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Fintan O’Toole: Ireland can be the middle island between the EU and Biden’s US

The crises of 2016 posed huge difficulties for Ireland but have left us in a better place

Winston Churchill famously claimed in 1922 that, as the floodwaters of the first World War began to recede, "the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone" emerged again as the only thing left unchanged by the great cataclysm.

But now, as the aftershocks of the political upheavals of 2016 – Trump and Brexit – begin to diminish, Ireland’s place in the world does not seem either dreary or unaltered.

Just a decade ago, in the midst of the great banking crash, Ireland’s place among the developed nations was among the losers. Its brief moment of global fame, when the Celtic Tiger had seemed to offer a model for all developing economies, had become a mocking parable of hubris and nemesis.

We have, surely, learned enough from that episode not to succumb again to delusions of grandeur. But there is nonetheless a sense in which Ireland may be emerging from very difficult circumstances as a more significant country than it has been since the revolutionary period.


The past four years have been dangerous, unsettling, often grim. With reactionary nationalism taking a grip on both England and the US, Ireland looked like a very small boat adrift in a very turbulent Atlantic.

It may be precisely this interrelationship between Trump and Brexit that works in Ireland's favour

What seemed so threatening in 2016 was the interaction of the British and American crises. On its own, either of them would have been difficult. Taken together, the implosion of the two countries with which Ireland has the deepest historical, social and economic relationships, looked like very bad news indeed. Brexit remains just that.

And yet, it may be precisely this interrelationship between Trump and Brexit that works in Ireland’s favour. They act together now both to weaken Britain’s, and to strengthen Ireland’s relationship to both Europe and the US.

The key to this possibility is not Joe Biden's Irishness. It is his internationalist view of where US interests lie and how they should be pursued. In June 2018, at the Democracy Summit in Copenhagen,  he was interviewed by Nick Clegg. The former deputy prime minister of the UK asked the man who is now president-elect of the United States how he felt about the result of the Brexit referendum two years earlier.

Biden said: “I was not surprised, because in times of confusion and great change I think we all become susceptible to the demagogues – and I’m not saying anyone in particular – and charlatans who in order to aggrandise their power find a scapegoat, find a problem.”

In spite of his polite denials, you don't need a PhD in politics to figure out who Biden was referring to as demagogues and charlatans. In his mind, Boris Johnson and his fellow Brexiteers will always be associated with Donald Trump. No amount of flattery from Johnson, no diplomatic pirouettes, will change that underlying perception.

This is because Trump and Trumpism are not going away. If we were looking at a normal democratic transition in the US, everything would just move on. That was then, this is now – Johnson’s association with Trump would be history, not current affairs, largely forgotten if not quite forgiven.

The problem for Britain is that, for Biden, the 2016 moment can never be in the past. Even when Trump is prised out of the Oval office, he and his party will continue to deny Biden’s legitimacy and to thwart everything he tries to do.

This makes the idea of letting bygones be bygone extremely difficult. Johnson will continue to be associated, not with a past transgression, but with a continuing and existential threat to Biden from charlatanism and demagoguery.

Does this mean that the UK ceases to be an important ally for the US? Of course not. Biden will be trying to rebuild some version of the postwar international order and the UK’s position as a permanent member of the United Nations security council and a bulwark of NATO will continue to carry weight.

So will the UK’s membership with the US (and Australia, New Zealand and Canada) of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing network. Ireland can’t (and shouldn’t) hope to emulate this military and intelligence relationship with the US.

Brexit Britain has resigned from a position that augmented its position in the world

What has changed radically, though, is the renewed value, from an American point of view, of Ireland’s position within the EU. Trump regarded the EU as a “foe” and treated it with hostility and contempt. Biden, as he told Clegg, believes the opposite, that the success of the EU is a vital interest for the US: “We badly need Europe whole, free, at peace – and united, and it is overwhelmingly in our interest that it happen.”

This is where Britain’s usefulness for the incoming administration in Washington is massively diminished – and Ireland’s correspondingly enhanced. Ireland is the obverse of a Trump-Brexit attempt to destroy the EU.

The irony here is that, far from being anti-British, Biden, before 2016, looked to Britain as the bridge between the US and Europe. His anger about Brexit is rooted, not in hostility, but in spurned affection. As he told Clegg: “I was really disappointed [about Brexit], in terms of US interests I was disappointed because you [ie the British] were ballast. If we had any – I want to exaggerate to make a point – if we had any voice in Europe, it was you.”

Brexit Britain has resigned from a position that augmented its position in the world. It was (as Biden acknowledged) an exaggeration to call it America’s “voice in Europe”, but the overstatement had a core of truth. There is now a vacancy and Ireland is, in some respects, the obvious candidate to fill it.

Again, we shouldn’t get carried away. The much-touted idea that Ireland is special because it is an English-speaking country in the EU doesn’t hold much water. Germans and Danes and Slovenians – at the very least those who work in any kind of international context – speak English too. Nor, in the end, do sentimental attachments to ancestral identities ever really trump pragmatic interests.

The opportunity for Ireland, moreover, is not to be an announcer on the Voice of America, a glorified lobbyist for US corporations seeking to avoid taxes and regulation. On the contrary, Ireland’s position is only really meaningful if it is equally useful to, and respected by, the EU and the US.

But even with all these qualifications, the fact remains that England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity. Brexit might have threatened to make Ireland more marginal – an island off an island that has just chosen to isolate itself from Europe. Instead, it has made it Inis Meáin writ large, a middle island between two continental blocs. That is not a bad place to be.