Noel Whelan: Remain side hoping for status quo effect

Irish government would be remiss if not making known risks of Brexit for State

Noel Whelan: “The most significant impact of a vote for Brexit would be further dramatic political and economic instability within the EU at what is already a vulnerable time.”

Noel Whelan: “The most significant impact of a vote for Brexit would be further dramatic political and economic instability within the EU at what is already a vulnerable time.”

 

Referendums campaigns are peculiar political animals. They give rise to alliances and divisions other than along traditional political fault lines or established patterns of party support. Voters engage in referendums in different ways at different stages. Most people only tune into referendum debates in the last week or 10 days. More often than not those debates end up being shaped by issues other than those actually posed in the referendum question itself.

The current referendum campaign in Britain is no different. For months it has been dominated by noisy squabbling within the governing Conservative party or between those in the government Remain camp and Ukip. Now, however at the crucial final phase, Downing Street and the Remain camp has had to acknowledge that David Cameron’s leadership of its campaign is ineffectual and that instead voices that appeal to Labour and other middle ground voters need to be heard. The Remain campaign also seems only belatedly to have woken up to the potency of concerns about identity and immigration in shaping the outcome of this referendum.

Better job

The campaigning organisation Irish4 Europe, which has been involved in an effort to persuade and mobilise the Irish community, has done a better job than the wider Remain campaign. The prominent involvement of voices like Michael O’Leary, Patrick Coveney and Mary McAleese making the case against Brexit has ensured a reach beyond traditional politics. Even Bob Geldof has had an impact, notwithstanding his colourful encounters with Nigel Farage on the Thames on Wednesday. In Ireland efforts by the European Movement, Ibec, Ictu, and more recently the political parties, to persuade Irish people to reinforce the message with friends and relations in the UK have also had an impact.

The most important messaging to the Irish in Britain, and indeed to many people living in Ireland who are registered to vote in Britain, has come from the Irish Government itself. Earlier this year Irish officials and politicians displayed traditional reluctance to involve themselves in the internal politics of another country. Now, however, such caution has been thrown to the wind.

A parade of Irish Ministers has engaged in direct campaigning in Britain and Northern Ireland, culminating in the Taoiseach’s timely visit to Manchester and Liverpool yesterday and today. The Government should ignore those who question this involvement. This is no time for diplomatic squeamishness.

Vital Irish political and economic interests are at stake in the Brexit referendum. Brexit would affect the free movement of persons, services and goods on this island and between the two islands.

It would tie us up in prolonged and uncertain negotiations with the European Union and the United Kingdom on the how thousands of regulations would operate in the changed situation. For half a century Ireland’s foreign and economic policy, and indeed our Northern Ireland policy, has been built on the premise of mutual membership in what is now the EU.

The most significant impact of a vote for Brexit would be further dramatic political and economic instability within the EU at what is already a vulnerable time.

Any Irish government would be failing in its national duty if it didn’t make the risks for Ireland, for the Irish in Britain and for Ireland in Europe known within the referendum debate. A preachy or overbearing approach from the Government would not be welcomed, but the cautious and reflective tone that Irish Ministers have adopted is working, not only with the Irish community, but also in countering the anti-foreign sentiment underlying the Leave argument.

Another rule of referendums is that in the last week they come down to a small number of closing arguments. The key now for the Remain side is to focus on the final messages to voters as they reflect before they go to the polls and on who should be the last voices voters hear.

The research suggests that this closing argument has to be about the uncertainty that goes with Brexit and it’s likely negative economic consequences, not only for Britain generally but for individual voters and their households. That is why in recent days the head of John Lewis, the department store, has talked about Brexit leading to higher prices and why other large employers have warned of job losses.

‘Brexit budget’

It is also why the UK chancellor has said a supplementary “ Brexit budget” would be required, which would involve tax increases. Of course this leaves them open to suggestions of engaging in a rerun of the “project fear”, which determined the 2012 Scottish referendum. Such tactics are unpalatable but they usually work.

As the London-based election analyst Michael Smithson has pointed out the “status quo effect” was crucial in the closing days in the two Quebec referendums and in the Scottish referendum. For Ireland’s sake it is to be hoped a similar “don’t risk it” effect operates next week on the minds of enough British voters.

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