Ray Bassett is an advocate of Reunification. However he contends that the EU suffocates freedom and that in a new Ireland sovereignty would continue to be undermined in an increasingly Federal E.U. lacking meaningful mechanisms of accountability. Is there a danger that in exiting British rule we swap British empire for EU empire? Bassett’s scepticism of the EU is a minority viewpoint in Ireland right now. But at the very least his argument deserves serious consideration from supporters of Irish unity.
The article below in large part is taken from a speech he gave at the West Belfast Féile on August 5th sponsored by the Communist Party of Ireland.
One of the paradoxes of the early 21st century has to be how nationalism in Ireland, and indeed Scotland, became entwined with pro-European Unionist sentiment. This apparent contradiction in terms seems to be a particularly Celtic phenomenon, whereby those who claim to espouse sovereign self-government are stridently committed to Brussels. This is coupled with a fierce determination to resist a close relationship with their larger neighbour, England. For me this stance smacks of irrationality.
I fully accept the expressed opinion of the European Union institutions that their aim is economic and political union. I believe that Brussels has consistently been true to that goal and that all its policies and actions are essentially to support the ever-closer union concept. I have absolutely no doubt about the sincerity of that expressed aspiration. Unfortunately, many in the Republican movement and Nationalism in Ireland try to discount this and continue to insist, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that what we are engaged in is a process of enhanced cooperation between independent sovereign nations.
Of course, the real attraction for Celtic nationalists is the antipathy between England and the European Union. A touch of Anglophobia will always go down well in Ireland, Scotland and Wales where we are regularly inflicted with England’s overblown view of its own self-importance, and no truer place for this than in sport. So, on an emotional level I can understand it but believe it is counterproductive.
Sinn Féin Flip Flop
Now I also comprehend the reasoning why Sinn Féin abandoned its traditional opposition to the European project after decades of principled objections. They did this to broaden their appeal south of the border to a more middle-class electorate. However, if they reread their own statements from the past, they will soon have to agree that their warnings about the centralization of power in Brussels and the increasing desire of the eurocrats and federalists to project military power beyond their own borders, have largely been proved correct. Whilst the protestations of their political rivals, offering comforting words about shared sovereignty etc., have been wrong. So why change when the evidence is piling up against euro federalism? The answer is political realism.
Sinn Féin rightly analyzed that outright opposition to the EU would be a major minus in courting the southern electorate. I hope that the Sinn Féin flip flop on the issue may indicate that if the circumstances are right, we could look forward to a further flip flop in the opposite direction. I fully accept that among the main political parties in the Republic, Sinn Féin still takes a more eurocritical view than the arch Federalists in the Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the hopelessly misnamed Irish Labour Party.
Use of Brexit
Brexit has of course greatly influenced attitudes. In what I would loosely call Nationalist Ireland, the process halted and set in reverse the growing disillusionment with Brussels. People were swamped with negative stories about the British. There were even calls that the Brits wanted a return to Empire and the reason for Brexit was essentially racism. There was little or no real understanding or sympathy for the reasons for Brexit, which was essentially a peasants’ revolt rather than an attempt to re-establish the old order.
Irish nationalists could not see the irony of Ireland working hand in glove with the British House of Lords, and the British establishment, to thwart the democratic outcome in a neighbouring island. The betrayal of John Redmond, Charles Stewart Parnell and ultimately Michael Collins, and indeed Edward Carson, was lost on them.
In mitigation of what I believe is a very mistaken view, I should point out that media outlets catering for the Irish Nationalist point of view, in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Derry, Belfast and Galway, all pursued the same line. In doing so, they bought 100% into the Irish Government’s Brexit policy of seeking, by all means, to thwart the democratic outcome of the British referendum. It was a classic example of Groupthink, with media outlets echoing each other and, on most occasions, working as stenographers, reproducing off the record briefings by politicians and officials.
