By Patrick Brogan
“Were it not for this inexhaustible river of invention and discovery irrigating the fragile crop of human welfare, living standards would undoubtedly stagnate. Even with population tamed, fossil energy tapped and free trade, the human race could quickly discover the limits to growth if knowledge stopped growing.” -Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist
Irexit; the Launch of a Movement
In the book quoted above, English author Matt Ridley lays out the case fairly convincingly that free trade is what separates us from the animals. A cross-pollination of ideas, and this is the important part, that are free to travel and meet with other ideas is why mankind’s living standards have seen continuous growth since 10,000 BC and exponentially so in the last centuries and decades. Ridley’s book is one of optimism, the title gives that away, and one that states living conditions have always improved and will always do so.
It’s interesting to read this book to the current backdrop of doom and gloom in the media and sometimes the general populous itself. What is more interesting is to be reading this when invited to the Irexit launch, in the Bonnington Hotel last week. A member of that organisation had contacted me about going and he is somebody that we had on the podcast some time back. The ideas laid out by the speeches at the Irexit launch and those in “The Rational Optimist” run contrary to each other, even though one of the chief leaders of Brexit, Boris Johnson, described this book as “a triumphant blast on the vuvuzela of common sense”.
Fundamentally, I would be very much in the corner of Ridley and the optimists. The concerns raised in the Bonnington are genuine. While I welcome their questioning stance and the creation of debate, their conclusions and ideology are alien to me and would not best serve the Irish public. Firstly, what are the concerns?
In the first section of the event, there were four speakers, Ray Kinsella, Ray Bassett, Paddy Manning and Ben Scallan. They talked about a wide range of subjects from economic issues, the media, PESCO and, obviously, the EU.
Ray Kinsella is an economist by trade, so that’s what he looked at, the economic argument. Kinsella wrote a book with his son called Troikanomics. His son Maurice is a philosopher so together they had an interesting take on the bailouts and the impact that has had on society. He said that Greece is worse off now than before the bailouts, something we pointed out in this article. Kinsella described the EU and its financial functions as full of “structural and operational deficiencies” and that there is an “asymmetrical burden to adjust” on those that can afford it the least.
All of this is impossible to argue against, especially in light of what happened with the bailouts. As are Kinsella’s concerns about a “hegemonic and increasingly militarised” EU, largely controlled by Germany, with the creation of PESCO. Who knows where this will lead?
However, Ray Kinsella’s pining for a more religious Ireland does concern me. He said Europe was disregarding its Christian democratic roots. Which is very true. Even the EU flag is a Marian symbol. He lamented the materialism of Ireland today which was ushered in by “the secularism” of the EU and how Europe has moved away from the vision of Konrad Adenauer. There was “greatness in the Europe vision, but it lost the plot”.
Firstly, a pope has just left these shores to a backdrop of outrage over rampant abuse by Catholic priests and even more outrageous, a cover-up by the Vatican. Is this the religious Ireland Ray Kinsella wants to return to? One in which priests abused the most vulnerable in society and were never held to account? On the point of secularism, religiousness and materialism are not mutually exclusive; A look at the ornation of any Catholic church makes that clear, particularly the mother-ship in Rome. A materialistic society, while lamentable, is not due to the EU and has its origins in the US. Who was it again that wanted to model the European continent on US Capitalism? Oh yes, that’s right, it was Konrad Adenauer.
To cap it off, Ray Kinsella said he “mourns a country that facilitates legislation for killing children”. To describe parents, particularly mothers, that have to make the difficult choice of going through with an abortion as murderers is a disgrace. Again, what Ray Kinsella described is returning to 1950s Ireland, which was horrendous.
The next speaker was Ray Bassett, who is a microbiologist and former ambassador. He was also a member of the team that negotiated the Good Friday Agreement. He spoke about how the Irish mainstream media does not allow for dissent. It is overwhelmingly pro-EU. He said that Irish politicians should serve a five-year ban before taking jobs within the EU if they have previously negotiated with Brussels. Again, these are fairly sane proclamations. He spoke about how, through F.O.I. he found out that Ireland will contribute €2.7 billion to the EU, but will only receive €1.7 billion. A loss of €1 billion is significant given the number of issues facing Irish society today.
Relationship with Britain
Mr Bassett wants a closer relationship with Britain and criticised the Government’s almost antagonistic stance towards our island neighbours. This has been a disappointing factor, post-referendum. He said the backstop is inoperable, but is that Ireland’s fault? After all, it was Britain that voted to leave and changed the circumstances. Ireland changing its views because Britain changed theirs seems a bit odd to me.
Next up, the man that describes himself as a “one-man opposition to Progressive Ireland”. Paddy Manning railed against the bias in the Irish media and how journalists are of one opinion. He said bad ideas thrive when they are not questioned and the media is how a democracy talks to itself. Where journalism is taught are “liberal madrasas” and it is rancid bigotry in operation.
