Previously published in The Times Ireland edition.
So apparently Nigel Farage and others (I’ve giving you side-eye, Cormac Lucey) are planning later in this lovely new year to treat us to the joys of Irexit. Before we get into the meat and potatoes, or in Nigel’s case a pint of warm beer and a jellied eel, can we just clarify this whole “Irexit” business? Has anyone tried to actually pronounce this out loud? It sounds like someone desperately trying to stifle a particularly powerful sneeze. We need a new phrase: I nominate “EirGo!” It’s dramatic and just falls off the tongue.
For the benefit of the printed word, let’s stick with Irexit. When the arrival of the Men With Blue Passport Covers was announced, many in the pro-EU Irish establishment (of which I am a proud card carrying member) got stuck in, sneering that there was no support for it here.
To my fellow establishmentarians, I utter that ancient Irish warning: careful now.
There isn’t now. But I have no doubt that at least 35% of the country could be recruited, eventually, to such a cause. You’d do it the same way every political huckster populist of the last decade has done it it.
First you start with money: you point out that Ireland does indeed contribute billions to the EU budget. You throw out that old reliable argument that the Irish are very susceptible to: imagine how that money could be spent here, on the homeless and in the health service?
Put it on a big red bus and you’re sucking diesel.
Now, it’s true that the Irexit coalition is teeming with Thatcherite libertarians who have absolutely no intention spending that money on public services, but needs must.
Next they’ll bang on about how the Irish taxpayer will fund CAP payments to Irish farmers directly, so don’t be worrying about that.
Then they’ll say we should leave the euro so that we can set an appropriate interest rate for Bray and Ballina, not Berlin.They’ll point to the housing bubble, and how too many people got cheap euros lent to them. Don’t ask them about the central bank and lending criteria, a key component of national sovereignty though, as they’ll get all shifty and start banging on about “taking back control”.
There’ll also be more than one leave campaign, as in the UK. This turned out to be very useful as it permitted more and more outlandish statements to be made, and then responded to with “Well, I’m sorry, but MY organisation never said that!”
It’s the equivalent of political action committees (PAC) in the US that are nominally distant from individual candidates yet always seem to be helping one candidate over another.
There’ll be all sorts of statements about immigration control (what they really mean: too many blacks), the need to protect our culture (Too many blacks) and we should be concerned about our national identity (again, too many blacks).
Our old friend “We need to look after our own” with a picture of some poor wretched homeless person will be commandeered for the campaign.
The campaign will also hoover up every petty grievance. Libertarians who think we live in Venezuela will be sitting beside Little Irelanders who think the government should do everything and that we’re actually living in a neoliberal Singapore on the Shannon. People who would absolutely hate to live under each other’s rule will be pretending that Irexit will deliver something the other fella will hate.
The more bitter John Charles McQuaid Sub-Committee for the Saving of Souls wing of the pro-life movement, along with the angry “It isn’t enough!” wing of the pro-choice campaign will get onboard.
The people who believe every conspiracy, including the idea that offshore gas and fish fingers are the key to utopia will be there. Both the “Free State is Treason” and “We should apologise for leaving. Please forgive us, your most majestic majesty” wings of the national question will, ironically, get on board the bandwagon. And the DUP, of course.
Throw in the “Let’s teach the government a lesson” crowd and you’re up at 35% with relative ease.
Rational thought won’t feature. Why should it? As Nick Clegg showed debating Nigel Farage, calm facts get trounced by my-mate-down-the-pub-said nearly every time.
Take back control. Have your cake and eat it. It’ll all be wheeled out here.
The Brexiteers will rush to “plucky” little Ireland, having only been calling weeks previously for a zombie Cromwell to rise again and smite Paddy for getting all uppity and thinking he was equal to Albion. So will the Trumpian Handmaid’s Tale crowd, talking of evil globalists and the Rothschilds.
The phrase “Bank bailout” will add another 10-15% easily.
And the racists and the nazis?
Well, as that classic Simpsons line goes: “Fox News: Not racist, but No.1 with racists!”
The Amach-ists will say exactly what those other charlatans said. That Ireland will be able to stay in the single market with all the benefits but without paying and having our own control over anything we don’t like, including tax harmonisation.
If Google or Apple or Microsoft clear their throats loudly at that, they’ll be accused of bullying.
What they won’t want to talk about is the fact that even a country like Britain, far more economically and politically significant than little old us, was not able to get the deal they wanted because the EU is designed to use its heft to defend the interests of its members.
Yet we can somehow get a better deal than we have now?
Our nearest neighbours, the people who once used to run the world, have been so pitifully reduced to the prime minister trying to boast that changing the colour of the cover of one’s passport is a major achievement for a country in negotiations with the EU.
The colour of the passport cover. Seriously.
At its heart, the biggest obstacles Irish leavers will have are twofold.
First, the Irish don’t have the same fear of Brussels that the Brexiteers have. We know we are a small country that has to hustle for what we want, that has to win friends and build alliances. We never arrive at any international gathering thinking we’re entitled to special treatment because of our history. As a result, we don’t constantly shuffle back from Brussels treating everything as a zero-sum “If they’re happy, we must be unhappy” outcome.
Secondly, Irish culture is hardwired to know that it is vital to be where decisions are made. Never mind the EU, this applies in the local GAA or the ICA. You must have a seat at the table. Take tax harmonisation: think an Ireland-free EU couldn’t take decisions on corporate taxation that would affect FDI companies in Ireland? Really? We need to be in the room. That’s the single most important objective of our membership of the European Union.
The Brexiteers told their own people that won’t really matter, because the EU room is going to vanish anyway.
They’re not so sure now, and it’s that which will make Irexit a difficult (but not impossible) sell to the Irish people.