Saturday 22 October 2016

Ireland and Brexit

The impact of Brexit on Ireland is likely to be considerable and indeed is beginning already as the falling value of the pound makes Irish exports to the UK, its biggest export market, much more expensive. At the same time, and for the same reason, shoppers from the republic are driving to the north in search of cheap purchases.

These two immediate developments from the vote point to what will be longer term consequences when Brexit actually occurs. The Irish economy is intimately interlinked with that of the UK, for reasons of history and geographic proximity, to a greater extent than that of any other EU country. Thus, recently, the Irish government announced a so-called ‘Brexit proof budget’ to try to deal with some of the anticipated effects. For Ireland’s economy, almost as much as that of the UK, it will matter greatly whether Brexit turns out to be hard or soft. It may be that Ireland experiences some economic benefits, for example in attracting inward investment, financial services and students if the UK leaves the single market. It is certainly the case that they are already experiencing an upsurge of applications for passports from eligible Brits who want to retain EU movement rights. Nevertheless, Irish PM Enda Kenny recently stated that Brexit would be an “economic disaster” for the Irish Republic.

However, the economic effects are not even the most important thing at stake. More profound is that a hard Brexit would have multiple consequences for the Northern Ireland peace process which was possible in part because of the fact that both the UK and Ireland were within the EU. Most obviously, a hard Brexit would make it highly likely that a hard border would need to be in place between single market Ireland and the North. This would occur both because (on one version of hard Brexit) there would need to be customs points and (on any version) immigration controls. This would violate on of the basic tenets of the – still, it should be recalled, fragile – peace agreement, with possibly violent consequences, as a former senior police officer has recently warned. Such worries are exacerbated by the fact that Northern Ireland, like Scotland, voted to stay in the EU.

It has been mooted that immigration controls could be managed at point of entry to Ireland, by the Irish border police. That in itself would be a rather strange outcome of leave campaign that made much of ‘controlling our own borders’. It is in any case unclear how it would work, since EU nationals could pass quite legally into Ireland under free movement rules, and then proceed unchecked into the UK. Some Brexiters imagine that this is not an issue because the common travel area agreement between the UK and Ireland pre-exists the EU and could simply continue as it always has done. But of course this also means it preceded the existence of a continent-wide single market with free movement of people.

The conundrums and dangers of Brexit for the peace process were raised several times by the remain campaign, including in a joint visit to Belfast by former PMs John Major and Tony Blair, but dismissed (of course) as irresponsible scaremongering. As the novelist Eimear McBride put it:

“that this delicate, hard-won and harder-maintained web of hope has been so carelessly, thoughtlessly jeopardised by a handful of bloviating careerists unashamed to fan fear and division in British society in order to achieve their personal ambitions is a disgrace they will forever bear.”

Spare a thought, too, for the even less reported situation of Gibraltar, which voted by an astonishing 96% to stay in the EU. Like Northern Ireland, here too there is a land border between the UK and the EU, and a disputed territory (with Spain). Brexit means a crisis for them, as it does for the 2M or so British people living in EU countries and who now face massive uncertainty about their status as regards residency and health care, and with the many pensioners amongst them having already taken a direct hit to their incomes because of the collapse of the pound.

Update (11/02/18): The claim that the UK is Ireland's largest export market though widely made turns out to be incorrect. Various rankings are given, but a BBC Reality Check of December 2017 states the UK to be Ireland's second largest export market. At all events, Ireland is one of the EU-27 countries most affected economically (and politically) by Brexit.

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