Stephen Collins: Pooling national sovereignty has given Ireland great clout

Brexit saga shows Ireland can play a part in grown up world of international politics

Whatever form Brexit takes on January 1st the whole sorry episode illustrates how Ireland has become a country capable of playing its part in the grown up world of international politics while the United Kingdom, for so long a leading power, has set off in pursuit of an outmoded version of national sovereignty.

Look at the way in which the government here and its officials responded to the British referendum decision to leave the European Union by setting out on a concerted diplomatic effort to ensure that whatever happened after Brexit there would be no return to a hard border on this island.

That campaign, initially spearheaded by then taoiseach Enda Kenny, ensured that the Irish Border became a key issue in the withdrawal agreement drawn up by EU and UK negotiators. It led to political convulsions in Britain where there was genuine astonishment that the EU had shown such solidarity with Ireland.

As this country has learned the hard way, the most beneficial use of sovereignty is to use it in such a way that everybody wins

The so called Irish backstop led to the downfall of Theresa May and the rise to power of Boris Johnson on a pledge to abolish it. Last year Leo Varadkar as Taoiseach did facilitate Johnson in getting rid of the backstop but only by agreeing to a front stop called the Irish protocol which ensured there would be no land border. Instead an effective trade border was drawn down the middle of the Irish Sea.


Efforts to backtrack

Johnson’s recent efforts to backtrack on that agreement came to a humiliating end this week after international pressure, not only from the EU but from the incoming US president Joe Biden, led to a British climbdown. It should be said that there was also massive internal pressure in the UK against breaching international law with the offending clauses in the Internal Market Bill being rejected by the House of Lords.

The deal between the EU and the UK about how the Northern Ireland protocol will operate, in the absence of a trade deal, was achieved after intensive negotiations between an EU team led by the European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic and British cabinet office minister Michael Gove.

The agreement to protect Irish interests, regardless of the outcome of the trade talks, represents another important moment in our membership of the EU. It is the product of the commitment to the European politics shown by successive Irish governments led by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael ever since we joined the EEC in 1973.

Exercise influence

The fact that Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe was elected chairman of the influential Eurogroup of finance ministers showed how this country is able to exercise influence at EU level.

At the core of the Irish approach since joining the EU has been the realisation that pooling national sovereignty with others is the only way a country can thrive economically and have an influence beyond its borders in a variety of other ways.

This has not always been the case in our independent history. We began almost a century ago with a bloody civil war fought over different definitions of sovereignty and then in the 1930 fought an economic war with the UK so that the “ourselves alone” definition of independence could be exercised to the full. The outcome was economic devastation which forced almost million people to emigrate in a few decades to seek a better life in the very United Kingdom from which we had withdrawn.

Things were so bad in the late 1950s that the population had fallen to 2.8 million and people began to question seriously whether independence had been a mistake. This state of affairs prompted a fundamental rethink about where we stood as a nation so in the 1960s we began the process of entering the modern world which culminated in joining the EEC.

That was the catalyst for the emergence of modern Ireland with its strong export-orientated economy which has transformed living standards to such an extent that the population has risen to five million.

It also set in train a series of massive social changes which has made the Ireland of today virtually unrecognisable from the one that so many people fled in the 1940s and 50s.

It is ironic that now that we have reaped the benefits of pooling our sovereignty with our European neighbours the UK is setting off on a course dominated by an obsession with national sovereignty which is likely to do untold damage to the country’s economy over the coming decades.

As this country has learned the hard way, the most beneficial use of sovereignty is to use it in such a way that everybody wins. If we had not become an independent state we would not have been in a position to develop the corporate tax policy that has played such an important part in creating our prosperous economy.

The other side of the coin though is that if we had not agreed to pool our sovereignty by being members of the EU most of the multinational companies who are so important to our economy would never have come here in the first place.

Whether or not there is a trade deal the consequences of Brexit will be serious for Ireland but going on our ability to make our way in the world in recent decades we need not be too apprehensive about the future.