When I was a young man I played an awful lot of the board game Risk. For those of you who don’t know the game the object is to dominate the world by different forms of conflict and conquest. To do this you have to take Risks – hence the name. It has a very imperial view of the world but still had some interesting lessons: one I seem to recall was that the middle east was a very risky place to be but if you managed to control it then you had a great chance of winning the game – sound familiar?
This game was going through my mind when I listened to the latest excellent Inside politics podcast from the Irish Times about Brexit and the pitfalls and opportunities for the Republic of Ireland. It is always important to learn how your country is viewed by other nations and it is fair to say that as far as the Republic of Ireland’s political class is concerned they find the whole Brexit convulsions in Britain baffling (they are not alone in that). It is also clear that Brexit is an all consuming subject for the Irish as it is for the British. One contributor made the point that he doubted that any other European country ran Brexit stories in virtually every section of their national papers as does the Irish Times along with other papers – many Irish versions of British titles.
As the conversation continued it was clear that the Republic of Ireland was going to go through something of an existential crises once Britain leaves the EU as it was clear that they had very much used the size and power of Britain for their own advantage – this will not be available to them very shortly, in truth it no longer is as isn’t Britain a fully participating member of the EU anymore. The crises will really start around about Monday of next week if the expected first phase negotiations are signed off by the EU countries this weekend. Suddenly Ireland’s concerns will be quietly sidelined as the real power brokers ie France and Germany start to make their weight felt. Warm words will be offered to the Irish over the border issues but apart from that I doubt they get much of a look in.
Perhaps the most interesting, and from my perspective most fanciful, was the suggestion that the Republic of Ireland should be able to make common cause with the Dutch and Nordic countries over certain issues and the eastern European countries over other issues as they had in the past. I know that what I am about to say is very Anglo centric, but my suspicion is that the Baltic countries for example were very keen to work with the Irish because, in part, of their close relationship with Britain. That would no longer be there but the Baltic states still want to have a close relationship with Britain because Britain is the only European nation who can and has troops on the ground and fighter aircraft in the air above the Baltic states defending them from too much Russian interference. Whilst this is part of the NATO response it is still something that Britain can offer that Ireland can’t and is very very important. Not one other EU country has the military capabilities that Britain has and this is important to many of the smaller EU countries – especially those bordering on Russia. (To take just one example – in air refueling – there are only two NATO countries that have any meaningful capacity for this Britain and the USA – something that the major EU powers are painfully aware of.)
Brexit is a crazy thing to undertake but that is what we, the British, voted for and so are trying to make the best of it. I suspect the Irish are enjoying the British discomfort and I can’t blame them one little bit for that but I also suspect that they are very quickly going to catch a cold if they think that their voice is going to be heard in the corridors of power in the EU who will always view the Republic of Ireland with a certain amount of suspicion, given their inevitable close, probably best described as intimate relationship with Britain (just one example of this is the loan given by Britain to Ireland during the financial crises).
The promises of the Brexiteers during the referendum campaign are one by one collapsing under the weight of reality but what this does mean is that Britain will end up with a relationship with the EU which will probably suit both sides, close but not too close. It will take several years to sort out but when the dust settles the one country that I fear will be most affected will be the Republic of Ireland. How they try and overcome this is going to place a strain on the country and I have no idea how they will cope because, as I have stated before, the island of Ireland is one of the British Isles and because of this geographical fact will never have the same relationship with the EU as say the Netherlands. The Republic of Ireland may well be very pro EU but is the EU very pro the Republic? Only time will tell. As when playing Risk the more powerful always get more of what they want. Britain is learning that lesson just now – Ireland should be wary of thinking that this is going to all upside for them.