Living on your western shore
Saw summer sunsets, asked for more
I stood by your Atlantic sea
And sang a song for Ireland
Mary Black – Song for Ireland
The excellent commentator Alex Massie (The Times and Spectator) tweeted at the end of last month:
“The suggestion the Irish tail is wagging the British dog (vis à vis custom union etc) seems increasingly popular. Unfortunately it overlooks the fact, regrettable though you may think it, they are not actually part of the same dog.”
I laughed out loud at this and then the point landed. Ten days later I read the remarks by European Council President Donald Tusk, following his meeting with Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.
If you have any care at all for how you are governed, how the economy works and the wellbeing of our society: please read what he said.
His remarks are exponentially more important than all of the Brexit speeches I have heard to date from UK Cabinet Ministers.
The BBC spent three days covering a Boris Johnson speech in February that said nothing: one news day to preview it, one to report it and the third to reflect on it. It will have no impact on anything material for any of us. I hear, on the best of authority, Johnson may enjoy the support of as many as a dozen Tory MPs in his ambition to be Prime Minister (yes, that many). It must surely be time for the prominence given to his musings to reflect that reality and the quality of what he actually has to say.
What Tusk had to say, to borrow Massie’s point, is that the Irish tail is very much part of the body of the European dog, and moreover, that it is welcome to do all of the wagging on Brexit right now. “We expect the UK to propose a specific and realistic solution to avoid a hard border (with Ireland). As long as the UK doesn’t present such a solution, it is very difficult to imagine substantive progress in Brexit negotiations. If someone in London assumes that the negotiations will deal with the other issues first, before moving to the Irish issue, my response would be: Ireland first”.
Let that sink in, now and in the days to come. It is what you might call Europe’s hard green line: “Ireland first”.
Tusk concluded his remarks by reflecting on the fact that “Ireland first” was also the position of all the other member states. “The EU stands by Ireland. This is a matter between the EU27 and the UK, not Ireland and the UK.”
In a nutshell it demonstrates what a coherent union of independent countries both looks like and can deliver, even for the smallest members in its ranks.
The UK government remains apparently headstrong about leaving that union of independent states without any clear sense of how. The implications for our economy appear to be only doubtful on the extent of the damage, not that there will be damage.
The mandate for this disorder is a marginal vote supported by 37% of the electorate on a prospectus without any content beyond 'taking back control'. Two of the constituent parts of the UK – England and Wales – voted to leave; and two – Scotland and Northern Ireland – voted (more decisively) to remain.
So now is not the time to leave it to the politicians at Westminster to “get on with it”. Now is the time for us all to take responsibility for what all of this means for ourselves and the generations to follow us.
If a creative solution is found to allow part of the UK to trade as freely with the EU27 as with the rest of the UK, that would be a good outcome. But where would the equity be for other parts of the UK whose governments and people seek just such an outcome?
Britain used to be good at this: pragmatic moderation in the national self-interest. We appear to have lost all of the statecraft and governing ability we once exported around the world.
Now it is a young, 39-year-old, relatively inexperienced Irish Taoiseach who is teaching Britain a lesson. If you aren’t following this closely, you really should be.
Andrew Wilson is a founding partner of Charlotte Street Partners.