June 26, 2012

British-Irish relationship stronger than ever in difficult times

As we all know, sometimes newspapers overlook or underplay an important story because it doesn’t make sensational headlines. The meeting between Prime Minister David Cameron and Taoiseach Enda Kenny in London last March – and the joint statement which came out of it  – was one such story. We in Northern Ireland, in particular, would do well to study that statement and ponder its implications closely.

The statement was unusual in that it set out the parameters of a closer British-Irish relationship over the next 10 years. The language was warm and positive in a way that was unprecedented for such an inter-governmental declaration. It spoke of the relationship between Britain and Ireland having ‘never been stronger or more settled, as complex and important, as it is today’, and of the huge success of the Queen’s visit last year, ‘serving as a symbol of a modern, deep and friendly relationship.’ In particular the two countries ‘enjoy a uniquely close political relationship, grounded in the progress we have led together over the last 25 years in the peace process in Northern Ireland.’ It noted the presence of a ‘large, confident, valued and integrated Irish community in Britain’. And perhaps most importantly, it stressed that ‘our two economies benefit from a flow of people, goods, investment, capital and ideas on a scale that is rare even in this era of global economic integration.’

The agreed need for much closer economic relations informed the whole statement. The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach announced ‘an intensive programme of work aimed at reinforcing the British-Irish relationship over the next decade’. It said the two governments wanted to see an expansion of the 1 billion euro trade in goods and services which flow between the two countries every year. The extraordinary statistic that Britain exports more to Ireland than to the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) combined has often been cited.

The two governments would prepare ‘a joint evaluation of the depth of economic relations between the UK and Ireland and of the opportunities for closer collaboration in support of growth to our mutual benefit.’ Work is now under way to explore how to increase cooperation in areas such as third level research, electricity and energy, food security, financial services and the creative industries. This work will often have to go back to basics:
for example, the basic problem of key statistics between the two countries – such as for measuring trade flows – often not being compatible.

In a sign of the times, Northern Ireland takes up only 25 of the 135 lines of the statement, and even this section stresses the economic dimension. The emphasis on working together for mutual prosperity, particularly on an all-island basis, is there again: ‘We support and encourage intensified economic cooperation on the island of Ireland that delivers benefits in stronger growth and better public services.’

There is also a section on ‘Working together in Europe’. Britain’s ‘half-in, half-out’ relationship with the EU – highlighted by the UK’s refusal to back the Fiscal Treaty and sterling’s separation (but not independence) from the crisis-hit euro zone  – means that she needs all the friends in Europe she can get, and  has clearly identified Ireland as one of those friends.
Cooperation in the EU on an internal market in energy, the digital economy and reducing regulation are all things that London and Dublin can agree on.

Increasingly, political and business leaders are forecasting that the only way out of the euro crisis is for a very significant deepening of European union, starting with a fiscal and banking union. This will require a referendum in the UK, one which will almost certainly not be passed. What then for Britain in Europe?  An arm’s length trading relationship? Total exclusion? And what will be the impact on Britain’s largest trading partner, the Republic of Ireland? How will it affect the North-South relationship on this island if the UK effectively leaves the European Single Market, and how might the impact on that relationship of such a cataclysmic development be mitigated? These are the massive issues – raised earlier this month at an SDLP conference on the ‘island economy’ by that incisive commentator, Dan O’Brien, economics editor of the Irish Times – which are bending minds in Dublin and London these days, more than anything specifically to do with Northern Ireland.

This is something that both the DUP and Sinn  Fein – neither used to thinking much about issues beyond this island – would do well to reflect on.
I would hope it would act as a reality check on their normal default positions of, respectively, hostility to anything Irish (including North-South cooperation) and antagonism to anything British (although with Martin McGuinness shaking hands with the Queen, this may be beginning to change). In the much colder financial climate looming ahead, issues like the British Exchequer’ s keenness on the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government sharing, through North-South collaboration, the provision (and cost) of some public services, must be seriously on the table.  A recent CCBS report on this subject by Dublin business consultant Michael D’Arcy should serve to open this debate.1

Both parties must realise that the inter-island and international landscape outside Ireland and Northern Ireland (including the possible independence of
Scotland) is changing rapidly. It is no coincidence that the final section in the  Cameron-Kenny statement talked about climate change, international security and development aid. We are moving into historically difficult – even dangerous – times in the world.  Our little province and our small island will not be immune.

Andy Pollak

1.  Michael D’Arcy, Delivering a Prosperity Process: Opportunities in North/South Public Service Provision. Centre for Cross Border Studies, 2012.