Edelman Ireland were delighted to be joined by The British Ambassador to Ireland, His Excellency Dominick Chilcott (@DChilcottFCO) at the launch of Edelman Ireland’s 2016 Trust Barometer. On a day when British Prime Minister David Cameron addressed MPs on his plan for EU reform the Ambassador gave a very insightful speech on the relationships between Ireland and the UK in the context of the EU referendum and Ireland’s 1916 centenary celebrations.
The full transcript of the Ambassador’s speech follows.
Thank you very much for that introduction and thank you to Edelman for giving me the opportunity to talk to this well-informed audience about trust in British-Irish relations and about the issue of Britain and Europe.
For most of the 20th century, and the centenary of the Easter Rising this year gives us plenty of opportunity to think back over the last hundred years, relations between Britain and Ireland could not be said to be characterised by a high degree of mutual trust.
The Rising, the war of independence, the civil war, the economic war of the 1930s and Ireland’s neutrality during the Second World War– to name but five episodes – may each have been justified in themselves – and I’ll leave that for historians to debate – but, and I don’t think this is controversial, individually and in aggregate, such developments did not generally promote good relations and trust across these islands.
The Provisional IRA’s armed campaign in Northern Ireland in teh 70s and 80s and the British government’s response to it caused, at times, further friction in our relations.
For those of us who like anniversaries – and I confess to being one such – yesterday was the 44th anniversary of the burning down of the British Embassy in Merrion Square by an angry mob, outraged by the Bloody Sunday shootings in Derry/Londonderry of a few days earlier.
Yet we’ve gone from those dark days, characterised by wariness and sometimes hostility, to our present era of friendship and mutual respect, where our two governments are cooperating across the waterfront of issues wherever it is in our common interests to do so.
As the Taoiseach and Mr Cameron were able to declare in March 2012: “The relationship between our two countries has never been stronger or more settled, as complex or as important, as it is today.”
What brought about this change? You can point to– as Spike says in the film ‘Notting Hill’ – a combination of factors.
Firstly, there are the myriad of people to people links, which have constituted a network of connections between us even when government relations were poor and the news invariably grim.
These human links of kith and kin are the product of migration between these islands, flows of people in both directions across the Irish Sea, which have been happening over the centuries.
Some of the most trusted people are people like us whom we know well. So there have been hundreds of thousands of advocates for better relations in both countries – people who knew at first hand that the other place wasn’t so bad.
Just on the numbers, we reckon that there are about 500,000 Irish citizens living in Great Britain. In addition, we estimate that about another 5 million Brits who have or had an Irish born grandparent, which means that there are more people living in GB with the right to an Irish passport than live in the Republic.
To quote Mr Kenny and Mr Cameron again: “our citizens, uniquely linked by geography and history, are connected today as never before through business, politics, culture and sport, travel and technology, and of course family ties…These vital human links are nowhere more evident than in the presence of a large, confident, valued and integrated Irish community in Britain and in the increasing number of British people who now live and work in Ireland.”
These links always existed. But celebrating them was often not easy.
We’ve been remembering the great life of Sir Terry Wogan this week. One of his huge contributions to British-Irish relations was to be a much-loved Irish voice in British homes at a time when IRA terrorism was a daily reality in the UK.
In these peaceful times, thank goodness, the Brits no longer need a national treasure like Terry Wogan to be reminded of how much we enjoy the company of our Irish neighbours. Which doesn’t mean we are about to give you back Graham Norton.
I was very amused during the State Visit of President Higgins to the UK when, at the ceiliuradh at the Royal Albert Hall, Olivia O’Leary told the mostly Irish audience, amidst scenes of general celebration and joy, that it was official, it was alright to like the English. It was funny. But Olivia O’Leary was also marking a moment of catharsis.
A second factor that has brought our two countries and administrations together has been our common membership of the European Union.
At an important psychological level, our status as sovereign nation states, subject to the same rules and regulations, participating in the same European institutions on an equal basis, makes our relationship much more balanced.
The UK’s size and weight are constrained, in a good way, by the EU’s framework of structures, processes and regulations. And smaller member states like Ireland enjoy a voice at the table and a significant influence over developments, as well as the support of institutions like the Commission to safeguard their interests.
In short, being in the EU gives greater confidence that the relationship between us will be better channelled and better managed.
Just as importantly, our both being members of the EU has meant that ministers and officials, over the years since we joined, together in 1973, have formed the habit of working with each other on European questions.
Speaking the same language, having a similar sense of humour, coming from a shared culture, and often adopting a similar liberal, free market, business friendly approach to issues, we find comparing notes and working together in Europe comes naturally.
Our administrations are no longer strangers to one another as we were before we joined the EU. Au contraire, we are close friends in Europe and like-minded on many of the big order questions, such as improving the EU’s competitiveness, extending the single market to cover services and digital retail, and promoting trade agreements with other countries and regions of the world.
