Ireland’s leaders must prepare for the worst on Brexit

As political zeal trumps economic interest, there may be full rupture between England and the EU, writes Denis MacShane 

IN JANUARY 2015, I published a book, Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe. Over 250 pages I predicted what would happen if David Cameron was re-elected prime minister of Britain in May 2015 and proceeded with his Brexit plebiscite.

It wasn’t Nobel prize-winning political forecasting. My analysis was based on decades of knocking on doors asking people to vote for me or other candidate friends in the Labour Party.

In British cities in the 1950s, notices on boarding house windows stated: “No Coloureds. No Irish. Dogs Welcome.”

In the 1990s as a South Yorkshire MP, I encountered plenty of doorstep racism about “Pakis” and how immigrants from India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh were arriving in hordes to take British jobs, council homes, use the NHS, send five-year olds who couldn’t speak a word of English to reception classes and couldn’t pass the Norman Tebbit test of supporting England in a test match against Pakistan.

After 2000, the language turned against European workers. Some 1.7% of the UK population is Polish

compared to 4%. Germany had 1.5m Polish “immigrants” and Spain 1.1m Romanians.

Yet, in 21st century England, a combination of Ukip, anti-immigration Conservative MPs, and a crucial segment of the press told voters and readers every day that the UK was being over-run by Europeans and Britain had to leave the EU to “take back control”.

Britain’s prime minister Theresa May and German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin last week. Ms May says the UK has to leave the EU, while the contenders for her job, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, are ratcheting up their anti-EU rhetoric.

So, I was sure that just on the immigration question alone, a Brexit plebiscite would win. No referendum this century with Europe on the ballot paper has won, as the French, Irish, Swedes, Dutch and now the English have shown.

Add in anger over six years of Tory austerity and the chance to give the evangelists of supra-national money-power — the denizens of Davos — a good kicking and it was surprising there wasn’t a bigger Brexit majority.

I assumed that, given the narrowness of the majority — just 37% of the total electorate voting for Brexit — some kind of British compromise would emerge. The Tory Party, after all, has existed for 300 years as the party of money-making. The business of the Conservatives is business. The Tories could spend years up political cul-de-sacs, such as voting reform, free trade, and above all the Irish question, but they never lost sight of the bottom line.

I assumed throughout 2017 that, while leaving the political EU Treaty set-up was unavoidable — no more MEPs, no commissioner, no prime minister at EU councils — the British political class would settle on an economic compromise by staying in the EU customs union and single market.

Now, I am not so sure. Both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn repeat without end that the UK has to leave the EU single market and customs union. Ms May is the weakest prime minister in more than a century. Mr Corbyn is a 1970s leftist who has never liked Europe. He is enjoying the civil war inside the Tory Party and is not minded to leave his comfort zone of ambiguity on what Labour policy on Brexit is.

There is no election until 2022. The future macro-economic forecasts may be negative, but right now Britain seems to have full employment, even if on low wages. The shopping malls are full, Ryanair and Easyjet are stuffed with holiday-makers, and life goes on much as it did before June 23, 2016.

To be sure, Brexit hasn’t happened, only a vote has, but it is like a long, drawn out phoney war with no real sense that Brexit will hit anyone yet.

Politics is thus supreme over economics. Tory politics is about the succession to Ms May, with MPs such as Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg ratcheting up their anti-EU rhetoric. If if comes to a contest, the next Tory leader and hence prime minister will be chosen by 70,000 Conservative party members whose average age is 71. They are not open to pro-EU arguments.

There is massive collateral damage to Ireland, as once again the Orange card is played in Tory politics. Ms May needs the 10 DUP votes, so cannot agree to anything that can guarantee the Good Friday Agreement if it means upsetting hardline Ulster protestant anti-Dublin sensibilities.

That is why peace and security in Ireland did not get a mention in her weekend speech in Munich, which was meant to define a vision of Britain contributing to European peace and security outside the EU. She knows that is not true once customs controls exist between Ireland and the six counties, but she dare not face down the DUP.

Business is moaning and complaining but not campaigning. The thousands of Irish firms and thousands of Irish citizens in leadership positions in England have not coalesced into an effective campaign to delay or suspend Brexit.

The pro-Europeans have no organisation, no leaders, no money.

As political zeal trumps economic interest, the worst may yet happen and there will be a full amputational rupture between England and Europe. Ireland has solid support in Brussels and in the EU27 capitals, but throughout history not many Tories have over-worried about the impact of their ideology upon Ireland. The Europe question is set to dominate English politics for some time and there is no solution in sight. Ireland’s political leaders and Ireland’s business community should prepare for the worst. It may happen.

Denis MacShane is Britain’s former minister of Europe and a Labour MP for 18 years. He is speaking on Brexit at UCC tonight.


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