By PJ Cunningham
“Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it” – Sir Winston Churchill (House of Commons, 1948).
Outside of the political arena, no one subject has defined the relationship between Britain and Ireland down through the years more than food.
From the Famine, in the 1840s, to the food blockade by the UK during De Valera’s reign in the 1930s and ‘40s right up to last December’s suggestion by former Tory Cabinet member Priti Patel MP to leverage food supplies to force Ireland into Brexit submission, the staple diet of meat, milk, vegetables, fruit and drink has seldom been off the menu when relations sour between the two countries.
In the Great Hunger of 1845-49, when the potato crop failed in Ireland, there was still enough grain crop to feed its population except the British authorities deemed barley, wheat and corn as ‘money crops’ and not a ‘food crop’ – resulting in widespread starvation and death.
It is estimated that one million people died while a further two million were forced to emigrate, many dying in transit.
Between 1932 and 1948, efforts to change Ireland’s status from a Free State under British Dominion to an Independent republic resulted in the Anglo-Irish Trade War.
Eamon de Valera introduced a protectionist policy across economic trading and put tariffs on a wide range of British goods.
Although the catch cry of “Burn everything British except their coal” resonated, the reality was that Ireland’s fledgeling economy was severely damaged by its own protectionism and Britain’s countermeasures – particularly on exports of livestock and farm produce from Ireland.
When Winston Churchill, in a speech in the House of Common in 1948, declared that “those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it,” he could have been taking a peep into the future to describe the Brexit threat and counter threat of the current time.
Should a no deal Brexit be the outcome of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, it is likely that one of the biggest problems for both sides (Ireland as part of the EU this time) will be the citizens who will feel the pinch either in shortages or dearer produce in their shops.
While Britain has an intensive agri-sector, it is far from self-sufficient and depends on outside countries to supply 48 per cent of its annual consumed produce.
Even before the Brexit question loomed large on the horizon, the fear was that it would not be long before the country was depending on suppliers from abroad on more than half of its requirements to feed its 65 million people.
Ireland, too, needs open borders to feed its 4.5 million people. The report late last year which prompted Patel’s ill-judged intervention, predicted a no Deal Brexit would mean food shortages, adding that the impact would be even worse for the smaller nation.
This is because over half the food imports to Ireland comes from the UK and a no deal would mean the UK would need to apply the rules and tariffs of the World Trade Organisation – which the UK has never done – in the entirely erroneous hope they would enjoy advantages similar to current EU membership.
While former the International Development Secretary Ms Patel was quickly disavowed for her suggestion, as a line of Brexiteer thought, it hasn’t really gone away.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove warned of probable tariffs and quotas on food imports in the event of no deal.
Ireland sells almost £4 billion worth of food and drink to Britain annually and projected tariffs on dairy products, beef and lamb movement could exceed £1.5 billion.
Some of Mr Gove’s cabinet colleagues the impact of less affordable food for families.
In Ireland the government moved to assure farmers – Tánaiste and Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told them they would “not be found wanting” should such a situation arise.
There is a general acceptance that there will be a major problem for Irish producers and the European Commission has already indicated that Ireland could qualify for special aid should that scenario come to pass.
One of Ireland biggest exporters, the Kerry Group, claims it has already noticed a slowing in demand from the UK consumers in the past six months.
It decided to stockpile supplies of raw materials in Britain in the hope of trading smoothly, and was blunt about tariffs, saying it will have to pass on such price increases to their customers.
A hard Brexit would mean every household forking out about £1,000 a year because of increased prices.
Ireland’s own Economic, Social, Research Institute (ESRI) examined 4,500 products and concluded that the price of such basics as cereal and bread could jump by up to 30 per cent in the Republic.
It emerged that many traditional Irish household favourites which people thought were Irish are actually processed in Britain. For instance, Lyons Tea is owned by Unilever and manufactured in the UK.
The ESRI estimated that tea and coffee ‘made’ in Britain could increase in price by over a quarter.
Other favourites such as Tunnock’s Tea Cakes, McVitie’s Chocolate Digestives, Heinz Ketchup and even Fairy Liquid would see similar price hikes.
UK high street giants Sainsbury’s, Asda, McDonalds and KFC believe UK “food security” is under threat because of the abrupt hit it would face from Ireland other exporters under a new trading system.
The British Retail Consortium, noting that Britain gets a third of its food requirements from the EU, stressed that it was “not possible to mitigate all the risks … and we fear significant disruption in the short term.”
Unlike in the past, it is to be hoped that this time both governments – assisted by the EU – will find a solution, however imperfect.
But to do that at this stage will probably take us past the current 29 March deadline.