History of EU Devotion
In pursuing a virulent anti-Brexit policy, the Irish Government jettisoned its obligations under the Good Friday Agreement and set out on a reckless course in alliance with the Remainers in London and the EU bureaucracy in Brussels. The zeal of Ireland’s devotion to Brussels is hard to rationalise with what is best for the people of this country.
The current Irish establishment fail to read their own history. Ireland had little or no interest in the EEC when it was established in the 1950s. The State only decided to apply for membership in 1961 to safeguard its agricultural exports to Britain and especially livestock. These represented the major portion of our overseas trade. In the words of the Secretary of the Department of Finance at the time, TK Whitaker, it would have been “catastrophic” for Ireland’s food products to be excluded from Britain by a high common EEC tariff. The EEC had absolutely no interest in this country as a potential member. We were told that all we offered was surplus agricultural production, so Whitaker and the Department of External Affairs told the Government of Sean Lemass that they had to embrace the European project with gusto to compensate for our weak position. In other words we had to try to convince Brussels and the then member States of our enthusiasm for the European project. In fact, the member States just asked whether London was in favour of us joining and if the answer was yes, as it was, we would simply be swept in on their coattails. However, General de Gaulle put paid to it all with his veto in January 1963.
Therefore, it is clear that our “deep devotion” to the European project was a sham from the start and it’s a sham now.
The feigned euro enthusiasm theme became part of the Irish State’s mantra and those spouting it forgot why it came about. However, I have to admit that membership of the EU greatly benefited Ireland and allowed it to escape its traditional economic backwardness and become much more successful from an economic point of view.
A Cold House for Ireland
However, with Brexit and the ongoing changes inside the EU, it is very doubtful whether it is still in Ireland’s interests to stay inside an organisation which is heading in a direction that is very much against Ireland’s national interest.
In my book, Ireland and the EU Post Brexit, I argue strongly that in this new era, Ireland would find the EU a much colder house.
Today, we continue to express our Euro devotion, which has widespread public support but only in a very shallow way, promoted as it is by an alliance of self interest in our politicians and academics, supported by a mediocre media. But we have forgotten why we ever embarked on this policy. Of course when the public focuses strongly on issues like the Nice and Lisbon Treaties, the lack of depth or intellectual commitment to the European Project is exposed.
This has dangerous consequences, and it is the Irish public that consistently pays the price for the lazy acceptance that we should always be in favour of ever closer Union and that euro federalism is good for Ireland.
From the moment, David Cameron asked Ireland to help him stop the arch Federalist Jean Claude Juncker from becoming President of the EU Commission, on the basis that it would make keeping the UK inside the EU more difficult, Ireland has been hugely unhelpful to our nearest neighbour and most important bilateral partner in its desire to lessen EU control. In this respect, we violated the Good Friday Agreement commitment to be a friendly neighbour and partner of the United Kingdom.
We were strongly opposed to Cameron again when he came to Brussels looking for some concessions, especially on migration, which would have allowed the UK to continue inside the EU, but on a different basis. We unashamedly campaigned in Britain against Brexit in a gross interference in the internal matters of the UK but failed to do so in the part of this island where people had a vote, the North. We played a consistently negative role.
Then after Brexit itself, our government never accepted the outcome and worked hand in glove with Juncker and Tusk to destabilise the efforts of those in Britain, who under Theresa May, were trying to reach a reasonable compromise. We wasted no opportunity in attacking Britain and their right to leave the EU. We watched as Theresa May’s career ended in ignominy and the Irish media ignored the central part our Government had played in her demise and the rise of Boris Johnson.
Then when the British Government under Boris Johnson decided to strike out on an independent course, Varadkar and Coveney started crying crocodile tears and blaming the woes, which have affected Ireland since then, on Brexit itself and the Johnson administration, without in any way admitting that their actions had helped bring that situation about. Of course, the media failed to hold them to account.
The Irish border and the threat to the Good Friday Agreement was employed as a weapon to put the Brexiters on the defensive and to try to keep the UK within the orbit of the EU, even though the only people threatening to impose a land border in Ireland was Brussels.