A third factor has been our willingness to put aside the baggage of history and work together to bring peace to Northern Ireland.
It was often hard pounding in the 1980s and early 1990s. But even in those years, Dublin and London managed to reach important agreements. Margaret Thatcher and Garret Fitzgerald signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.
John Major and Albert Reynolds agreed the landmark Downing Street Declaration of December 1993, which paved the way for the first IRA and Loyalist ceasefires.
But it was the work of Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern that achieved the breakthrough of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
The experience of bringing peace to Northern Ireland forced our two governments to pull together, to concert tactics and to work in tandem for the same outcome. That built trust.
The ending of the dreadful drumbeat of terrorist violence in Northern Ireland also made a huge difference, of course. Cleansed of violence, the political environment was ready for a major change of sentiment.
But there still needed to be a catalyst. And that catalyst, as you will know, proved to be the two recent state visits.
The Queen’s visit here, nearly five years ago, in May 2011, and President Higgins return state visit in April 2014 enabled the leaders of our countries to signal to our peoples, through their words, actions and evident enjoyment of each other’s company, how we should view each other – with respect and friendship – and that we shouldn’t allow our contested history to inhibit our naturally friendly relations.
As Professor McAleese said, as the Queen’s hostess at the banquet in Dublin Castle: “We can’t change the past. But we have decided to change the future.”
It would be a mistake to take this much happier state of affairs in British-Irish relations for granted. International relations, like equities, can go down as well as up.
We need to continue our close cooperation on Northern Ireland in a spirit of compromise and openness.
We need to maintain the momentum of our programme of bilateral collaboration, which we initiated in 2012.
That programme engages all departments in our two administrations and encourages them to work with their counterparts on the other side of the Irish Sea on issues where working together promotes the general good.
Twice a year we take stock of progress. Secretary Generals meet in the Autumn, while the Taoiseach and the PM hold a summit in the first half of the year.
Neither Britain nor Ireland has a structured programme of bilateral cooperation of this scale or intensity with any other country. It will be important that we continue it.
Equally, I believe it is very helpful for both our countries to be members of the same international organisations, where possible. And an immediate challenge to this general rule comes from the UK’s referendum on Europe.
In some ways, trust lies at the heart of the European issue in the UK.
Who do we trust to make the laws that govern us and to enforce them fairly? Who do we trust to keep us safe from the dangers of our modern world – disease, climate change, unwanted immigration, threats to our economy from out of control institutions, terrorism and so on?
Philip Stephens in FT last month quoted President Roosevelt’s Secretary of State in 1944 who said that the British would always be uncomfortable in any club that they did not lead.
As he also pointed out, history, geography, political culture and self-image all help to explain why we take a different view of Europe from many other member states.
Europe is not existentially important for the UK, as it is for most others.
For the original six member states, the deep fear of another major European conflict fought over their territory means that faith in the European project is almost unshakeable. They trust Europe to keep the peace between them.
For Spain, Portugal and Greece, the EU has been their salvation from and safeguard against the return to a fascist past.
For the central Europeans, the EU protects their young democracies and prevents them falling back towards command economies and intolerant one party politics. And it helps to keep Russia’s baleful influence away.
For Ireland, EU membership has been key to the country’s modernisation and, as I have argued, remains important for a mature, balanced relationship with Britain.
But the EU does not have the same existential importance for Britain.
Our political institutions survived the two world wars and emerged, if anything, stronger for having been tested in the fire of global conflict. We were never occupied. So our fear of another European conflict is less visceral.
The EU did not modernise us. It does not guarantee our democracy. If anything, it slightly dilutes it.
Going further back, for most of Britain’s recent history we did our best to avoid getting entangled in the affairs of the continent so that we could get on with trading and building and maintaining an empire. So an arm’s length approach to the politics of Europe is, to some extent, in our national DNA.
So in Britain, you do find an inherent exceptionalism. The EU has to prove itself on more prosaic grounds. Is it providing greater opportunities for business? What benefits do individuals get from membership?
The pros and cons appear more in balance to many British people without an overriding need to belong to the EU.
Another aspect of trust is that the British people feel, for too long, successive British governments have not trusted them to have a direct say over our position in Europe.
The UK last had a referendum on its membership of the then EEC in 1975. The organisation has changed hugely since then.
Tony Blair promised a referendum on the European constitution. It was expected to be held in 2006 but, after the no votes in France and the NL, the referendum was dropped.
There is a feeling in the UK that a referendum on our membership is overdue.
Moreover, there is a lot of disquiet about developments in Europe.
Immigration. This is the issue which resonates most on the doorstep and perhaps it merits a little explanation.
Net migration to the UK reached 330,000 in the year to June 2015, which is an all-time record and over three times the government’s target.
That figure – the difference between the number entering the country and those leaving – is significantly more than the population of Belfast.
Not all those people are EU citizens, of course. But a great many are.
Net migration of EU citizens in the same 12 months was 180,000 – about the size of Middlesborough or, closer to home, almost the size of Cork.
