Just back from a quick immersion into Irish politics and economics. Six members of the Commons Political Reform Committee travelled to Dublin for a one night stay, in order to swap experiences on our constitutional arrangements and also discuss the Irish economy and the crisis in the Euro Zone.
Political relations between Dublin and London are very strong…and probably warmer than either of us have with Belfast! As well as a shared cultural identity we also have valuable trade links. Britain accounts for 16% of Irish exports while they import 6% of our total exports. That may not sound much but it is more than China, India, Brazil and Russia combined! So the health of the Irish economy is important to Britain. That is why I defended our bi-lateral loan to Ireland earlier this year. Economic recovery in Ireland will help Britain’s recovery, as will stability in the Euro Zone.
Some more facts you may not know about the Irish economy – it’s the world’s biggest supplier of baby food and, er, viagra. Botox is made here and Dublin is also the headquarters for many leading companies. And for all us social media nerds, it’s the European base for Facebook, Google, Yahoo and Twitter.
And of course, the Irish economy, like ours, is emerging from the financial crisis of 2008. Ireland fell further than us and their budget austerity measures make Britain’s look half hearted. I met the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin twice on the visit. He’s a Labour cabinet minister in Ireland’s Centre Right-Labour coalition. Ed Balls would benefit from a lesson in real fiscal tightening. Irish public sector employees have all taken a 20% pay cut and seen an increase in their pension contributions. They want to get the budget deficit down to 8.5% in the coming year and 3% by 2015, broadly the same projection as Britain. The Irish have invented a new acronym for all this pain – FEMPI = financial emergency measures in the public interest.
We also met with other Irish ministers, members of Ireland’s Parliament (the Oireachtas) from both houses, council leaders, academics and the political editors of the main newspapers and state broadcaster RTE. Ireland is in the middle of an election for the ceremonial role of President and two referendums, one of them on cutting judges’ pay. Ireland’s written constitution leads to frequent referendums and we discussed the difficulties of conducting a campaign based on the issue to be decided, rather than misleading claims from those opposed to change…memories of our disastrous AV referendum in May.
Like us, they are considering what to do with their upper House, an indirectly elected Senate. The Fine Gael led coalition intend to abolish it. Like us they’ve been discussing reform for years. Small countries like Ireland may not need a bi-cameral legislature, New Zealand gets by with one chamber. As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, I think we need a fully elected Senate to replace the House of Lords.
Finally, I intend to return to Dublin for a private short break. It’s a beautiful city with warm and friendly people. The Irish sense of humour is legendary and if you find yourself in a bookshop do browse through the book of insults for the politicians and “bankers who banjaxed a nation.”