Eaten bread is soon forgotten. So after Ursula von der Leyen made a hames of the vaccine procurement process, she decided to make a complete mockery of all the guff about Brussels’ great commitment to the GFA and peace in Ireland and invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol to establish restrictions between North and South.
The EU Commission never consulted the Irish Government, the authorities in Belfast nor the British Government. It was breath taking arrogance by a weak administration in Brussels trying to be strong. The media and the Irish Government should have savaged the eurocrats on the disastrous mistake. Instead, we got excuses of all varieties from a meek and subdued press. Nationalists in Ireland siding with the new Empire’s right to ride roughshod over local opinion was an unseemly departure from historical precedents.
The debacle over the vaccines was swiftly followed by the further attack on our fishing resources. That great “friend of Ireland” Michel Barnier, with his eye on a possible run for the French Presidency, decided to offer up cuts in the Irish catch in British waters so that the French allocation would be protected. There was to be no dividend to this country for its servile adherence to Brussels during Brexit. We, of course, had to endure the worst cuts of any EU member State. The interests of France, Spain and the Dutch trumped those of Ireland in a clear demonstration of our lowly place in priorities.
I must admit that when DCU academic Dr Karen Devine initially reported on the small fraction that Ireland had been allocated of fish in our own waters, I had to double check. The Department of the Marine was totally unhelpful in providing detailed information but now the full nakedness of those figures is fully exposed. Karen was completely correct. By value we get only 15.5%. This means that the vast bulk of our marine resources has been given away to foreign interests and more importantly the downstream processing. What self-respecting country would tolerate that outrage. Again the media, apart from TG4 which is in my opinion by far the best Irish station, ignored this national scandal. The Norwegians export over €10bn worth of fish products a year and even inside the EU, the Danes with a relatively small maritime zone, export over €4bn. In contrast our figures, with a huge expanse of ocean are paltry. The Irish fishermen deserve all our support in their very valid protests.
We then were hit with a sucker punch on the Covid Recovery Fund, which is probably the worse deal for Ireland since the Bailout. The figures are astonishing, up to €16bn guaranteed, while getting in return some €900 million. Ireland is the second highest net contributor to the fund per capita.
While much less expensive deals for Finland, the Netherlands, Austria, etc., all sparked lively debates in these countries, there was hardly a murmur from our 4th estate. At least the Government of Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan knew they were being screwed in the bailout. On that occasion, we were coerced into the arms of the Troika by the threats of cutting off the money supply to the banks, a miserable outcome to our earlier unfortunate decision to give up the ability of having our own currency, unlike the two countries which joined with us, Denmark and the UK that rightly refused to join the Eurozone.
We are also witnessing major threats to the future of our farming community. The decision of the British Government to sign a trade deal with Australia, which will be followed by deals with New Zealand and South American countries, will in essence mean the replacement of our huge beef exports to the UK. That downward trend has already started and since the UK took almost 50% of our beef, and traditionally offered us the best price, this centuries old trade is in jeopardy, even if the deals are phased in on a gradual basis. If we stay inside the EU, I am afraid that the future for farmers looks bleak and they would be much better off, as farmers are in Switzerland, Iceland, Canada, and Norway, who receive direct financial support from their own Governments.
Again, this development, which is of huge long-term importance to rural Ireland, is being ignored in the mainstream press. The idea that Ireland should put more money into the EU budget to support the CAP is laughable, given the tiny % we receive of the overall fund.
Figures from the Department of Finance indicate that Ireland will be net contributors to the EU budget of around €1.5bn this year and again this is of little or no public comment locally. Some of that money could be redirected towards rural families as their main beef market disappears.
Common Foreign Policy
Many of us can recall the plea by Robert Emmet that Ireland should take its place among the nations of the Earth, we should have our own voice in international affairs. Now Germany is demanding majority voting in the European Council to decide on a much tighter common foreign policy, where Ireland would have a little over 1%. Also why are Irish soldiers serving with the French in an EU mission in Mali, where the French are seeking to bolster their neo colonial influence? We have come a long way from the views of people like Frank Aiken.
