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Does the Celtic Tiger need a helping hand from “The Auld Enemy”?

Submitted by on 23 Nov 2010 – 16:24

By Dr John Coulter, a political columnist with the Irish Daily Star and Tribune magazine

Irish politics has become dominated by the art of the impossible, so the only financially long-term future for the Irish Republic is to join the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association as a first step to becoming a full member of the British Commonwealth.

At first reading, this introduction may initially be met with hysterical laughter. What is now the Republic fought a bloody guerrilla war, first against the British in the War of Independence, then against fellow Irishmen in the equally bloody Civil War.

In 1981 when Provisional IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands became Westminster MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, to state that a quarter of a century later, Sinn Fein elected representatives would take Ministerial seats in a power-sharing Executive at Stormont would have been greeted with hysterical laughter. But they did.

Equally laughable could have been the suggestion that Dr Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists would one day become the leading Unionist party in the Northern Ireland Assembly and would sit in government with republicans. But Paisley and the DUP have done just that.

The global recession has had a severely damaging effect on the seemingly unstoppable Celtic Tiger, the term used to describe the once booming Southern Irish economy. In hard cash terms, the Republic is dangerously close to the same economic crisis now facing Greece.

Current Taoiseach Brian Cowen wants to avoid an autumn General Election at all costs. The result would almost certainly see a crushing defeat for his Fianna Fail/Green Party coalition government.

The present polls also indicate an election in 2010 could see Mr Cowen’s Fianna Fail recording its worst ever outcome since Irish partition in the early 1920s – a result which would place Mr Cowen in the same political boat as former British premier Gordon Brown; costing him both the Taoiseach and Fianna Fail leadership posts.

With the rival centre Right Fine Gael party battling with internal rifts, the kingmaker in any future Dail will be Irish Labour Party leader and Dun Laoghaire TD Eamon Gilmore.

Cowen’s short-term strategy will be to try and ride out the financial crisis in the hope his administration can survive until a potential election in 2011 where he could possibly

form a coalition government of Fianna Fail, Irish Labour and Independent TDs.

His nightmare is that Sinn Fein reverses its last Southern General Election outcome, wins between eight and a dozen TDs and holds the balance of power in the Republic. Sinn Fein now only holds four of the 166 TDs.

However, it is the long-term financial recovery and security of the Republic which Cowen – and ultimately Gilmore – must contemplate. With the Northern peace process holding in spite of an increasing dissident republican threat, Cowen’s solution may lie in developing closer links with ‘The Auld Enemy’, the United Kingdom.

Another financial motivating influence in favour of the so-called ‘Commonwealth Solution’ lies with the Republic’s relationship and role within the European Union. Although it took two votes to get the Republic to ratify the Lisbon Treaty, EU membership has been tremendously beneficial for Southern Ireland.

The development of an extensive section of the Republic’s roads network, dramatically boosting the tourism industry, was achieved with large chunks of EU cash. Since joining the EU, the Republic has largely been a ‘receiver’ of European funding, rather than a ‘giver’.

But with the emergence of many Eastern European nations into EU membership, and especially if Turkey joins, the Republic will most certainly have to become a major ‘giver’ of European aid; a decision which will place a potentially fatal strain on the Southern Irish economy.

Southern Ireland’s long-term economic survival in the 21st century is dependent on the state being a member of a major political power block. But this does not mean the Republic should leave the EU; merely re-negotiate its position within that specific Union.

The unthinkable, yet financially viable, solution is for Cowen to get the Republic to apply for full membership of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.

The CPA was founded in 1911 as the Empire Parliamentary Association, when the island of Ireland was still part of Union and the UK a founder member of the fledgling EPA.

The post Second World War CPA boasts a membership of over 50 national and regional parliaments, representing some 17,000 elected parliamentarians.

Slowly, quietly, but surely the CPA has been growing in financial and political influence. British Euro-skeptics see it as a viable alternative to the bureaucracy burdened EU.

Diehard republicans – not just in Ireland, but right across Britain – see the CPA as the foundation of the British Empire Mark Two. But with a Royal visit by the Queen to the Irish Republic now firmly on the cards, supporters of the Commonwealth Link solution are steadily gaining ground.

Cowen’s current economic strategy is merely a holding operation for the Republic. Without a Commonwealth link, Southern Ireland will eventually become financial bankrupt.

Northern Unionists no longer see the Republic as the ‘IRA supporting boogieman’. The increasing influence of the cross-border bodies will ultimately also see a redefining of the 1801 Act of Union, which the majority of Northern Protestants see as the cornerstone of their Unionism.

Politically, the South may have gained a greater say in the running of the North. Economically, CPA membership will give Britain greater influence in the South. In the short-term, it will not mean the Union Flag fluttering over Dublin’s parliament at Leinster House – but it could mean Mr Cowen’s remain as Taoiseach.