I know lots of people who hate the term Brexit. Some of course hate Brexit as well, but they hate the portmanteau even more (I looked it up so you don’t have to). The word leads you to a conclusion that it’s all about us – it is after all Britain’s exit. Think again.
I was recently invited to speak at a conference on Brexit in Dublin, hosted by the FDA’s equivalent union in Ireland, the Association of Higher Civil and Public Servants (AHCPS). It was, as they say, a bit of an eye opener.
Brexit is a big deal for Ireland. There’s around £65bn in trade between Ireland and the UK with around 200,000 jobs in each country dependent on that trade. The agro-economy is critical to Ireland and represents one of the most complex areas of the UK-EU relationship. Then of course there is vexed issue of the north/south border.
Speakers at the event included Simon Coveney the tánaiste (Ireland’s deputy prime minister) a role he combines with being minister for foreign affairs and trade, lead minister on Brexit and deputy leader of Fine Gael. Clearly a man with a lot on his plate, so the fact he prioritised a union conference on Brexit tells you something about how important Brexit and the civil service is to him.
“There was incredulity and sympathy when I explained the attacks on the civil service from politicians and even ministers”
The taxi driver from the airport asked me why I was visiting Dublin, I mentioned the conference and dropped Coveney’s name. The taxi driver spoke highly of him, a real talent he said, inspires confidence. This is a taxi driver, remember. I exited the cab confused.
I always feel for ministers in these situations. They’re ushered in, have to pose for photos with strangers, give their speech and head off. As we posed together I explained who I was and we exchanged a few pleasantries. I didn’t know too much about him before the conference and I have to admit I hadn’t even heard the term ‘tánaiste’ before, I only used it earlier to feel superior.
The tánaiste (ok I’ll stop now) spoke passionately about Ireland’s relationship with the UK. How entwined we are socially, culturally and economically, despite our troubled history. How families, including his own, have strong links with the UK through work, education and marriage, and how this relationship is inevitably going to change permanently for generations to come.
You could not help but feel the emotion as he spoke. The frustration at all of this being put at risk, at the lack of clarity from the UK government and the potential consequences for peace on the formerly troubled island.
After the usual applause and thanks, he went back to microphone. “I know there’s a representative of the British civil service here,” he said. Clearly, he’d only been half listening to my small talk, but I quickly forgave him. Britain, he said, has “arguably the best civil service in the world,” and the audience of Irish civil servants nodded in agreement! He praised the strong relationship between Irish and British counterparts and said, “the kind of conversations they can have to anticipate and compensate for the lack of political progress at times is really important to keep this whole thing moving forward”.
Up until now, I hadn’t quite appreciated just how much Brexit will affect other countries and the disproportionate impact it will have on Ireland. There was clearly some consternation at what they judged as a “have your cake and eat it” approach to the negotiations from UK, not least because of the implications of a “no deal” scenario in relation to the border with Northern Ireland.
Despite what the tánaiste said (last time I promise), I wasn’t there to represent the British civil service, but I did try to explain the scale of the challenge the service faces, the context of austerity and cuts to resources pre-referendum and how the service had responded.
I think they got it – I wasn’t booed, at least. There was incredulity and sympathy when I explained the attacks on the civil service from politicians, commentators and even ministers.
I flew home rather chastened and then, with the warm words for the UK civil service from a foreign, foreign minister still ringing in my ears, had to respond to reports a UK cabinet minister had called civil service analysis of post-Brexit customs options “bullshit”.
The polarising nature of the Brexit referendum has led to this kind of emotive language on numerous occasions, but ministers would do well to remember that undermining their own civil servants will ultimately only harm the UK’s international reputation. Just as they would do well to remember that getting Brexit wrong will have profound consequences for people outside of the UK, who have no say over the decision.