As negotiations for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union begin Eugene McCartan analyses the consequences for Ireland
Formal negotiation began on 19 June, though no doubt there has been a lot of behind-the-scenes activity since the referendum result was announced in June 2016. The British state and ruling elements will have been working away at seeing how to thwart the will of the people, as expressed in the referendum. The dominant elements of the City of London—banks and finance houses—will be working to ensure that their interests are to the fore and are the dominant interests at the negotiating table.
What about the interests of the Irish people, north and south? Who will represent them at these vital talks? Where will the interests of working people in Ireland—or working people in Britain, for that matter—be taken into account?
Since the signing of the Lisbon Treaty, the European Union exists as a separate legal entity, over and above, and superior to, the constituent states. The EU Commission will be at the table to represent the interests of the EU, that is, the interests of big corporations and European banks and finance houses. The people of Ireland, north or south, will have no direct say in these negotiations, or in the final outcome, despite the impact on our people.
Even if it goes to a vote in the EU institutions, the Irish government has only 0.9 per cent of a vote. The Irish will not be present at negotiations, as these will be conducted on behalf of the EU-27 by Michel Barnier and his staff; nor are we permitted to conduct negotiations with the British ourselves, as that would be against Brussels rules. So much for all the guff about a special deal: not if it doesn’t suit the Germans.
The primary interest of the British state is and will be to protect and advance the interests of big corporations, banks, and finance house. The needs of the working people of Britain will be well down the agenda, as will those of the Irish people, if they feature at all.
Before the formal negotiations opened, the Irish government made some noises regarding the special historical relationship between the British and Irish states. Others, such as Sinn Féin, raised the possibility of some vague “dangers” to the Belfast Agreement resulting from Brexit.
The government also made some noises about the common travel arrangement between the two states—the historical safety valve for this state in jettisoning the unemployed and the poor to Britain.
The Irish government also wanted some vague recognition that at some future date, if the possibility of national reunification was to become a reality, they would have the same mechanism as was used by the West German government when it annexed the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), which was a separate state and outside the EU at the time.
While this new-found interest in national unity is to be welcomed, it is more an indication of how powerless and removed they are from the centre of power and influence within the EU and of their inability and unwillingness to defend the interests of the people of this country. It was instead a pretence that they have real and meaningful influence at the EU level, that they are “real players.”
We know this to be untrue from very bitter experience regarding the bank debt, when the Irish state in 2011 was forced by the EU to take responsibility for 42 per cent of all EU banking debt—in effect to save the euro from collapse. This exposed the spineless parasites that the Irish establishment are, and how subservient is their role and relationship with the EU.
The same thing applies to the proposal for a “special relationship” within the EU for the North of Ireland. This also is devoid of any reality or any clear understanding of the nature of the EU itself. Sinn Féin will shortly be in an administration-sharing Executive with the DUP—yet the DUP is in favour of Brexit, while Sinn Féin advocates remaining within the EU.
What lies exposed is the almost complete lack of influence by both political institutions, Dáil Éireann and the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the hollowness of their claim to speak for the people of our country.
The future relationship of the British state with the EU will be decided by London. What the DUP says or thinks, even with its “special relationship” with the present British Tory government, will have little if any influence on the Brexit negotiations, never mind Sinn Féin. This will inevitably put pressure on the DUP and Sinn Féin to come up with a joint position on the future relations between North and South.
The Irish government is the only possible voice that has the potential to advance the interests of the people of this country. It could give leadership and direction to all our people, north and south, if it wished to do so.
This government cannot be allowed to sit on its hands or to hide behind the EU negotiating team, hoping that they will represent the interests of the Irish people. Experience tells us otherwise. The Irish government must be forced to act as a sovereign government and take independent political action to advance the interests of the Irish people. If it cannot open up independent negotiations and do a deal with the British state that suits the people of all of Ireland, then once again the question of membership of the EU has to be raised.
It also drives a coach and horses through Sinn Féin’s strategy of “critical engagement” with the EU in the hope of changing it from within.
We believe that Ireland can be much more than a playground for big business. There are four strategic areas where North and South can benefit from a merger of resources, infrastructure, and services: there is potential new revenue from pursuing an independent path in (1) fishing and farming, (2) nationalising our oil and gas, (3) building a renewable power industry, and (4) repudiating the bank debt.
These can become the pillars on which to build and develop our economy in other areas. The injection of revenue into the economy from each of these pillars would have a much higher probability of expanding the economy, as these sectors use a high proportion of native materials, which feeds into knock-on industries, as opposed to foreign direct investment.
This would require a radical government committed to strengthening, deepening and expanding political and economic democracy in the hands of working people.
We have very valuable fishing resources that can and should be managed and developed on an all-Ireland basis. The development of an all-Ireland economy is clearly more beneficial to all our people. Developing an all-Ireland agro-business makes greater sense now than ever. Developing and sharing common health and education services and transport infrastructure is also in the interests of all our people.
The possibilities for progressive economic co-operation can only become more difficult if the Republic remains within the EU and the North is outside. This will become even more complicated, and virtually impossible, when Britain leaves the EU and the Irish state remains within it.
The contradiction for the DUP resulting from Brexit can only become more acute as agriculture, cross-border trade and capital flows begin to have an impact on an already weak and dependent economy.
The economic border between Britain and the EU is most likely to be drawn down the middle of the Irish Sea. While they may have secured a billion pounds of additional funds (one-tenth of the current budget), the long-term economic development and the possibility of dynamic and potential growth lie in the building of an all-Ireland economy—not in a race to the bottom in corporation tax, nor in a base for global corporate money-laundering.
Further problems and the cementing of partition may well come about as the EU, driven by Germany, continues to forge ever greater military co-operation and convergence between member-states, with the EU increasingly asserting itself as a global economic and military power. We will have the North of Ireland in the nuclear-armed NATO while the Republic will be more and more entangled in the increasingly militarised EU.
Brexit has brought into sharper focus than ever the forced partition of our country and the fostered divisions among our people, and exposed the deep legacy of British imperial strategic interests. As it was in 1921, when partition was imposed, today the interests of our people, north and south, will be secondary to British economic, political and strategic interests and now to those of the EU itself. We are mere pawns on the imperial chess board.
The Irish government has the opportunity and the responsibility to speak for and represent all the people of Ireland, to reflect the opinions and interests of both Dáil Éireann and the Northern Ireland Executive, by opening up separate and independent negotiations with the British government regarding co-operation, trade relations and travel between our two peoples outside of, independent of and, if necessary, despite the EU.
The defence of popular sovereignty and democracy is a crucial argument in the struggle for national unity and against continued membership of the European Union.
Eugene McCartan is general secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland