Today was meant to be Brexit Day. If the new 29 March is 12 April (for now, at least), the UK’s EU “withdrawal” is finally within touching distance. Then, if we’re lucky, we’ll get a weekend off before commencing the next phase—the “future relationship”. Given the palpable sense of Brexit fatigue, articulated by my colleague Lauren last week, this will test even the most patient.
Thankfully, we’re also starting to see glimpses of an altogether more important and potentially more rewarding third phase—re-building Anglo-Irish relations. “Strained” is about the most diplomatic word one could use to describe the current relationship between the UK and Ireland, particularly politically. But, as is always the case, the interwoven nature of the political, economic and personal means that the overall mood is grey.
On the Irish side, the reality TV spectacle of Westminster has provided a free pass for Brit-bashing, and not just from the usual suspects. Politicians, CEOs, celebrities and even brands have somewhat arrogantly lamented the “state” of the UK, while simultaneously giving Ireland a pat on the back for how liberal and welcoming we Europeans are by comparison. Those who should really know better are finding it difficult to resist the temptation to kick our neighbours while they’re down.
The importance of moving forwards
While time is a great healer, even the best relationships drift if a void develops. The highly contested nature of the Brexit debate means tensions are running high. The disproportionate focus on short-term thinking often means longer-term, future-focused planning is neglected.
But the long term demands imaginative thinking and engagement. The future between the UK and Ireland needs to be about more than red tape, process and restoring institutions. Important as these are, we need to reboot relationships, too.
Given the combined €160 billion plus in trading between the two islands, and the 400,000 jobs this supports, it’s refreshing, therefore, to hear more details on the Government’s Global Irish initiative.
Extra resources have been invested in the Irish Embassy in London. Tánaiste Simon Coveney has announced that a new consulate is to be established in Cardiff (Ireland is Wales’s fourth-largest export market). Thought is also being given to establishing an official Irish presence in another UK city, a welcome move considering the significant Irish diaspora and business presence in Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow.
But as important as all this, and arguably more so, is the personal factor. The Brexit referendum starkly exposed that businesses and social leaders have a responsibility to play a bolder leadership role in big national and international issues. It’s not just the job of politicians to influence.
Through education, culture, marriage, friendships and much more, thousands of Irish people have benefited from the UK in a truly personal sense.
I have experienced through family in Scotland and friends in Manchester, London, Northern Ireland and elsewhere a sense of anxiety that didn’t previously exist. While many voted to Remain, plenty of good and intelligent people voted to Leave, too. Tut-tutting their choice is not helpful in the long term. All of us, personally and professionally, must try to better understand the motivations behind such perspectives.
The UK’s business and cultural leaders, as well as its state bodies, need to proactively and maturely contribute to improving Anglo-Irish relations, as well. Not so long ago, Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Ireland and the subsequent return visit by President Higgins to Windsor presented platforms for engagement. What similar actions can be initiated now?
In the business sense, bodies like Ibec and its UK equivalent, the CBI, have understandably been concerned with the withdrawal phase of Brexit. What we need to see from both now is future-focused engagement. Ireland would benefit greatly from hearing from voices like CBI’s Carolyn Fairbairn on development and growth, just as the UK has much to learn from Ibec’s Danny McCoy.
We need each other. No matter where Brexit ultimately lands, we will continue to need each other. It was only a decade ago that thousands of Irish, reeling from the economic crash, looked to the UK to build a life and career. As our nearest neighbour, and home of one of the world’s most important cities, London, the UK will continue to matter. Let’s look forward, not back, and show that Anglo-Irish relations are about more than just Brexit.
Founder and Managing Director of PR360, Dan’s career spans business, politics and professional representation. He has overseen the agency’s rapid growth, developing a premier client portfolio and a talented team of professionals.