Brexit and Ireland: The Dangers, the Opportunities, and the Inside Story of the Irish Response by Tony Connelly

Boris Johnson expressed enthusiasm for this book when interviewed the other day by ConHome, though I have just listened to the tape again, and find he must have done so after I turned it off.

We were discussing how much better prepared ministers and officials in Dublin were for Brexit than their opposite numbers in London.

Connelly, who lives in Brussels and has been reporting on Europe for RTE for the last 17 years, unfortunately provides ample evidence for this view. The Irish knew the referendum held on 23rd June 2016 could go either way and prepared accordingly.

I recall hearing a lucid and persuasive speech by Dan Mulhall, then Irish Ambassador in London, now their man in Washington, at an Irish Embassy reception, in which he outlined the devastating effects which Brexit could have not only on the Irish economy, but on relations between the Republic and the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland.

It was plain then that there was a conservative, or Burkean, case for remaining in the EU, as an imperfect accretion of laws and customs which although impossible to defend in strict democratic theory, were in some ways well adapted to the circumstances of Irish and British politics.

At the start of Connelly’s account, the Irish Prime Minister, Enda Kenny, tries to warn David Cameron that

“referendums are different to general elections. People don’t fear the consequences of referenda in the same way they fear the consequences of a general election. We have some experience of this kind of thing.”

Dublin had a few years before held a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in order to undo the rejection of it in the first. Micheal Martin, the Leader of Fianna Fail, who ran the campaign in the second referendum, says they learned a lot from their exhaustive research into what went wrong first time round, and realised the message now had to be:

“We’ve heard you, we’ve listened to you, we’ve done the changes because of your message.”

It is not clear the advocates of a second referendum on this side of the Irish Sea have realised they need a message like that. If they are not careful, they will be found to be telling the British people, “We have not listened to you, and consider you to be a lot of ignorant fools who had better now do exactly as we tell you.”

After the British voted for Brexit, Irish ministers became frustrated by jockeying in London between Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis, and the consequent inability to determine the British Government’s position:

“Worse than the jockeying was the fact that they had different messages. That was of no use to us. We were trying to establish what exactly they wanted.”

There had been no preparatory analysis in London of the problems Brexit would pose and the choices which would need to be made. Nor did Irish leaders find, when they met Theresa May, that she was communicative. “She was very, very cautious,” as an Irish official puts it.

At the outset, the Irish expected to solve some difficulties through bilateral talks with the British Government, and others by negotiating as part of the EU 27 with London. But by the end of 2016, as Connelly relates,

“The Irish government was realising that if Irish and European Commission officials were working away diligently, scoping out technical solutions, looking at ways of getting around customs checks and requirements regarding animal health, food safety and rules of origin as a way to soften the Irish border, then the main beneficiary was the UK.

“Having come to this realisation, the Irish undertook a subtle distancing from London. It began at the end of 2016 and was increasingly discernible in the first part of 2017.”

The Irish stopped trying to solve the British Government’s problems, notably over the Northern Ireland border, and instead aligned themselves completely with the EU 27. As Connelly puts it,

“There would be two steps: fully apprising the EU of the complexities of the Northern Ireland peace process, and then turning the Irish position into the European position.”

Michel Barnier already has considerable experience of the complexities of Northern Ireland politics, for as an EU Commissioner he oversaw between 1999 and 2004 “the spending of 531 million euros in EU funding for Northern Ireland under the PEACE II programme, as well as tens of millions of euros in regional and structural payments”.

The EU became a kind of imperial power (not a word used by Connelly), more trusted, or at least more accepted, because it was more remote, and seemed therefore more neutral. Barnier sees himself as a benevolent proconsul: “He spoke fondly about the 13 million euro Peace Bridge in Derry, part funded by Brussels.”

The Irish are brilliant at manipulating the imperial power, while the British, having quite recently been an imperial power themselves, are enraged by its claim of ultimate authority, and have voted to liberate themselves. How one wishes the late lamented T.E.Utley, blind seer of The Daily Telegraph, could bring his wisdom to bear on these paradoxes. Who now in the London press has any understanding of, let alone sympathy with, Ulster Unionism in its various manifestations?

In Brussels, the Irish lobbied Barnier’s Task Force intensively. As a source tells Connelly,

“The Irish had privileged access… For other stakeholders the criteria had to be that it was a pan-European association… The Irish came well prepared, and with a wish-list. They were impressively well prepared… A number of them could have worked for the Task Force straight away.”

The Irish had done their homework, and knew what they wanted. The British had not done their homework, appeared to want to have their cake and eat it, and found themselves steered towards the major problem which emerged in November 2017, when they were told that in order to avoid a hard border, Northern Ireland will have to remain de facto inside the single market and the customs union.

Connelly’s book is almost 400 pages long, first appeared in 2017 and was updated in May this year. It contains some vivid reporting about the threat posed by Brexit to the Irish beef, lamb, milk, cheese, fish, mushroom, duck and racing industries. For the general reader, it contains too much.

From September 2017, “gruelling sessions” were held in Brussels to examine how the 142 different dimensions to North-South co-operation on the island of Ireland relate, if at all, to EU law. Even to read about this stuff is quite gruelling. As a reporter, one has to get to grips with at least some of the detail, then cultivate people who are prepared to tell one what it all means, and Connelly clearly has an admirable range of Irish and Brussels sources.

For the British reader, it is painful to be reminded at such length that under May’s insultingly opaque leadership, our Government has never worked out how to operate as a team, for a long time did not get to grips with the detail, and then did not realise what it meant, or at least refused to be candid about what it meant, until very late in the day, and is in many ways not being candid now.

The trouble with not being candid with the wider world is that there is then a temptation not even to be candid with oneself.