About the pandemic, Brexit, and the French factor


About the pandemic, Brexit, and the French factor

by Tim Kirk

Ireland endured the longest pandemic lockdown in Europe.  The vaccination program started later and more slowly than in most countries due to supply chain challenges and the limited leverage the small country had with vaccine producers.  Surprisingly, Ireland has now surpassed 90 percent full vaccination for everyone over 12 years of age, one of the highest rates of any country.  How?  

Once the rollout gained momentum, the most important assets were the Irish people who almost universally trust science/ public health advice and want to be vaccinated to protect themselves and each other. Anti-vaxxers or vaccine-hesitant people are rare.  While the people might not trust this government, they do generally trust the government. Columnist Fintan O’Toole remarked that with such reasonableness “Ireland’s reputation for wildness might be shredded.”


Dealing with Brexit


The fear of Brexit damaging the economy and peace on the Island of Ireland was justified in the early months when supply shortages in the North sparked frustration in loyalist communities whose Brexiteer leaders promoted the false narrative that the problems were caused by EU meddling rather than the implementation of new Boris Johnson-negotiated rules.

The principal victim of Brexit has been Britain itself.  One shocking outcome has been the sheer speed with which international supply chains have been reorganized to accommodate for Brexit. Capitalism has no ideology; it is like a powerful river carving its way to the sea on the path of least resistance. To avoid using the British land bridge for Irish goods destined for the EU market, or the reverse, ferry routes between Wales and Ireland have been reduced with ships redeployed to run from Ireland’s ports directly to the French ports of Roscoff, Le Havre, Calais, and Dunkirk.   The ferry routes between Ireland and France have quadrupled in 2021. Dunkirk has even named a new port terminal “The Irish Terminal.”

Trade has also surged within the island of Ireland. Northern Ireland businesses that relied on goods from Great Britain have turned to suppliers in the Irish Republic.  Grocery stores and restaurants in Belfast need butter, eggs, sausages, and lamb, and if it is easier and cheaper to source goods “south of the border,” so be it.  Likewise, UK-sourced meat, fish, and agriproducts previously bound for continental Europe are being replaced by Irish products shipped directly to mainland Europe to avoid Brexit paperwork.  These impacts were predicted, but the pace with which they have hit the UK economy was not.

Trade from the UK to Ireland is down a staggering 40 percent this year, while trade from Ireland to the UK (most of the growth to Northern Ireland) is up significantly.  One of the most startling statistics published by the Irish Central Statistics Office is that for the first time in the history of the Irish state, Ireland has a trade surplus with the United Kingdom. 

The lockdown devastated certain sectors of the Irish economy, like hospitality and entertainment, but overall, Ireland’s economy grew at 3.2 percent in 2020, the only member state in the EU with growth last year, a situation led by the multinational pharma and tech sectors.  With the broader economy now reopening, Ireland is poised for double digit growth for the first time in decades.

Ireland and France

Another unexpected outcome of Brexit has been the tightening relationship with Ireland's now-closest EU neighbor, France. The Irish relationship with France has been defined historically by mutually aligned interests: weakening England, or escaping its grasp.


Louis XIV supported the Catholic King James in the Jacobite war, won by William of Orange in 1691, after which 14,000 Irish troops and 6,000 dependents were evacuated to France, where they built their military careers and lives. The so-called “Wild Geese” tradition carried on in France, with tens of thousands of Irish descendants or new immigrants serving in the Irish Brigade of the French army until 1815.

France occupies the special role of powerful friend and potential savior in the Irish imagination.  In 1796, with Wolfe Tone aboard, France sent 15,000 troops, most of them from Gaelic-Breton-speaking Brittany, to Kerry to join a rebellion. The effort went awry when storms hampered the voyage and prevented a landing in Bantry.

Wolfe Tone met with Napoleon in Paris in 1797 on three occasions, but disputes between Napper Tandy and Tone led Napoleon to conclude that the Irish were not organized enough to execute a successful invasion. 

Tone expected that his 1798 invasion would include a large French force spearheaded by the Irish Brigade, but only 1,000 French troops landed in Mayo and the rebellion was defeated. That same summer, Napoleon invaded Egypt.

English fears of Napoleon are still evident on the coastline in the form of Martello or ‘Napoleon’ towers. They built 50 such fortifications around strategic locations like Dublin to defend against a French invasion and several still stand.

Irish historians continue to wonder if Napoleon had joined Tone’s rebellion and a Hibernian Republic been born, how different the 19th century of famine and emigration might have been. Even though the invasion(s) never happened, Bonapartism lived on in poetry, song and story.  “Croppies Acre” in Dublin commemorates the 1798 dead who were thrown in unmarked graves, some bodies mounted on pikes, with this inscription:

What is that in my hand?  It is a branch.

Of What?   Of the tree of Liberty.

Where did it first grow?  In America.

Where does it bloom?  In France.

Where did the seeds fall?  In Ireland


 In 1847 at the height of the great famine, Thomas Meagher of Waterford went to France in an attempt to secure naval support to close Irish ports to prevent the exporting of agricultural products (cattle, flour, grain, eggs, ham) from starving Ireland.  The help was not forthcoming, but he did return from Paris with the idea for the Irish tricolor modeled on that of the French Republic.  Back in Ireland, Meagher raised the new flag during the failed Young Irelanders rising.  After he was convicted of sedition in 1848, his death sentence was commuted to transportation to, and hard labor in, Tasmania. Meagher later escaped and made his way to New York, where he founded and led as its general the famed Fighting Irish 69th during the American Civil War. At age 43, he was assassinated while serving as governor of Montana in 1867.

