THE OFFICIAL OPENING OF THE 2014 MACGILL SUMMER SCHOOL
H.E. Mr Dominick Chilcott, British Ambassador to Ireland
The overall political theme for the week – ‘Without fundamental reform of our politics and institutions can we meet the challenges ahead?’ – is an excellent one. I will leave others to comment on the desirability or otherwise of reform in Ireland. But the British government is in no doubt of the need for reform of politics and institutions at the European level – on which more later.
It is nearly a year since the sad death of Seamus Heaney. So it is fitting that the MacGill Summer School should pay tribute to that great intellectual and poet, whose roots were dug deep into Ulster’s soil.
We are all still digging to find the right words to capture Seamus Heaney’s legacy, which goes well beyond beautiful poetry and liberating translations such as Beowulf into a realm where his generosity of spirit, honesty and compassion continue, from beyond the grave, to inspire us to try a bit harder.
When he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1995, the Nobel committee described his poetry as “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past”. That’s not a bad place to start.
I hope it won’t be thought unseemly to recall Seamus Heaney’s objection in 1982 to being included in a collection of British poetry. His famous riposte included these words: ““Be advised, my passport’s green/No glass of ours was ever raised/To toast the Queen”.
Now, I have a photograph in my residence of the dinner given, nearly 30 years later, by the then President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, for Her Majesty the Queen at Dublin Castle in May 2011. At the top table, sitting a few places from Her Majesty is Seamus Heaney.
As we all know, the Queen’s visit was a huge success, transforming British-Irish relations for the better. The prominent presence of Ireland’s then greatest living poet at the state banquet says something important about the respect for Seamus Heaney in both our countries and about our shared enjoyment of great Irish and British writers.
Seamus Heaney’s influence and following in Britain should not be underestimated. Apparently in 2008, according to The Poetry Foundation, two thirds of all the poetry collections sold in the UK were Seamus Heaney titles. There can’t be a British child born after 1980 who hasn’t studied Seamus Heaney’s work at school.
And, as you may have noticed, this April, at the banquet in St George’s Hall at Windsor Castle for President Higgins’ state visit to Britain, the Queen, in her speech, expressed her sadness at Seamus Heaney’s passing. It proved to be a remarkable moment of symmetry with Dublin Castle.
During that most solemn and formal act of friendship and reconciliation between our two countries, as the Queen was speaking at the state banquet at Windsor, the spirit of Seamus Heaney entered the hall. I am sure he was smiling down upon us, wishing us well… and noticing who else was raising a glass to toast the Queen.
Ladies and gentlemen, the political scientist from Mars observing our archipelago from outer space would be struck, I think, by the constitutional turbulence across these islands.
Most urgently, he would note the referendum in Scotland on 18 September. Would the union between Scotland and England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which has generally served the British people very well, survive its close encounter with direct democracy? We shall find out soon enough.
Even if the ‘better together’ campaign wins, as the British government fervently wish and as the polls suggest, it is very likely that the Scottish government will anyway get greater powers. We don’t know exactly how far ‘devo-max’ will extend. But I expect that Scots, for most intents and purposes, will become masters in their own house – while enjoying the wider economic and security benefits that the Union brings.
At the same time, we can expect greater devolution in Scotland to prompt calls for the transfer of more powers to the devolved governments of Wales and Northern Ireland. How far that process goes and whether it includes the devolution of the power to set corporation tax rates can only, at this stage, be guessed at.
Separately, we have to find a way to help the politicians in Northern Ireland operate the devolved system they already have. They need to make the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement work in the interests of the prosperity, welfare and security of the people of Northern Ireland.
There is no alternative. This British government and any conceivable successor will stand four square behind the Good Friday Agreement’s political institutions.
Part of the answer is to encourage the parties in Northern Ireland to find solutions to the issues which reinforce the identity politics of the province and poison the atmosphere – flags, emblems, parades and dealing with the past.
The British government does not believe we should impose remedies on the parties. The local politicians need to own the solutions if they are going to stick. But a bottom up approach should not be confused with a hands off one. Our sleeves are rolled up and, together with the government in Dublin, we will do what it takes to keep the parties engaged in working through these very complicated issues.
In the Republic, the constitutional convention has completed its work and the country awaits the government’s response to the convention’s recommendations. To say nothing about the deliberations at this summer school and in other fora in Ireland about the desirability or otherwise of political reform.
