“Fair play with the ‘plastic Paddy’ shtick, Liam, but you’re still talking out of your hole.” So shouted a heckler at the Kilkenomics Festival – his words directed at me.
Up on stage in the Marble City’s bijoux Set Theatre, I was on a panel discussing the possible implications of ‘Brexit’ for Ireland, the sell-out event combining economics with riotous comedy. The show-cased ‘experts’ were dealing with a technical, highly emotive subject: just how will Ireland fare if its biggest trading partner votes to quit the European Union?
The atmosphere was gladiatorial – this was one theatre audience not waiting for the interval to get a drink. Facing the rhetorical firepower not just of a rowdy 300-plus crowd but our moderator, comedian Des Bishop, the glib, fence-sitting answers economists usually offer were brutally, often hilariously, exposed.
This was the arena in which I ventured that Ireland has nothing to fear from the UK’s Brexit referendum. It’s not a popular view, I know – and the moment it left my lips the heckling began. I truly believe, though, that far from posing a danger for Ireland, Britain’s EU referendum is an opportunity.
Last week Taoiseach Enda Kenny told the annual Confederation of British Industry conference in London that Brexit represents “a major strategic risk for Ireland”.
“Brexit isn’t in Ireland’s economic interest,” the Taoiseach told the UK’s biggest business lobby group.
Trade between the UK and Ireland amounts to some €50bn a year. Such commercial flows, generating one tenth of all Irish jobs, could fall 20pc after Brexit, according to a recent Government-commissioned report. Yet I really don’t see why.
Yes, the UK is the largest overseas market for Ireland’s fast-growing service sector and the second-biggest destination for Irish merchandise exports. But that’s because we’re so proximate geographically and culturally, not because of the EU. While 16pc of Irish goods and services sold abroad are bound for the UK, some 23pc head west to America – not an EU member the last time I checked. Massive Irish-American trade is facilitated, of course, by mutual investment and bi-lateral trade deals which have nothing to do with Brussels.
Were Britain to quit the EU, the UK and Ireland would rapidly forge an over-arching trade agreement, with London leading the charge. Why? Because despite this country’s stellar record of trade surpluses, one of the few nations that regularly sells more to Ireland than it buys from it is the UK. So it is absolutely in the UK’s interest to keep the trade gates open, maintaining flows of goods and services across the Irish Sea.
For months, Brussels has been banging the drum in Ireland, spreading scare stories about the horrendous impact of Brexit.
We’ve done business for centuries, though, through peace and conflict, thick and thin. Even the years of deepest hatred were never enough to prevent the back and forth of commerce and people between us, to offset the compelling logic of mutually beneficial UK-Irish trade.
As if Britain and Ireland aren’t going to agree a trade deal if the UK leaves the EU – not least at a time when relations are warmer than they’ve been, perhaps, for centuries. As if Britain and Ireland – our history, geography and psyches entwined – need the eurocrats’ permission to do business. The very idea is preposterous.
I want the UK, on balance, to stay in the EU. But I want Britain to use this upcoming referendum, combined with its economic and political muscle, to do what needs to be done – to force a reform of the EU that’s now so clearly needed. Brussels needs to do much less, but to do it better.
The European project should be not about “ever closer union” but about keeping cross-border regulation at sensible levels and facilitating trade. The much-vaunted single market is, in reality, rather patchy – not least when it comes to professional services and technology, sectors where both the UK and Ireland are strong.
The “free movement of people”, meanwhile, laudable but ultimately naïve, is now being widely flouted – with Sweden last week becoming the latest country to slam shut its borders. Immigration boosts growth but, to maintain public confidence and tolerance, it must be properly controlled.
These are all areas where the EU needs to reform if, in my view, it is to survive. On many of these issues, Britain and Ireland are natural allies. While Dublin won’t call an EU referendum, by getting behind the Brits in this negotiation, Irish officials could have a big influence in pushing for a less controlling and more sustainable EU.
It strikes me that in Ireland – just as in Poland, Spain and many other countries seen to have “done well” from Europe – there’s actually a growing demand for fundamental EU reform.
And, even if Britain leaves, don’t worry about it. UK-Irish trade will be fine. After all, there are 400,000 Irish-born people in Britain and 250,000 British-born people in Ireland. And, on top of that, there must be millions of Plastic Paddies.