ben­e­fit of this is that since 1973 Bri­tain has not been able to take uni­lat­eral mea­sures against Ir­ish traders, as it did in the 1930s and 1960s, be­cause Eu­ro­pean law for­bids it. The pro­tec­tion of­fered by the rule of Eu­ro­pean law has been a game-changer in Ire­land-Bri­tain re­la­tions.

For many rea­sons, Brexit is a strate­gic night­mare for Ire­land. The night­mare con­tin­ues to play out this week­end, with Brexit talks on a knife-edge. But what­ever hap­pens, Bri­tain’s de­par­ture from the most im­por­tant mul­ti­lat­eral struc­ture that has ever ex­isted will be bad for Ire­land. The costs are al­ready much in ev­i­dence in Lon­don-Dublin re­la­tions, Dublin-union­ism re­la­tions and in North­ern Ire­land, where one tra­di­tion is over­whelm­ing op­posed to Brexit and the other is widely op­posed to any weak­en­ing of the union that is be­ing pro­posed to pre­vent changes to bor­der ar­range­ments.

Re­duc­ing these costs, pre­vent­ing fur­ther dam­age to vi­tal re­la­tion­ships and lim­it­ing the dam­age of Brexit will be a pri­or­ity for Ir­ish gov­ern­ments for years to come. With Ir­ish and Bri­tish min­is­ters and civil ser­vants no longer min­gling on a daily ba­sis in Brus­sels, al­ter­na­tive ways to en­gage with and in­flu­ence Bri­tain will need to be found.

Twelve months ago this col­umn ar­gued that Ir­ish mem­ber­ship of the Com­mon­wealth would be one means by which Ire­land could par­tially fill the vac­uum cre­ated by Brexit. It would also sig­nal to union­ism and the Bri­tish that Ire­land val­ued its re­la­tions with both, and that we have grown out of the out­dated con­cerns that were once ex­pressed about the Com­mon­wealth club.

Shortly af­ter that col­umn was writ­ten, the Ir­ish and EU side put the back­stop pro­posal on the ta­ble in Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions, osten­si­bly to en­sure no change to bor­der ar­range­ments on this is­land re­gard­less of what sort of trade deal the EU and UK work out for the long term. What­ever one thinks of it as a tac­tic there can be no deny­ing that it has come with costs. It has strained re­la­tions with Bri­tain and se­verely dam­aged re­la­tions with union­ism. And on the lat­ter re­la­tion­ship it is im­per­a­tive to note that it is not just the DUP that is ac­cus­ing Dublin and Brus­sels of at­tempt­ing “an­nex­a­tion”, but also the Of­fi­cial Union­ist Party, which op­posed Brexit but is also op­posed to any deal that carves North­ern Ire­land out of the UK’s cus­toms union and/or sin­gle mar­ket.

There are no down­sides to join­ing the Com­mon­wealth, just as there are no down­sides to sign­ing up to ob­server sta­tus at La Fran­co­phonie. And just as there are mul­ti­ple up­sides to in­volve­ment in the French-speak­ers club, there are up­sides to join­ing the Com­mon­wealth. The only dif­fer­ence is that join­ing the lat­ter has much big­ger up­sides. For Ire­land to join the Com­mon­wealth now would send a pow­er­ful sig­nal to union­ists. It would say that Ire­land has col­lec­tively moved be­yond ves­ti­gial hos­til­ity to Bri­tain and the Bri­tish­ness that is at the core of their iden­tity.

While an­i­mosi­ties among union­ists to­wards the Ir­ish po­si­tion on Brexit have grown over the past year, so has the prospect of a united Ire­land. The path to uni­fi­ca­tion will be per­ilous. As­suag­ing union­ist con­cerns about an all-is­land State would re­quire the ma­jor­ity tra­di­tion to ac­cept their Bri­tish­ness. Join­ing the Com­mon­wealth now would help demon­strate that.

Join­ing the Com­mon­wealth would also send a sig­nal to Bri­tain, which its me­dia would pick up even more quickly than Ire­land’s sign­ing up to la fran­co­phonie. It would sig­nal that Ire­land is purs­ing its in­ter­ests as it per­ceives them in Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions, but is not do­ing so to take ad­van­tage of Bri­tain in its great mo­ment of weak­ness. Join­ing the Com­mon­wealth would sig­nal not only that Ire­land has no an­i­mos­ity to­wards Bri­tain, but that it val­ues its links with the UK and wants to pre­serve and strengthen them even as Bri­tain ex­its the EU.

It is vi­tal that Ire­land main­tains the best pos­si­ble re­la­tions with our near­est neigh­bour. This has not been easy, nor will it be easy in the fu­ture given de­ci­sions taken by the Bri­tish peo­ple and the Bri­tish govern­ment. It will re­quire strate­gic pa­tience and in­no­va­tive think­ing.

Join­ing the Com­mon­wealth would im­prove Ire­land-Bri­tain re­la­tions and re­as­sure union­ism. If Ire­land can join a French-speak­ing com­mon­wealth-type club, the case for not join­ing the Com­mon­wealth it­self has had its last sup­port leg re­moved.

‘For many rea­sons Brexit is a strate­gic night­mare for Ire­land’ ‘Join­ing the Com­mon­wealth would im­prove Ire­land-Bri­tain re­la­tions’

DEALS: EU ne­go­tia­tor Michel Barnier, DUP leader Ar­lene Foster, and cen­tre, DUP Eu­ro­pean Par­lia­ment mem­ber Diane Dodds

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.