Leverage and the lack of it


THERE IS either a quality of deep naivety or cynical politicking to the drumbeat of calls for Ireland to “leverage” its referendum to wring concessions from our European partners on the infamous Anglo promissory notes. The “historic opportunity” has been raised by Éamon Ó Cuív in the course of his resignation/sacking; by Opposition TDs; and even by Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton, who told the Financial Timessomewhat more obliquely – the message, the same – that movement by our partners “would be helpful” to a Yes vote.

 Yet her party leader, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, has explicitly rejected any linkage, and Taoiseach Enda Kenny in Brussels yesterday reiterated the point. The two issues were “entirely separate”, he said; the Irish people would not be bribed.

Mr Ó Cuív’s position is contradictory – he has also decried the allegedly anti-democratic nature of the EU, even dusting off his Eurosceptical credentials from the 1972 accession referendum and Nice 1. Are we to assume that such reservations could be shelved if more cash were successfully negotiated?

But what the argument betrays above all is a deep misunderstanding about our partners’ interest in a Yes vote. There is, it is true, a kindly disposition to Ireland, a friendly hope that we succeed, and some respect for what we have done. But there is no sense, as there was during the Lisbon debates, that what we do affects their vital and immediate interests, no national imperatives that require them to pour billions into attempts to secure a Yes vote. Unlike Lisbon, an Irish No will not stop the train, which can and will trundle along happily without us if necessary.

That’s not to say the Government should not continue to pursue a deal on the Anglo notes, the interest rate on which is about twice that of the bailout, which could save the country billions. Cutting the interest rate would not impose losses on anyone, but only mean forgone excessive returns. The troika is said to be sympathetic although there is concern about the timing of any overt bid – fear of suggesting Ireland may not be coping or of raising expectations in others. A Government linkage of the issue to the vote would also be politically foolhardy, not least because it would raise public expectations against which an unsuccessful bid would be measured.

There is also in the tenor of the linkage demand, an unfortunate hangover from the tendency in the past to see the EU simply as a cash cow, to which supplicant Ireland returns periodically cap in hand, a them and us attitude, rather than one which embraces the union as an alliance of equals engaged in a common project.

Ireland’s structural and cohesion funds, no less than the billions received in agricultural support, were not bestowed as acts of generosity or charity, but as means to support common policies, whether the levelling of the single market playing field or the sustaining of a viable farm sector. They were the price paid by partners for access to markets, a mutually beneficial exchange. Any case for a deal on the promissory notes has to be made with that reality in mind.