EU must reject impulse to act swiftly and harshly against Britain

27 June 2016


This Friday marks the 100th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It was the worst day in the history of the British Army.

It will be marked all across the United Kingdom, and here too. It is particularly significant in the lore and memory of the Unionist community of this island. But Nationalists too have cause to remember the Somme.

British involvement in European wars does not begin at end at the Somme. Agincourt, Waterloo and Dunkirk are all emotional reference points for the British people. Because Britain has always regarded Europe as a field of strategic concern.

Or at least it did until last Thursday.

There is a terrible irony in the week that the Somme is remembered that the British people voted themselves out of the one organisation that has contributed most to the most peaceful period in European history.

Because Europe is a continent where, if we do not work together, we tend to war together. And it is precisely the point at which you become most complacent about that peace that you imperil it the most.

And yet, that is what, has been done. I said on Friday that I believe that is a tragedy, and it seems no less so a number of days later.

The European Union has served as an arena in which the relationship between this island and our sister island has improved inordinately.

Our equal membership of the EU, and the additional prosperity it has afforded this State, has allowed us see the UK as an equal, not as a former colonial master.

And in the United Kingdom, the former colony is seen as a friend.

That friendship was maintained despite attempts by Sinn Féin and the IRA to set us apart – to construct a winner-takes-all relationship between our islands.

That friendship persevered to the point that we were able, working together, to build a peace based on a settlement consented to by all the people of this island.

It is no exaggeration to say that this new relationship has been afforded a body blow by the referendum outcome.

The Brexiters have claimed that the common travel area will not be impacted upon by this decision. We certainly need no more physical barriers impeding the relationship between north and south. We cannot tolerate them.

Likewise, we want our trading relationship with the UK, including Northern Ireland, not only to survive but to grow.

There seems now to be an urgency on the part of some EU countries to proceed with this process immediately. I would urge some caution.

We are the EU member state with most at stake here. If European values mean anything, they mean that right now our voice must be heard by our colleagues in Europe. We have major issues at stake and we need to get this right.

It seems to me perverse that there is an impulse to deal not only urgently but harshly with the United Kingdom. The Union should not be a pen in which people are corralled, for fear of the consequences of leaving.

It is a partnership to be embraced, a partnership which meets the needs of its people. A partnership which must listen and hear the views of its people.

There are peculiar circumstances around the historic antipathy to the European Union in the UK. A relentless anti-European press. A nostalgia for the days of Empire. And a concern about immigration.

That Britain achieved her greatness because of her openness seems lost. Despite her small size, she remains unduly influential in world affairs, both politically and culturally.

She has put that at risk.

And I feel particularly sorry for the young British, who voted emphatically to remain. They understand that, if you are not going forwards, you run the risk of going backwards.

That understand that the modern world is multi-layered place. That the global economy is bigger than any member state. That we can all be buffeted on its waves.

It is difficult to deny, whatever one’s views on Scottish independence, that the events of the last week are not of such magnitude that they justify looking at the question again.

Sinn Féin have suggested that we do likewise on this island. Again, it is not difficult to understand why. One of the pillars of the settlement has been cast aside.

But it is only one pillar. And it is not the primary pillar – which is the principle of consent.

We have no evidence that a border poll would change the status quo. In fact the evidence is rather in the other direction. A lower nationalist turnout in this referendum, and a reduced nationalist vote in the recent assembly elections, are examples.

We should not devalue the border poll by an inopportune triggering of its use. And we should look to preserve, in the first instance, the progress we have made. We must not go backwards.

The priority now must be to protect the political and institutional arrangements established by the Good Friday from instability. The status of both the UK and Ireland as EU Member States is woven throughout the Agreement. Indeed one of the six north-south implementation bodies is the Cross Border EU Special Programmes Body, which I co-chaired for the past five years. And one of the functions of the North-South Ministerial Council is to consider the EU dimension of all relevant matters including the implementation of EU policies, programmes and proposals.

We need to make sure the transition for the institutions as smooth and free from turbulence as we all, with shared commitment and goodwill, can make it.

But there will be some inevitable disruptions. We are an island off an island off the continent of Europe. Our geography dictates our policies.

