After Britain: Wales and Ireland in the post Brexit era
Adam Price, Leader, Plaid Cymru
Today I will be addressing the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin.
My visit comes at a critical and anxious time for Wales and Ireland. In the coming weeks – and not for the first time in our respective histories – decisions are going to be made by others that will profoundly affect our futures for years to come and the reality is that the people who will be making those decisions do not have our best interests uppermost in their minds.
Brexit for us in Wales has been a master class in our sheer irrelevance. If you don’t have a seat at the table you’re probably on the menu.
When we in Wales look around the European Union we can certainly find friends, but few who have the structures, the power or the leverage to give us the support we need.
So we are looking west for friends, confident of finding them in Ireland.
There is much history we can draw on here.
Irish and Welsh political nationalism were, in many ways, in lockstep during the inter-war years and long afterwards.
This is true not least in the history of my party.
The first Summer School of my party in 1926 was addressed by Kevin O’Shiel, who famously was the first man ever to have travelled on a Free State passport, to Geneva in 1923 to negotiate Ireland’s entry to the League of Nations.
The tight knot between Welsh and Irish Nationalism continued in the after war years, with a huge rally against partition organised by Plaid Cymru and addressed by de Valera in Cardiff in 1952.
Fast forward to the modern era, and it was noteworthy that when Wales first emerged as a political nation in the modern era, only a short time ago, in 1999 when our National Assembly was first elected, the Irish Government took notice. Much to our gratification it established a Consul General – who was a senior diplomat, Conor O’Riordan, and whilst his office wasn’t called an embassy, to all intents and purposes that’s what it was.
We were much encouraged therefore by last week’s announcement that the Irish consulate is to be re-opened in Cardiff in June, following its closure a decade ago as a result of the financial crash.
It should now be a Welsh Government priority to open our own consulate here in Dublin – much more than the current arrangement which really is little more than an alcove in the British Embassy. It will certainly be a priority for an incoming Plaid Cymru-led Government, following the 2021 election.
I believe that Wales and Ireland has a good deal to learn from each other, and a good deal to benefit from greater co-operation, especially during these dark days when we are being pulled asunder by Brexit.
For our part I believe Wales can be much more than just a land bridge for Ireland to England and continental Europe. We hold out the prospect of being a political partner with Ireland in a great project for the 21st Century – a project made urgent by the Brexit debate – a project that is nothing less than a fundamental restructuring of political relationships across this western European archipelago.
Whether Brexit goes ahead or not – and there is hope that the progressive forces of which we are a part in Westminster can still stop it – the ruptures it is causing are proving a powerful force for change.
Brexit has wrought visceral divisions in both the Conservative and Labour parties. Both are preoccupied with maintaining their unity. Neither are fit for government. But their disarray is an opportunity, and not just for us as a political party in Wales.
If we can seize the moment with imaginative solutions it will be an opportunity to recast Britain itself.
Within the United Kingdom, reform must mean a new State where economic wealth is distributed more equally. A host of statistics reveal how much wealth, investment, and research and development are concentrated in just one tiny corner or Britain, in London and the English south east. It is the explanation why this is the only part of Britain that produces an economic surplus. The rest is in deficit.
That has to change. And we in Wales, with our friends in Scotland and Ireland, will be part of making the change.
What Brexit has shown, with devastating clarity, is that the British political system is broken, deadlocked and incapable of reaching a consensus. In these circumstances, there is a chance that the Brexit decision will be driven, unwillingly to be sure, back to the people for a further referendum, for a Peoples’ Vote.
That is something we in Plaid Cymru would welcome but if it comes that vote cannot just be a re-run of what we went through in 2016.
This time Remain cannot just mean staying with the status quo.
A vote to Remain also has to be a vote to Reform, a vote to re-new and re-generate. It cannot be simply a vote for the Europe that presently exists. It must be for the Europe that can be – social, democratic, decentralised and diverse.
By our own example we can show the way to a progressive remaking of Britain and Europe. This will entail a reinvention of a progressive sense of English nationhood as well.
The Left cannot afford any longer to allow the Right, increasingly the far Right, to have a monopoly on English pride and patriotism.
If Brexit takes place, there is likely to be an acceleration of moves in these directions. And, who knows there could be scope as well for much greater co-operation between the Celtic nations, even the formation of some kind of Celtic union.
It will be composed of four nations, different to be sure, just as family members are different, different in size certainly, but treated equally, and enhancing their shared sovereignty through a partnership of equals and respect.
I suggest, it will be a collaboration that develops structures we already have, built as part of the Good Friday Agreement that produced peace in the north of Ireland – the British Irish Council.
This could be a meeting place where we can begin to forge the common understanding that we will need to take our new relationships forward.
Such a Celtic collaboration could ultimately involve the Northern Ireland Government when it is re-established. It could establish, for example, a Celtic Development Bank for joint infrastructure investment projects in energy, transport, and communications. This could look, for example, at financing the Tidal Lagoon project in Swansea Bay (linked to the Wales-Ireland interconnector) or the Celtic Sea Bridge between northern Ireland and Scotland.
Our vision is for a new society, for a new politics, a new Wales, a new Ireland, a new Scotland, a new England, and – Yes –a new Europe too.