So , what a momentous week this was. Ireland through to the second round of the Euro championships, revisiting the heady days of the 1988 one, which heralded a new era of self belief and might even have helped with the national psyche for the real tiger times. Oh, and Brexit. Followed by the certainty of a second Scottish referendum.
This is now a reality. Ireland needs to accept that this is so and face up to several realities. We need a government that can react swiftly and be decisive. We need a genuine realisation that risks bring reward and a sense of how to make the best of a pretty grim situation.
First, the EU in whatever form remains will be less business friendly without the UK. It has been a strong voice for a more market oriented approach, since the days of thatcher (a strong Europhile who managed to reform, unlike the Bullingdon Boys who have simply cocked it up wholesale). Ireland will have fewer friends than it had, and we need all the friends we can get. We are much less influential now than we were before, when we could be a useful go between the EU and the UK, when we could be used as a point of similar reference etc. Now? Now we are Malta, or Cyprus, sans sun.
Second, the EU will have to be restrained, and see point 1, from cruel and unusual punishment of England and Wales. The mandarinate must be keen to inflict exemplary and terrible punishment to keep the other countries in line. This would be stupid, short-sighted, self defeating and shoddy. But then that is how the EU has dealt with many countries over the crisis. We need to be a strong voice of reason, while remembering that we are between a rock (do we want to leave the EU and cleave to England and Wales) and a hard place (a vengeful and bureaucratic EU). The EngWale and EU can survive a trade spat much more easily than we can.
Third, we need to be nimble (no laughing now there) in our responses. While the UK as a whole is no longer our main market, it is for many of our SME’s. SME’s , not MNCs are the employment engine of our, and other, economies. They will face increased problems in selling into a England and Wales which has a depreciating currency, and suffering a recession. It takes time, and more important capital, cultural and corporate, for SME’s to switch exports from Gloucester to Gelsinkirchen. So we need the IDA, EI and all bodies to be given carte blanche in staffing and resources to aid this effort. Language skills will be paramount so we should be looking at somehow getting euro language native sales and marketing centres beefed up for SME’s. We need to be a lot more fast and loose regarding how we interpret EU directives, and to be much more
Fourth, we need to see where we can gain. Lots of sectors will lose. So we need to take a national vision and see where we can win. We cant get Nissan to move a car plant from Sunderland to Swinford but there will be footloose FDI both fleeing EngWales and thinking hard otherwise. The old adage was that England’s difficulty was Ireland’s opportunity. Well, difficulties they have in plenty. A country with a massive trade deficit kept afloat by a financial services centre which in large but unclear part depends on its membership of a club it has now left, that is a disaster waiting to happen. Financial services, in particular settlement , tech and middle office are obvious targets for us to poach. But there are others. The UK, to take an example, has a very large education sector. There will, today, be a lot of talent in Durham, Essex, Imperial, Manchester etc, from the EU, looking nervously at the job market. It is not at all clear if they will easily remain post the invocation of Article 50 which pulls the trigger on leave. Even if they do, they will not have rights to move as easily as they now do. They will be supplicants in a state which may well have as PM a man who dismissed experts as akin to nazi propagandists and who as education secretary displayed an attitude to learning that was ideological to the core. Irish universities and IoTs should be encouraged to target and hire Polish, Spanish and so forth academics now in the UK; this will require at a minimum that the Dept of Ed and the HEA allow the Employment Control Framework controls to fully lapse. We have a golden opportunity here also to increase our share of non0irish students – we export education services to the tune of 1.3b per annum, more than beverages, and England And Wales has shown a coolness to foreigners we should shamelessly exploit.
Fifth, we face two enormous challenges. The Scottish first minister has, more or less, set in motion a second independence referendum. It appears that she is not even waiting for Westminister’s permission. They are heading out the door of the UK to stay in the EU. We will face a determined, and hungry, scottish competitor for FDI.
As for Northern Ireland, nobody, as usual, has a clue. Either the EU has an external hard border at Swanlinbar or it has one at Larne. Either upsets some or all of the natives. It would be a fool, or a DUP strategist (and incidentally, the DUP must surely be the Stupidest Party on Earth…) , to think that the Faragistes will happily continue to fund the north when they could keep that cash at home. the Far Right of the Tory party done want to spend money on their own sick and poor, never mind subsidizing tennis courts and ‘community activists’ in , as they would see it, the colonies. All the pressure is for an ever closer economic and political relationship. But Northern Ireland is broke and while improving is still a poor economic prospect. A border poll might well get a united Ireland, but at what cost? Either way, and bearing in mind the hit to global and regional economic prospects, the fiscal space just got a whole pile narrower.
Sixth, we may need to actually face up to managing our own economy. For generations the Common Travel Area has been the safety valve for our socioeconomic pressures. It is hard to see how the poles, Latvians, Romanians and so on would countenance a separate “but we’re different” arrangement for Irish to work in the EngWales. Why on earth would they? So, we may need to take our place amongst the nations of the earth, and get visas. Or Points. The reality is that a lot , an unwelcome and unwholesome lot, of the Brexit vote was based on xenophobia. We need to think hard about Schengen – now that the EngWales is gone, we really are on a limb. As a port of entry to the EU from China or Latina America, with Schengen and some sort of all island movement, tourism should take off.
Seventh, we need to start thinking how to extend soft power. We are good at that in the USA with X m “oh, my great great grandparents came from county donegal” but really poor at it next door. We need to get much much closer to and interact with our diaspora in the UK and europe, to both extend our soft power and to act as agents of national interest in directing monies and jobs here via FDI and FPI. Lots more consulates in provincial towns, something like the Confucian centres in universities, english language teachers from Ireland in second schools.
So, its on, like Donkey Kong.
Longer version of a column in Irish Examiner, Brexit Day +1