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Britain’s gross act of self-harm leaves Ireland in search of a role model

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April 18, 2017 by Fiachra

The 26 counties known today as the Republic of Ireland seceded from the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland in 1922. In the decades after, this new state has been known by many names: the Free State and Eire to British and Ulster Unionists, Éire and more recently Poblacht na hÉireann or the Republic of Ireland to nationalists. None of these constitutional adjustments and changes in nomenclature have come close to making Ireland independent of its closest neighbour and former master. Britain may have handed the reigns to Irish men (and later women), but British policymakers continued to have an outsized influence on their Irish counterparts.

This was in many ways an unfortunate inevitability. Ireland crashed out of the Union in extremely poor economic shape and thus remained economically dependent on Britain. Ireland’s macroeconomic and fiscal policies were essentially decided in London and tweaked in Dublin. When Ireland joined the then European Economic Community in 1973, it gained additional leverage. Even then, the habit of turning to the UK for inspiration if not direction continued. For social policy, liberal reformers sought inspiration from Britain and to a lesser extent, America. The similarity between the British and Irish legal systems, both based on Common Law, has led to lazy legal drafting practices: in some cases, such as the Gender Recognition Act, it looked as though the drafters took the text of British Acts of Parliament and ran “find and replace” function on a word processor. Beyond copy-and-paste, Irish policymakers tried to emulate British successes in everything from financial services to television broadcasting. Playing this game of policy catch-up had certain advantages: it allowed Ireland to see what British policies worked and could be adapted to its own situation. On the other hand, it inhibited Ireland from developing the capacity to create policies suited to its own unique situation. When mistakes happened, as they did with principle-based approach to financial services regulation (which looked an awful lot like no regulation), the relative costs were much greater in a small economy like Ireland than they were in a large economy such as the UK. The Irish banking crisis led the state to apply for an IMF programme, whereas the UK was able to weather the (certainly horrific) storm without outside assistance.

There are signs now that this may be changing. Brexit is driving the UK to a place that Ireland will not go, and will fundamentally change the relationship between the two countries. Ireland remains staunchly pro-EU, and Irish progressives are increasingly dismayed at the xenophobic turn of British political discourse. In the short term, the main item on the agenda is finding an acceptable arrangement for the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. In the long term, however, Ireland will out of necessity have to begin thinking as an independent country within the European Union. Not only has Britain proven itself to be an unwise model, but it is proving to be an uncaring neighbour. In order to respond to Brexit and adapt to the post-Brexit environment, Ireland will need to develop its own public sphere and space for policy discourse. It is unlikely that Ireland will ever become an incubator of its own for path-breaking policymaking, but should derive its ideas from a wider variety of sources.

For Irish progressives, there is a danger that this might mean little more than replacing London with Ottawa. Canada means much more to progressives than impossible popularity of its Prime Minister – it has a large Irish disaspora, constitutional bilingualism and has successfully integrated immigrants across generations from many different national, religious and cultural backgrounds. Long before Justin Trudeau revived the Liberal Party’s electoral fortunes, the New Democratic Party under Jack Layton was touted as a role model for the Irish Labour Party. There is some initial evidence of a turn towards Ottawa taking hold – Canada’s move to legalise marijuana has been quickly followed by discussions in Irish government circles of decriminalising possession of all drugs for personal use. This could lead Ireland to completely scrap or amend beyond recognition the notoriously prohibitionist and British-inspired Misuse of Drugs Act. A great many liberals, including myself would applaud a move such as this. Yet Ireland should look beyond Canada and seek inspiration from as many countries as possible to prevent our policy discourse from being tied to closely to one single country. And perhaps, given the uniqueness of Ireland’s post-Brexit situation, we should also learn to think for ourselves.


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