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Will Brexit be a blessing or a curse for Ireland? Some lessons from history...

Leopold Kerney was an Irish diplomat in the first half of the last century and we can learn much from his handling of Britain, writes historian Barry Whelan.

Barry Whelan

ANGLO-IRISH RELATIONS could be summed up in recent times by one word – Brexit.

On 31 January, the United Kingdom stopped being a member of the European Union and disenthralled itself not only from the most successful economic bloc in history but also from over forty years of supranational cooperation.

For Ireland, both north and south, Brexit presents real and present dangers to the political and economic stability of the island.

Few observers can predict the long-term impact of this momentous event yet the answers to this dilemma may be found in history, and in this case, in the life on an extraordinary Irish diplomat named Leopold Kerney.

In our time the economic powerhouse of Europe is Germany, but when Leopold Kerney was born in 1881 into an affluent Anglo-Irish Protestant family Britain was Europe’s preeminent power and its influence was global with an empire stretching so far that the sun never appeared to set on all its territory.

Ireland’s economy back then was overwhelmingly agricultural with only minor industrial sectors in north-east Ulster’s shipyards and in Guinness’ brewery Dublin. The famine, land war and mass emigration had seen the island suffer immeasurable hardship and republican risings to overthrow British hegemony proved ill-judged. Ireland’s life was controlled and guided by Britain.

Kerney’s vision

Educated to be a quintessential civil servant Kerney should have seen that Britain was the land of opportunity and progress, yet two key events in his childhood shaped his economic vision: first was when he fished for crabs off Poolbeg Lighthouse as a teenager and noticed that all the ships sailing up the River Liffey were British – why did Ireland not control its own trade he wondered?

Second, when he read the writings of John Mitchel who argued that British maladministration caused the Irish famine. This awoke his conscience.

He saw everything British now as negative and he questioned everything he was being taught at school ‘one hour of English history five days a week and one half-hour of Irish history every Saturday – the Irish history being a narrative of English military victories in Ireland and Irish crimes, and written by an Englishman of course’.

The solution to him was clear – Ireland had to break its connection with Britain and look to the continent for its future prosperity. Breaking away from Britain could mean further economic destitution and threaten war, which did indeed happen.

Today, Ireland faces none of these risks.

Whilst Anglo-Irish relations may now be less cordial, they remain nonetheless warm and Ireland does not stand alone as it did in Kerney’s time. The European Union and its twenty-seven member states are a formidable ally in Ireland’s corner.

Flashback in time again to the Anglo-Irish War, the declaration of independence and the gathering of Dáil Éireann. Britain still controlled Ireland’s economic life and maintained it by military force: ‘Ireland had hardly any export or import [trade] except what passed between Ireland and England under English control,’ said Eoin MacNeill Minister for Industries in the newly established Irish Republic of 1919.

Kerney Pic 1 - colour image Kerney in diplomatic attire. Source: Barry Whelan, with permission.

If Ireland was to stand on its feet, not only would politics and arms be essential but also trade. Living at the time in France, Kerney was recruited to the cause and began to use trade as a pillar of independence.

He travelled the length and breadth of France, writing reports on industries that Ireland should create – ‘I visited sugar factories in the north of France and made reports on that industry with a view to its introduction into Ireland’ – and denying business to British firms: ‘nothing gave me greater pleasure than to translate and circulate as widely as possible the successive Boycott Orders which reached me from Mr Blythe, Minister for Commerce.’

In 1922 he achieved a major success by establishing the first direct shipping route between Brest and Cork thus breaking centuries of British dominance over Ireland’s maritime life.

What would Kerney make of Brexit?

Europe was open for business then and now, regardless of what Britain does. Irish firms are interlinked with their continental partners. So long as the country maintains its entrepreneurial spirit and is supported by its government – as Kerney was in his time – then markets other than Britain’s can be found. As an island Ireland simply has to trade.

One of the great worries of Brexit is its impact on agriculture – on jobs, quality and foreign competition. For decades Ireland’s agricultural policy was centred on ferrying live cattle to Britain and hoping for a decent price. The European market, the Common Agricultural Policy, the role of state authorities and farmer lobbyists broke this downward cycle.

Yet does Brexit risk endangering Ireland’s agricultural sector? After World War One, Britain was bankrupt. Farmers worried about finding good prices for their cattle and did not know where to turn to.

003f1 Kerney in France with his family when he was our trade agent during the War of Independence. Source: Barry Whelan, with permission.

Kerney led a delegation of the Irish Farmer’s Union (forerunner of the Irish Farmers’ Association) at international agricultural conferences to market goods to French, Italian, Belgian, Dutch and Eastern European delegates.

As Britain walks away from the EU now many hope it closes the door as it leaves. Kerney insisted back then that Britain close the door behind itself as he informed his French counterpart: ‘I made certain reservations as to the admission of England; her case being on a par with that of Germany, to whose admission the French objected.’

The decision of the British electorate to leave the EU was a democratic one yet few had considered the ramifications the referendum would have on Britain’s obligations under the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Despite not being inside the United Kingdom or the Commonwealth, the Irish Republic has now been placed in an unenviable position.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and other government departments will try at best to plan a path forward but so long as Ireland remains tied in any significant measure to the United Kingdom it lives with the vagaries of Brexit and its champions – the Brexiteers.

In 1932, Éamon de Valera upheld an electoral promise to stop paying land annuity payments to Britain. The result was the Anglo-Irish economic war that dragged on until 1938. With Ireland’s only viable market at the time cut off, de Valera struggled to find a path forward. He turned to Leopold Kerney who went to Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Spain and Portugal to find alternative markets for Ireland’s goods.

He found willing markets, as the following communique stated: ‘I am directed by the Minister to acknowledge the receipt to Mr Kerney of his minute of 14 June from Madrid enclosing Agreement made between the Irish Free State and Spain.

‘The Minister has directed me to convey to Mr Kerney his appreciation of the very valuable work which he has successfully concluded in Spain.’

De Valera himself declared before the Dáil on 11 July 1933: ‘there is nothing that can be said about Mr Kerney except that which is good’.

The Ireland of the Twentieth Century lived in Britain’s shadow even when it did well. During World War Two, Ireland remained neutral, the only member of the Commonwealth not to join in the war on Britain’s side.

Despite neutrality that leaned very much towards the Allies and the bravery of thousands of Irishmen and women who aided the Allied cause, Ireland found itself diplomatically isolated by the victors and denied admission to the United Nations.

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The political ramifications of standing alone even for all the right reasons gave the then Irish government few options. In 1947 de Valera again turned to Kerney to find a new pathway. The diplomat led a landmark political and trade mission to South America, connecting to the Irish diaspora in Argentina and Chile, fostering direct relations, forging new economic trading markets and ensuring the island remained open for business.

Brexit in our time has the potential to stifle Irish progress and growth if allowed to. Unlike then, however, the current situation is far more advantageous.

Ireland’s EU membership, the investment of multinational companies and growing links to the Asian market ensure that the country has nothing to fear from loosening the Anglo-Irish connection.

The 21st Century will be defined by Ireland looking expansively outward towards its continental neighbours and achieving the vision that Leopold Kerney first dreamed about as a young boy – break the British connection and look to continental Europe.

This vision has stood the test of time and Brexit has done more to forge this vital continental link. For this reason alone, Brexit is a blessing, not a curse.

Barry Whelan is a historian of Twentieth Century Irish and European history in DCU. He is author of the book Ireland’s Revolutionary Diplomat: A Biography of Leopold Kerney (University of Notre Dame Press).

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