More to tie us than divide us, says Clegg
No one should imagine that a close relationship between Ireland and the UK requires a sort of identikit approach. It is just that we know that we have so much in common and we are so dependent on each other, that where there are differences, they are handled much more effectively than in the past
At a table in his office in the cabinet office in Whitehall, offering a spectacular view over Horse Guards Parade, Nick Clegg recalls the extraordinary atmosphere at the Excel Stadium during the Olympic Games this summer and watching the Olympic bouts of Ireland’s Katie Taylor and Briton Nicola Adams, who trained in Sheffield, his constituency home.
Unlike some who have spoken since about the atmosphere in the Excel, Clegg was one of the crowd that day. “That was amazing. It was quite extraordinary, it was just amazing.”
For Adams’s fight, “the place was awash with Union Jacks. Straight afterwards, Katie Taylor and, seamlessly, the Union Jacks were replaced with Irish flags. There was an effortless change from supporting a UK athlete to supporting an Irish athlete and doing so with equal fervour.” It was a very moving moment, he says.
“I don’t think you would have had something like that some years ago, you wouldn’t have had this kind of mutual respect with everyone cheering with equal enthusiasm for both,” Clegg adds.
During over two years in power, the Liberal Democrats leader and deputy prime minister has spent more time than most coming to grips with relations between London and Dublin.
“I certainly find that in the 2½ years that I have been in government, that there has been a step-change in the atmosphere of the relationship.
“It was always good, but I think it has reached new heights,” says Clegg, who visits Dublin today for the 33rd Congress of European Liberal Democrats – a body that now includes Fianna Fáil.
From the off, the Conservatives/Liberal Democrats coalition pointed to the fact that Ireland was, until recently, Britain’s fifth-largest trading partner, ahead of Brazil, Russia, India and China combined. Initially, the comparison was used to reflect British industry’s failure to compete on the world stage, but the economic crisis brought home the importance of markets on the doorstep.
Those trade figures have changed, but, he says: “It is still a measure of the massive economic significance to Britain of that relationship. I would certainly counsel against anyone being complacent about the importance of that to us in terms of jobs and investment in the UK.”
The creation of the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce last year has brought home the significance of those trade links, worth up to €50 billion a year by some calculations.
So far the chamber has attracted members who carry out three-quarters of the trade between the countries, although interest in developing it further lies, it has to be said, primarily on the Irish side.
Describing it as “such a familiar relationship” and “effortless”, Clegg goes on: “Because we share so much together, that doesn’t mean that anyone should take it for granted. I certainly don’t. I think, like all strong bonds, they need to be constantly worked at. That is something that I feel and that all of the government feels.”
The coming weeks will put Ireland and Britain in different camps in the negotiations in Brussels on the size of the EU’s budget over the next seven years. “There is also a lot to talk about in terms of the common challenges we now face in the European Union as the EU evolves in the face of the euro zone crisis.”
He adds: “While we may have a great deal of affinity with each other, we are not identical. No one should imagine that a close relationship between Ireland and the UK requires a sort of identikit approach.
“It is just that we know that we have so much in common and we are so dependent on each other, that where there are differences, they are handled much more effectively than they ever were in the past.”
Last year’s joint declaration agreed between British prime minister David Cameron and Taoiseach Enda Kenny highlighted the depth of the relationship that now exists between Dublin and London.
“I think it works on so many different levels. It means that where there are problems you deal with those problems more effectively,” Clegg says .
On the wider EU front, Ireland and Britain share common strategic interests; the single market is “disproportionately significant” to two open economies.
“Great Britain and Ireland are two of the archetypal open, maritime trading nations in our whole hemisphere,” Clegg adds. “That is a culture that we share and it is very much reflected in our shared interests now as the euro zone integrates further to fix the imbalances in the euro zone.
“Whether you are in, or not – Ireland is in, we are not – we all share an economic space which is, in terms of jobs and investments, an absolute lifeline to both of our economies.”