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.”