Barak Obama was hitting the headlines last week with his opinions – or, rather, the State Department’s opinions – on the EU referendum. Whether it had any effect is doubtful. “Inners” were delighted, because he was on their side. “Outers” felt that, as a foreign head of stat, he should butt out.
What you may have missed was the contribution to the debate of the head of government of another sovereign state a little closer to home. Now the Republic of Ireland is a small country on the western edge of Europe and is, by any measure, a very small David to the gargantuan US Goliath. But – and it is a big “but” – you may recall that David turned out to be a lot more important than Goliath.
Let me take you back a couple of weeks to one of the highlights of this year’s Oxford LitFest – an interview at the Town Hall with Mary McAleese, a well-respected former President of Ireland.
Although the event was framed against the backdrop of the 1916 Easter Rising, the subject was very much on the present and the way in which the modern state had developed over the last 100 years.
It was a generally positive story which took us from armed revolutionary beginnings to a mature and justifiably proud sovereign state with an honourable history of neutrality and international peacemaking. Part of that story, of course, has involved the Republic’s role in the EU.
Perhaps inevitably, one of the audience questions was about the upcoming referendum. For the most part, she focused on what she felt that the benefits of our mutual EU membership. Ironically, these had little to do with EU institutions and more to do with the fact that, through working together in Europe, many UK and Irish politicians had formed close personal friendships which had later born fruit in the context of the Peace Process. She also indicated how both she and her husband, who now live in London, were likely to vote in the forthcoming referendum.
And nobody seemed to notice how odd this was.
Here was this senior politician – a former head of state – who had been talking at length about the way in which Ireland had severed its links with Britain to become a confident, progressive, sovereign state – discussing how she was going to vote in a plebiscite on the constitutional future of another sovereign state. Now, as it happens, Mary was born in Northern Ireland and so, for all I know, may have dual nationality – but even if she had renounced her British citizenship or had been born and raised in the Republic, she would still be entitled to vote.
Enter David, in the shape of Enda Kenny, acting Taoiseach. He’s also in favour of the UK staying in the EU. Like Mr Obama, his position is based, not unreasonably, on what he thinks is best for his own country. To be fair, I have some sympathy for him, because the result will undoubtedly affect Ireland in a way that it will not and cannot affect the United States.
But here’s the difference – whilst Obama can only appeal to the British people, Kenny can appeal to 600,000 Irish born people in the UK who, if they are over 18, have exactly the same voting rights as UK nationals.
A lot has been made over the last few days of the UK’s “special relationship” with the US. My personal view is that this is a largely imaginary relationship which the US picks up and puts down as and when it suits.It strikes me that the real special relationship lies with the small, independent and totally sovereign state with which the UK has its only land border; whose people have moved freely between our two countries for centuries and whose fortunes are so intertwined with our own that their citizens enjoy a privileged status within our democratic process.