As the drawbacks of EU membership for Ireland mount, the euro federalists harp on about our ability to attract Foreign Direct Investment and access to the Single Market. We have used our low corporation tax rate of 12.5%, but probably more significantly, sweet heart deals and write offs with large Tech companies to lower the tax take to obscenely low levels for some of these multi nationals. We have abused the system so much that there is now an international consensus against us, with the EU Commission and the French Government leading the charge. If anybody believes that long term we can resist these pressures, I am sure they must also be great believers in the tooth fairy.
Of course Multi Nationals have been very good for Ireland but the period where we had a huge advantage is coming to an end. How will the Irish media explain that? Also access to the European Market is not dependent on membership of the EU. The average external tariff is around 2.5%
On a related point about the media, the self-same print journalists, who relentlessly denigrated Brexit and Britain, are now being lined up again in chorus to attack even the Irish Government or anybody who dares raise the issue of Irish reunification. Clearly any sign of Nationalism or pride in country is viewed as a threat to these euro devotees.
We should never be cowed by that establishment lynch mob. We have every right to seek that ideal in the democratic manner as outlined in the Good Friday Agreement. Calls to change the rules of democracy on this issue and the commitments in the Agreement are absolutely shameful and should be called out for what they are, anti-democratic.
We have a profoundly dysfunctional media in the Southern State, it is better north of the border. We even had a call by my former colleague to stop using the term Block when referring to the EU, as this might sully the image they are trying to paint. Thank God we have a social media here and that the UK media can be seen and read here, which despite its faults has diversity.
Now that legacy media has the gall to clammer for public money so that they can be sustained as their popularity plummets. The decline of the mainstream press is irreversible, as they no longer reflect people’s opinions. Their quality has deteriorated and the have abandoned diversity which they regard as a gender form filling process. They proclaim their commitment to the concept of diversity while producing a rigid policy line on issues like the EU which reflects no real variation of opinion.
In conclusion, we badly need to build an alternative platform where real diversity can be found and not the echo chamber that we have today.
One journalist recently put forward to me the idea that social media needs to be curbed and that trained journalists should act as “gate keepers to publication” as the untrained public would not be able to process differing opinions. This person describes herself as a liberal. This is the mindset we are up against in this country which regards any democratising of the means of communication as a threat.
It is clear that Brexit has added considerably to a deterioration in community relations in Northern Ireland. The Nationalist slavish adherence to Brussels is a negative factor on this issue. For an Irish Government, which under its Constitution is committed to the promotion of Irish unity, this has been counterproductive. Any political settlement which brought about an all-island State, would bring in hundreds of thousands of future citizens who are very pro-British. They would expect that their attachment to the neighbouring island to be reflected in any new structures and Governmental approach, The failure of the Irish Government to show any sensitivity to their interests would appear to be counterintuitive to Unity aspirations.
As the political landscape within Northern Ireland changes and the possibility of both jurisdictions becoming closer together, I believe that it would be much better for any new arrangement to be outside the European Union, while maintaining close relations with both London and Brussels.
The Federal European State with its trappings of Empire holds no real attraction for the bulk of people who live on this island. It is time to close that chapter in our history.
Against that background I recently tweeted
“I wonder whether people in the Irish civil service and their politicians now think back on their disastrous policy of thwarting of David Cameron’s attempts at a new deal for the UK, and later their stonewall resistance to Theresa May’s efforts at a reasonable compromise on Brexit. In their efforts to promote a false Euro Federalism, they have destroyed any lingering pro EU sentiment in the Tory party, badly damaged Anglo-Irish relations and relations between the traditionally pro Union part of the population in Ireland with the rest of the country, given away our marine resources, transferred billions of taxpayers’ money to Brussels, and are now overseeing the destruction of our beef industry and an independent foreign policy.
Wonder will we ever get a mea culpa from them?
No, I guess not.
Ray Bassett is the former Republic of Ireland ambassador to Canada, Jamaica and the Bahamas