Ireland faces crucial choice in its UK policy

Sat, Jan 7, 2012, 00:00

WORLD VIEW:As greater euro zone integration beckons, Ireland must decide whether to tether its future to a marginalised UK or shift towards deepening participation, writes PAUL GILLESPIE

IF FOREIGN policy has to do with protecting and enhancing a sovereign state’s interests and values in its relations with the rest of the world, Ireland faces a major challenge this year with the United Kingdom.

David Cameron’s veto of an EU treaty on the euro last month virtually ensures the euro zone will be the arena in which deeper integration takes place. Ireland must choose whether to participate and then how best to manage relations with a looser UK no longer a member of the EU’s power centre.

This is a potentially historic moment for British-Irish relations. Conventionally they are not seen as a classical foreign policy issue at all because of Northern Ireland. Containing and resolving the conflict there has been so much the main focus for both governments that the wider interests and values at play between them, including in Europe, have been lost sight of in political debate following Queen Elizabeth’s successful visit.

That is a mistake, since the whole history of Irish nationalism vis-a-vis Britain has had a central European dimension ever since Ireland became involved with continental powers to rebalance the relationship. Britain’s balance of powers strategy also put Ireland centre stage. When Seán Lemass applied to join the EEC 50 years ago this month he said the alternative would “condemn us in perpetuity to a position of economic inferiority” and isolation.

One month later Desmond Fisher, London editor of the Irish Press, interviewed president of the European Commission Walter Hallstein and asked him how the Irish application was going. Hallstein said that he had not even opened it because there was no need to. “If the UK goes in, you go also; if not, you too will stay out. Britain can possibly come in without Ireland, but Ireland cannot come in without Britain.”

In the event they joined together; but already by 1975 the cabinet resolved to stay in even if the UK decided to leave in a referendum, so much had the initial experience been felt as a liberation from Irish overdependence on Britain.

Ireland’s decisions to join the European Monetary System in 1979 without Britain; to support the opening of negotiations on the single European market in 1984 despite British opposition; and above all to join the euro by accepting the Maastricht treaty on economic and monetary union in 1992, notwithstanding British non-participation, confirmed the long-term political strategy of reducing this overdependence.

It was accompanied by a political convergence on Northern Ireland (partly facilitated by more mutual equality and respect in the wider European setting) and also by an ideological and policy convergence concerning the neoliberal verities from the 1980s onwards.

This meant the optimal Irish position on Britain’s European role was to have it at the EU table as fully participant as possible.

This informal alliance was reinforced during the property bubble from 2001 when other links between Ireland and smaller EU states were neglected. That affected the perception of Ireland as a fully paid-up member of the Anglo-American variety of capitalism and the cultural Anglosphere.

The strategic shift in all these positions poses a real challenge for Ireland after the end of that period. Assuming the euro survives (still the most plausible scenario despite the invisibility yet of Germany’s willingness to complete its part of the grand bargain by swapping this fiscal austerity compact for eurobonds and an EU growth strategy), Ireland’s interests and values propel it towards deepening participation.

Unless the UK rethinks its veto (unlikely because of the political pressures on Cameron) it will become an outsider with an interest in the euro’s survival for its economic health, but now a rule-taker not maker. It failed to attract allies at the summit or since.

Increasingly, too, continentals see Britain as a potential subverter of the euro, as its political culture of absolute parliamentary sovereignty reinforced by a more and more vocal Euroscepticism affects its internal as well as its external affairs. English and Conservative Euroscepticism feed Scottish nationalism and may hasten support for independence there (notwithstanding Scotland’s own strong band of EU sceptics).

If that happened Ireland would face large decisions about the possible consequences for Irish reunification. This is not wishful thinking but rational and prudent thinking ahead based on real possibilities now talked about more openly in Britain itself.

All this reinforces the need for a coherent and up-to-date Irish policy towards Britain, above and beyond the existing one based on better relations and the Northern Ireland peace process.

We need smarter alliances with other smaller EU states to ensure the deepening euro zone is not dominated by Germany and France but balanced by common institutions. The UK does not share these interests. The values it shares with Ireland on tax and neoliberal policies will be less influential. And those who oppose the fiscal compact here need to answer hard questions about where an Irish rejection of it in a referendum would position this state – in renewed isolation with Britain?

pegillespie@gmail.com