- Sep 29, 2009
The piece, How Ireland gets its way, discusses:
Then come the other gripes:
And then speculative vengeance:
- Ireland's political heft —
Every St Patrick’s day, Ireland’s ministers partake in a long-held Irish custom: they leave the country. Ministers are packed off to far-flung destinations to preach the virtues of the homeland. The prime minister always heads to America, but other bigwigs find themselves farther afield. In 2018 the housing minister was sent to South Korea, while the minister for higher education ended up in Oman. This year, as covid-19 raged through Europe and Irish politics stood still during coalition negotiations, things were scaled back. Only the trip to Washington went ahead. Ireland, a country of 5m people, had to settle for an audience with the president, a breakfast with the vice-president and a lunch with practically every senior member of Congress.
The chagrin there can be smelled a long, long way from SW1. Get over it, chaps: the End of Empire can be precisely dated, 23 June 2016. Remember David Cameron wanted to be Prime Minister because he thought he would be good at it.
Paschal Donohoe, last week won the race to become president of the Eurogroup, the influential club of euro-zone finance ministers, despite the French and German governments backing another candidate. In June Ireland won a seat on the UN Security Council, fending off Canada, another country often flattered by comparison with a bigger, sometimes boorish, neighbour. Barely a decade after a financial crisis saw Ireland bailed out, Philip Lane, the former head of Ireland’s central bank, is the main thinker at the European Central Bank. In Brussels, Ireland’s commissioner Philip Hogan is in charge of trade, one of the few briefs where the European Commission, rather than EU governments, is supreme. And the EU’s position on Brexit was shaped by Irish diplomats.
All true; and more of the same. In large part, a recognition of genuine talent. On the other hand, the UK, another ... bigger, sometimes boorish, neighbour, excludes itself, operates a Brexiteers-only selection criterion, nominates also-rans (why does Liam Fox come to mind?), or tits around for points an' ha'pence.
- You knew this one was coming: the diaspora
Ireland has some natural advantages. A history of emigration blessed it with a huge diaspora in America, which unlike say the German diaspora, is vocal about its heritage. That ensures an audience in the White House and sway on Capitol Hill. It is a small, English-speaking country with diplomats able to focus on a few clear aims. A policy of neutrality helps it avoid unpopular military entanglement. Unlike most rich European countries, it carries no imperial baggage. Indeed, Ireland’s history as a victim of colonialism still provides a useful icebreaker with countries once coloured pink on Victorian maps.
No recognition of why the 'diaspora' happened: to do so would mean acknowledging the Great Famine, and Transportation, baggage all the way back to Cromwell and beyond. In truth, Ireland and the Irish (especially the Anglo-Irish) were totally complicit in British imperialism. We just learned not to talk about it.
Then come the other gripes:
- Ireland somehow exploited EEC/EC largesse to become among the richest countries in the bloc. The UK, it is argued, contains seven or nine (depending on source) of the ten poorest regions of the EU. The UK, though, took a dim view of regional aid, even seeing it as a confession of national inadequacy.
- Ireland is not one of the EU's Big Five, and has emerged as a natural leader for the smaller EU nations. Ireland, of course, cheats because it has an embassy in every EU country.
- Ireland has been the perfect neo-liberal poster child:
Ireland was not always so influential. At the start of the decade, the country’s reputation was shot. A banking crisis led to an embarrassing €85bn bail-out. Rebuilding that reputation has been a decade-long task. Among the bail-out countries, Ireland became a star pupil, enacting reforms with almost masochistic relish, while other countries in a similar position complained. For a country whose prosperity is based on economic openness, foreign policy starts with economic policy.
We are, of course, reading The Economist, where realpolitik begins and ends in the national treasury. Which gives us the punch-line: all is not well in this best of all possible lives:
When it comes to tax, kind words about the Irish disappear. At 12.5%, its corporation tax is the second-lowest in the eu. Often companies do not pay even that. In 2016 the European Commission demanded that the Irish government collect €13bn in back-taxes from Apple. On July 15th the European Court of Justice annulled the decision. Ireland’s tax policy was legally vindicated (although its coffers were less full).
Odd, one might think, that The Economist complains about low regulation, low tax.
And then speculative vengeance:
Now plans are afoot to clamp down on unpopular tax policies using methods that would bypass this veto. The only way of stopping such proposals would be via an alliance of countries able to amass a blocking minority. It is lucky Ireland has skilled diplomats. It will need them.
There is something circular about the whole of this thesis. One reason why Ireland has been diplomatically successful is because we inherited a tradition of British expertise. Robert Erskine Childers went from being a House of Commons clerk to secretary of the Sinn Féin delegation at the Treaty negotiations. Joseph Walsh steered the Department of External Affairs from 1923 to 1946. Garret Fitzgerald, fluent Francophone, steered the entry into the EU. Éamon de Valera exploited international fora (notably the terminal League of Nations) to give a distinctive Irish voice; Seán MacBride, for all his many faults, continued in the same tradition. Conor Cruise O'Brien (yes: I number him in the song) was an effective operator in his days at the Department (one version is that he did the nasty on Charles Bewley).