So there is plenty of swirling change in the system. At the same time, there is also a constant – changes are only taking place on the basis of consent.
The United Kingdom is now, clearly, a union based on consent. People in Scotland will decide the country’s future. The Downing Street Declaration of 1993 made clear that the British government had no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland’s future – as part of the United Kingdom or as part of a united island of Ireland – is for its people to decide.
When regional government for north east England was put to a referendum in 2004, 79% of the population voted against it. Plans for two further referendums for regional government in northern England were then abandoned.
The principle of consent also applies to Britain’s membership of the European Union. As David Cameron has observed, consent for Britain’s membership is now only wafer thin. The opinion polls suggest that only a small margin of British voters wish to remain in the EU. And often the gap is within the margin of error.
Why should this state of affairs have come about? It is lazy thinking to blame the British press. There are Eurosceptic journalists in other countries. And British journalists are not notably more dishonest than those in other countries when addressing serious issues.
The reason is more fundamental. In just about every other member state, membership of the EU is a guarantee of something existential. 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.
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 remains crucial to a mature, friendly 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. The EU did not modernise us. It does not guarantee our democracy. If anything, it slightly dilutes it. We were never occupied. So our fear of another European conflict is less visceral.
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.
For those of us who strongly believe that Britain’s place is in Europe, this is all very worrying. But it is no use our thinking that because we think we know best, we should just plough on and ignore the nay-sayers. That is not the spirit of our age. That is not the politics of consent. The British Government must respect and respond to the British people’s views.
And by the way, this phenomenon – the diminishing faith in the Union and its institutions is by no means something unique to the UK, as much as some people might wish to paint it as such.
The recent European elections and Euro-barometer polling have shown huge discontent, across the continent, from France to Finland, and, to some extent, here in Ireland too. Whilst the UK’s disillusion may be at a more advanced stage, this issue is something that no member state can afford to ignore.
The new British Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, defines himself as a pragmatist and a realist on Europe. He is committed to advancing the changes the British people want to see through hard-headed practical engagement so that we can achieve a new settlement in the EU that can command the British people’s consent.
The encouraging thing is that British opinion polls record comfortable majorities in favour of our EU membership if reform has been achieved.
The changes we seek build on David Cameron’s speech made at Bloomberg’s London HQ in January last year. Essentially, these are reforms that we believe benefit the EU as a whole, not just the UK. They include action in the following five areas:
It is against that background that one can see why David Cameron strongly opposed the process that led to Jean Claude Juncker’s nomination as the next president of the Commission.
Apart from a proportion of the electorate in Germany, Austria and Luxembourg, very few if any of the European electorate understood the Spitzenkandidaten process.
The gap between the citizen and the top people in Brussels got a lot wider because of the manner of Mr Juncker’s appointment. The UK has to live with the outcome. We will work with Mr Juncker. But the task of persuading the British people that the EU is moving in the right direction has become more difficult.
Before you conclude that the UK is heading inexorably for the so-called Brexit door, let me finish on a more upbeat note.
As I said, the polls in Britain consistently show a strong majority in support of staying in a reformed Europe. The sort of reforms we wish to see ought to command wide support across member states. They are not changes only for the UK’s benefit.
We are very conscious of the shock to relations on these islands that Britain’s leaving the EU would produce. But the principle of consent means that the risk is not negligible. The task is to persuade the public that the EU can do better for them than it is doing now. That will require reform.
Reform to make the institutions more accountable to the people – so less influence for a remote European parliament and more for national parliaments to which people relate.
Reform to make the EU a better place for jobs, business and economic growth so that the irreversible forces of globalisation do not erode our standards of living.
Reform to ensure that a more diverse Europe in future – with some countries not integrating as much as others – is fair to all its member states.
Reform to make it clear that the European project is not a one way street with power only travelling away from national governments to Brussels but one where power is exercised at the right level to be effective and democratically accountable.
These reforms are not pie in the sky. They will make the European Union work better for its citizens. They are the key to keeping Britain in the club. They should thus provide a win-win outcome.
But, to repeat myself, like all the constitutional changes taking place across our islands, the decision as to whether Britain stays or leaves will ultimately have to go with the grain of the wishes of the people. Thank goodness, these days, as we face so many constitutional forks in the road, there is no alternative to deciding which route to take other than on the principle of consent.