Until yesterday I had no intention of writing about a rancorous experience I had with some pro-Brexit visitors from the United Kingdom at a recent two-day business meeting in Dublin. Then I read this extraordinary interview in the UK’s hard-right tabloid newspaper, The Express, with Andrew Bridgen, a controversy-prone MP from the ascendant europhobic wing of the ruling Conservative Party in London, discussing future Irish attitudes to the European Union:
Speaking exclusively to Express.co.uk, Mr Bridgen said: “Despite the fact that it is a 96 percent of Irish people claims currently to support the European Union and I think that support will rapidly decline.
“The Republic of Ireland is only going to be four and a half million people. They will be one percent of the EU population.
“They will be the only English speaking nation left in the European Union when we have left.
“They are out in the Atlantic – they are not attached to mainland EU.”
Mr Bridgen said both of Ireland’s biggest trading partners, the US and UK, will be out of the European Union.
He added: “Neither of us will be in the European Union so they trade with the EU less than any other country in the EU. They are going to become net contributors.
“So, for the first time, instead of being paid to be in the club, the Republic of Ireland will be paying to be in a club and that’s a game changer.”
In his comments the Tory politician overlooked the rather awkward fact that Ireland’s combined exports to the rest of the European Union, minus the soon-to-be-departed United Kingdom, are significantly greater than its exports to the UK alone. And that those exports are hugely dependent on the country’s membership of the EU. Likewise, Dublin’s trade deals with Washington are enhanced by its membership of the Continental bloc, with the bureaucrats and diplomats in Brussels doing much of the heavy lifting on trans-Atlantic agreements and regulations. As for the idea that a majority of people in Ireland would turn against Europe in any post-Brexit scenario; the claim is negated not just by the consistent polling on the question but also by the numbers of Irish citizens resident in Britain’s legacy colony in the north-east of the island who are demanding that the contested region remains within the union. The European one, that is.
Bridgen’s spurious words resonated with me following a business meeting at the start of the week with several representatives from a SME firm based in the south-east of England. During a break in the proceedings the question of Brexit came up, raised by the head of the UK delegation, who clearly believed that he would find a sympathetic audience among his Irish counterparts. The middle-aged manager had flagged his politics earlier on when we were discussing matters relating to our sister-company in Germany. He and his colleagues expressed mild surprise when we did not agree with their assessment of the Germans in general as “difficult” or “odd” to work with it; and that we actually had a very fruitful working relationship with our partners in Frankfurt.
So when the subject of Brexit appeared I was prepared for the worse; and I wasn’t disappointed. I won’t get into the details, for reasons of confidentiality, but yes, their support for Brexit mostly related to the question of immigration and, I quote, “the hundreds of thousands who want to come here” (by “here” we presumed he meant Britain, since he and the other tone deaf British guests constantly referred to the “mainland” when discussing potential business operations between our respective companies). The resulting debate with the Pound Shop Farage and his merry band of Ukippers, including the reasons why Europe was “trying to do Britain down”, was cut short when one of my colleagues kicked me underneath the table and the discussion returned to the neutral ground of joint enterprises.
This is anecdotal stuff, of course, but I have never encountered such naked atavism among British business professionals before. And like many Irish people I have had a few uncomfortable moments with guests from Britain, if more out of ignorance than malice. All in all, a decidedly tiresome couple of days.