In more recent times, Charles De Gaulle came to Ireland for six weeks in 1969 after he resigned has French president.  Irish President Eamonn DeValera hosted him e at a dinner at the Aras (the presidential residence) with 30 Irish members of the McCartan clan of County Down. The Irish press described the resemblance of the two leaders, both 20th-century embodiments of their respective countries, as “almost like twins.” In his speech at Dublin Castle De Gaulle declared:

“It was a kind of instinct that brought me to Ireland.  Perhaps it was the Irish blood which flows in my veins, for we always return to our origins.”

De Gaulle’s Irish ancestor, Patrick McCartan, was hanged and beheaded (seems both cruel and redundant) in Carrickfergus in 1653. Sir George Rowan, the judge in McCartan’s trial, personally took possession of the McCartan lands after the execution.  Patrick’s sons fought on the Catholic James’s side of the Jacobite war.  One of them,  Anthony, fled to France after the defeat to continue a long line of warriors, including De Gaulle. 

De Gaulle’s grandmother, Julia, lived until the general was 22 and transmitted her love for Ireland to him.  As a child, De Gaulle read a published biography of Daniel O’Connell written by the Frenchman’s other grandmother, Josephine. While in Ireland, De Gaulle and his wife made a pilgrimage to O'Connell's home in Derrynane and attended Mass.  Over 300 years after the execution and dispossession of Patrick McCartan, De Gaulle still held in his consciousness a sense of being Irish and the injustice that his people had endured. His trip coincided with rising loyalist violence in response to John Hume’s civil rights protests.  At a non-official dinner during the six-week sojourn, De Gaulle provocatively toasted  “A free and united Ireland.'' He delighted in making trouble for England whenever he could.  Film and tape recordings of the event were tracked down and destroyed by the British MI6. 

During the recent Brexit negotiations, it fell to Frenchman Michel Barnier, who has served in every French government since Francois Mitterrand’s, to negotiate with Johnson’s government on behalf of the EU.  Irish people and politicians suspected that when push came to shove, the EU would prioritize its trading relationship with the UK over the peace and stability of tiny Ireland, but they were thrilled to be mistaken. It was as if Napoleon had finally arrived to liberate Ireland.

Ireland and France, particularly Brittany, share Celtic origins, Gaelic languages, music, and religious traditions.  In the 7th century, Irish monks and scribes came to Brittany, preserving European culture during the dark ages. Breton towns like Pontivy and parishes like St. Ivy still bear the name of an Irish monk, Ivy, who arrived in 685 AD. The largest Celtic traditional music festival in the world is held annually in Lorient, Brittany, where musicians from throughout the Celtic world gather to share their languages and music.  These age-old cultural links between Brittany and Ireland are now being reinforced by deeper economic ties.  Merci, Boris!

The EU has moved on

Another unanticipated effect of Brexit has been the benefit to the EU project overall.  In response to the Covid-related economic hardship confronted by member states, the EU passed a trillion euro bailout, the largest financial intervention in its history.  EU policymakers describe this collective action as the “Brexit dividend.”  Put another way, there is zero chance the deeper financial cooperation would have escaped a veto from a UK still in the EU.

There is relief that the United Kingdom is finally out of the EU, which can now pursue initiatives that can only be achieved collectively, like the financial bailout or combatting climate collapse.   Before Brexit, nascent movements within other member states were demanding an exit from the E, but Frexit, Grexit, and Hungrexit have fizzled after witnessing the UK’s self-harm and the benefits of European solidarity.

There will be a border poll in Ireland someday to address the constitutional unity question. Rearranged supply chains have already accelerated the integration of the all-Ireland economy and Ireland's trade with mainland Europe. Unity may be an easier decision over time as the partition that has lasted over 100 years is shown to be not only divisive but increasingly irrelevant.

Global companies headquarter themselves in Ireland for multiple reasons, not solely because of the lower Irish corporate tax rate of 12.5 percent.  Pressure from the USA and Europe to adopt a 15 percent  minimum corporate tax rate will likely change Ireland’s tax policy, but Ireland is now the only native English-speaking EU member, and her deep relationships with the United States and the large European countries position the isle as a cultural bridge between the two. At a human level, European Erasmus students who wish to study in an English-speaking country now have only one option: Ireland.  The next Google or Stripe might be started in a dorm room in an Irish University.

In 2009, long before Brexit was even on the table, a 500-kilometer undersea electrical connector from Ireland to Brittany was first proposed.  Just last month (Sept. 6), bids were submitted for the construction of “The Celtic Interconnector” to be completed by 2026. The EU will pay for 60 percent of the billion-euro project, while France will pay 35 percent, and Ireland 5 percent. Upon completion, Ireland will be connected to the EU electrical grid for the first time, able to buy electricity and to sell energy harnessed from the abundant Irish wind and powerful Irish tides, all of which will further strengthen the ties between Ireland and her closest EU neighbor.