None of this is to deny that the vast majority of migrants work hard and pay taxes. But there is a rate of immigration above which a society cannot readily absorb all the new people joining it. And many of those immigrants receive in-work tax benefits to supplement their salaries, which puts pressure on our welfare system.
And Europe is not standing still. It seems clear that those member states which have adopted the Euro, in order to improve the functioning of the currency, will need to integrate further and faster than those outside the Eurozone.
So the UK’s qualms about our EU membership risk being exacerbated by our being drawn into further centralising steps, for which there is little support in the UK and whose purpose is to bolster a currency which we are not part of.
In these circumstances, is it surprising that support for EU membership is, to use David Cameron’s phrase, wafer-thin across the UK.
UKIP, Britain’s Eurosceptic party, got 4 million votes at the last election and it’s no secret that many Conservative supporters would like Britain to leave the EU.
This is the political challenge David Cameron faces on Europe.
He has decided to address it by seeking reforms in the EU which should benefit all member states, renegotiating the UK’s status and taking this package of changes to a referendum in order to have our EU membership reaffirmed.
The aim is to keep the UK in a reformed EU.
We are looking for reform in four areas. You may be familiar with them so I’ll only mention them briefly.
Sovereignty and subsidiarity. Remove the UK from the objective of an “ever closer union”. Give a bigger role for national parliaments to ensure laws are made at the appropriate level. National where possible, European where necessary.
Economic governance. The EU should recognise the reality that it is a multi-currency zone. Countries outside the Euro area should not be disadvantaged or lose their influence in policy areas, like framing the single market rules, that apply to all member states.
Competitiveness: reduce the regulatory burden on SMEs; extend the single market to include services, digital and energy; supercharge negotiations for ambitious trade deals with the US and others.
Migration: crack down on abuse (eg sham marriages); change our welfare system so that it is not an artificial draw for people to come to Britain (4 year residency requirement for qualifying for in-year benefits).
Progress to date?
Things are moving fast.
The EU referendum act has passed into law. There will be an in-out referendum on our EU membership before the end of 2017.
The government is making it clear that it will be a one shot referendum – i.e. no second chance if the people deliver the wrong answer.
Negotiations are going well in Brussels. Yesterday, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council circulated a set of draft texts which, if agreed by the other member states, would constitute the deal we are seeking.
The goal is to reach a deal, if possible, on 18/19 February at the European Council. But getting the substance right is more important than the timing.
In Davos last month, David Cameron said: “If there isn’t a good deal, I’m not in a hurry. I can hold my referendum anytime up until the end of 2017.”
If the deal is done in two weeks’ time, we could be on course for the referendum to be held in June.
Hard to measure as most people are not thinking about the EU. We know from our general election that they way people vote can be different from what they tell pollsters.
Last month, a poll by Survation of 1017 people online recorded a 4 point lead for leave. 42% Leave. 38% Remain. 20% undecided.
But opinion is soft. 48% said that the outcome of the renegotiation would have some impact on how they decided to vote. And 46% said that a package which curbed benefits for EU migrants, reduced red tape for business and provided safeguards for Euro-outs would be a good package.
In a similar vein, YouGov polling from December showed that having greater controls on immigration from the EU and putting limits on the benefits EU migrants are eligible for was seen as the most important areas for reform.
As of today, if the draft deal is acceptable to our 27 partner countries in the EU, it feels as if this referendum is very winnable.
Those countries which are our closest neighbours and with which we have the richest and most complex relations would be the most affected by Britain leaving the EU.
Ireland is, by almost every measure, at the top of the list of the UK’s closest and most important neighbours. And the consequences of a change in Britain’s EU status would likely be felt profoundly in Ireland.
Various Irish think-tanks and commentators have argued that Northern Ireland could have the most to lose from the UK departing the EU.
The NIAC of the House of Commons announced last week that it was going to hold an inquiry into the consequences for Northern Ireland of Brexit. This is a very welcome addition to the debate in Northern Ireland.
Another aspect of the Irish dimension is the number of Irish people or people of Irish descent who will have the right to vote in the referendum.
There are about 1.3 million people in Northern Ireland with a vote. There are several hundred thousand Irish citizens resident in GB who are eligible to vote. To say nothing of the 5 or 6 million people of recent Irish descent.
The Irish government is making its position of support for the UK to remain in the EU very clear, while at the same time emphasising that the issue is one for the people of the UK to decide on.
I imagine that people in the UK who have an interest in good relations between the UK and Ireland will be listening carefully to what the Irish government and other Irish organisations and prominent people say.
One final thought, I expect many of you will know British nationals who are resident in Ireland. Provided they have lived and been registered on the UK’s electoral roll in the last past 15years, they have the right to vote in the referendum.
Do remind them of this when you next see them. Registration is done on-line and is pretty quick and easy.
The more eligible people vote in the referendum, the greater the trust we can all have that its result will reflect the settled position of the UK on the European question.