I take just one sector as an example. We have at present an all-island electricity market. The market is currently being re-designed, to comply with EU rules for a pan-European market.

But does it make any sense to talk about a single European market in electricity when our only physical connections are with a country that is about to leave the Union? The interconnectors will soon enough be importing and exporting power from the Union, rather than trading it within the European market.

It is controversial enough to decide whether the North-South interconnector should be above or below ground. But what do we do if it is now re-classified not as a piece of EU infrastructure but as an export project?

In both electricity and gas, our only physical connections are with a country that is leaving the Union. Post-Brexit, the notion of adhering to policies designed for an internal EU market needs to be urgently re-examined.

More generally, I think there are some in the United Kingdom who were shocked by the scale of the economic reaction to the vote.

I think there are some in the United Kingdom who were shocked by the scale of the economic reaction to the vote.

There is perhaps a certain naivety because of the size of the UK economy – at least until last week regarded as the fifth largest economy in the world, albeit one with a sizeable current account deficit.

And it is disturbing too that the warnings set out by the nation’s most prominent economists were not just ignored but ridiculed.

It is summed up in Michael Gove’s dismissal that we’ve had enough of experts.

Well I do believe that there is a place where the role of the politician begins and that of the policy expert ends. But that should come after careful consideration of the options, not dismissal out of hand.

But let’s not pretend that such nihilism is unique to the United Kingdom. Deputy Murphy and his friends were at it again last week. There appears to be no end to their appetite for chaos.

They do so in the name of the Left. But they have much more in common with the nihilistic right than they have with genuine progressives.

It is too early to gauge the economic impact of this decision will be. I would urge caution about moving to amend our budgetary plans. We simply do not yet know what the impact will be.

And if we believe it to be potentially negative, we should not race to reduce our plans for the Budget, already believed by the fiscal council to be contractionary, in the hope that will provide us with a shelter.

Leave aside fiscal space for a moment. That is an esoteric concept and difficult to calculate. Between the election in February and today it has doubled in size.

Our debt dynamics are miraculous given where we were as recently as four years ago. Our inflation dynamic is almost unhealthy, our housing policy needs stimulus not contraction, and wages are slowly recovering from the most catastrophic economic shock we’ve experienced in generations. We can afford this budget.

I referred earlier to the European response. I confess it is slightly disturbing to see the founder members of the Union meeting at a separate meeting last week.

On the 21st January 1919, the members of this House declared the desire that our country be ruled in accordance with the principles of Liberty, Equality, and Justice for all, “which alone can secure permanence of Government in the willing adhesion of the people”.

The European Union has not secured the willing adhesion of the British people and there are fears the same result could be repeated elsewhere. It is time surely for Europe to realise that the best way for it to survive and prosper is not to impose but to serve – to meet our citizens’ needs.

And right now this means the return of economic growth to Europe. Many of the other concerns, including concerns about intra-union migration, are predicated on fears about the impact on jobs, on housing and on public service usage. The perception is that these migration patterns add further pressure on already pressurised services suffering from the obsessive focus on budgetary control.

Now we know there is a balance to be achieved here. And this is a point I’ve made before. That we need to broaden our response to economic underachievement.

I know better than most in this House that a balance is required here. Mario Draghi has done his best. But often monetary stimulus is not enough. A corresponding fiscal stimulus is required.

This is something we need to debate and act on, lest further years of EU austerity damage the political fabric of the union further.

Likewise Europe needs to recover its spirit. It was never intended to be just an economic club, or merely a single market. Many of its great achievements are in the area of social policy and it is to that spirit that we must return.

My party will be supportive of the Government’s efforts to work through this problem. This result may well have been out of our control but its potential impact on this country are huge.

I welcome the publication of the Government’s contingency strategy last week. I agree we should seek to maximise whatever advantages that might accrue in what is otherwise a difficult challenge.

And if there is to be a new relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union arising from this decision, we must work to make one that meets the needs of the Irish state and of everyone on the island of Ireland.

This country has in the recent past been both assisted by our fellow EU members. We have also had burdens imposed upon us.

It is critical at his juncture that what happens now makes the best of this bad lot for Irish citizens of the EU. That is the task that faces the Taoiseach and his Government. It is one that we will support them in and hold them accountable for.

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