Part of the flaw with the media is how they reported the abortion referendum, particularly the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar. Manning pointed out how few of the articles in the “liberal media” gave the cause of death as sepsis. He failed to point out how Savita’s family were in favour of repealing the law and the person that investigated her death, Sir Sabaratnam Arulkumaran, cited the then law as a factor in her death.
Then came Ben Scallan of Civil Right Media to talk about the media, Karl Marx and Ireland’s history of agitating against foreign colonial powers. While decrying the lack of objectivity in the mainstream media he is part of an organisation that is “a reasonable, centre-right perspective on news, culture and current affairs – because everyone has a right to hear the other side.” So, not objective then or even trying to be.
I can’t help but feel that Irexit is just the Irish branch of UKIP, a contradiction in itself. Hermann Kelly, the spokesman for the group, is also deeply connected to Farage and the group also promotes the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy Group, which UKIP is a member of. I have deep reservations about people like Farage. He banged the drum to leave Europe and when this was achieved, he went missing, not offering any solutions as to what would happen next.
Then there is Farage in the Irish context. He once said; “So what they are doing to try and make Brexit negotiations difficult for this government, is they are prepared to stoke Irish nationalism and all that could come with that. I have to say that that perhaps is the most contemptible thing that I’ve heard so far.” What does a party like Irexit do other than stoke Irish nationalism? He has endorsed this party when he gave a speech at an event they held in February this year.
Then there is this element of thriving off of negativity. Manning described himself as against progression. Is that regression then? Why do we turn to other politicians when politics has already failed us so many times? Maybe it’s about time to recognise that Farage, Trump, Macron, Varadkar, Sanders, May nor Corbyn hold the answers.
There are a number of contradictions and claims that don’t make much sense in their literature. For example, they cite the EU to blame for the hard border. Was it not Britain voting to leave that caused this situation? Many of the economic arguments seemed to be based on bringing Ireland under the fold of Britain. Then the there is the import/export balance issue. The UK alone accounts for 20% of exports and 8% of imports while the rest of the EU accounts for 34% of imports and 28% of exports. Within this context, it looks like our trade with the UK is a massive positive while with the EU it’s close to evening out.
However, this does not tell the full story. Many of the imports from the EU are vital for Irish businesses to function. As a small island with very limited resources, we are reliant on imports to function as an economy. What this stat says to me is that the UK is offering very few products or resources we can’t get elsewhere. And overall, the bigger trading partner is the rest of the EU. To leave this and link in closer to the UK because we have a bigger trade surplus with them seems ill-thought out to me.
We Need to Trade
The banishing of trade tariffs on the European continent improved the lot of all the citizens of all the member states, regardless if they are willing to admit that or not. The reason Western Europe and North America became the most developed nations on earth was their openness. They were open to trade with other nations, open to ideas and capital and also open to people from elsewhere with better ideas. No nation, especially in the long-term, does well in isolation. So, turning our back to the EU would be the worst course of action we could take.
Problems Within the EU
That is not to say the EU is above criticism, far from it. As pointed out already, Greece is worse-off after the bailouts and Ireland isn’t much better. Think of the heartache and misery that caused. That is a common story with bailouts. There is the fact it is a grossly unaccountable institution, which we pointed out here and here. Let’s not forget the deficit we have incurred in our own fisheries. There is Merkel’s reckless immigration policies, too. It is okay to be critical of the EU, in fact, it is important to be so.
If the EU is so flawed, but becoming isolationist is a bad idea, what is to be done? Reform. There is no reason this cannot be done. The EU has changed much over the years and can be changed again. Brussels, it is felt, has too much influence and this is something I would subscribe to, too. However, walking away from such a trade bloc for a cold resourceless rock in the mid-Atlantic would be a disaster. Bringing us into an economic union with Britain has been tried and it failed. From independence to the 70s, we were a basket-case country. And speaking of Reformations; While, I think this country could benefit from more “Christian” values, (Jesus was into justice and mercy, wasn’t he?), whether Catholic or Protestant, religious institutions in this country have repeatedly shown they are the least Christian people imaginable.
What is needed is to reassess what made the European Union an initial success. Something more akin to the old EEC would be best in my view. There is no reason why the Hungarians cannot uphold their proud traditions, the Italians theirs, the Swedes theirs and us ours and not be able to work together. The world has changed. Factors like climate change, migration and poverty are global issues and should be worked on by a community of nations. Irexit will not provide this.
The continuous flow of trade, people, capital and, most important, ideas are what have lifted millions out of poverty. It is not political ideologies and certainly not politicians. Politics often gets in the way and in the case of Communism, Fascism and most other isms they are downright dangerous. But isolationism is the worst of these. Isolationism will bring us back to the Stone-age. Isolation does not work.
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