Many are sad and deeply affected by Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, but perhaps none more than Ireland. Ireland’s place in the world has been closely tied with common membership of the Union alongside Britain; with Ireland in no mood to leave the EU any time soon, it will have to chart a new course in European waters alone.
By Fergal McDonagh, studying MSc Development Management at LSE
2016 commemorated one hundred years since the game-changer in the unique Anglo-Irish relationship: mutually close, distinctly separate, with a grey area in between. It’s important to look at Ireland’s independence arrangements with the UK and the recent conflict in Northern Ireland. With an understanding of that, it will be clear why Brexit is uniquely challenging and momentous for Ireland, with five key dynamics to watch.
The British Isles: Britain and Ireland
1916 saw thousands of Irish soldiers die fighting on the Western Front in the Battle of the Somme (over 200,000 Irish fought for Britain in WWI). The same year Irish revolutionaries led a rebellion against British rule that kick-started the War of Independence. The war ended in 1921 with a controversial treaty (passing narrowly in Ireland’s Dáil: 64 in favor, 57 against, 4 abstentions), which partitioned the island into a 26-county independent republic, Ireland, with 6 northern counties remaining a part of the UK. Civil War ensued, the conclusion of which saw those in favour of the treaty victorious. The two main political parties in Ireland today, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, are direct descendants of the two sides in this war, and entered government together in coalition for the first time ever in 2016.
The third largest party today, Sinn Féin, won notoriety during ‘the Troubles’ as the political wing of the IRA (Irish Republican Army), run by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness. This violent conflict between Irish and British saw over 3,500 people dead by its end. Beginning in the late 1960s and ending with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, Catholics in Northern Ireland campaigned for civil rights – some violently, others met by a violent response – and some for reunification with the south. Gerry Adams is still the leader of Sinn Féin in Ireland. Martin McGuiness resigned as Deputy First Minister on 9th January in protest against a scandal concerning the unionist First Minister. His move dissolves the government and triggers snap elections on 2nd March with potentially far-reaching consequences for these islands.
Irish priorities for the Article 50 negotiations
The Peace Process in Northern Ireland, supported politically and financially by the EU, continues. Interdependence between Ireland and Britain within the EU is higher today than ever. But the UK’s departure from the EU presents serious challenges for Ireland and ‘the totality of relationships among the peoples of these islands’. Ireland’s Taoiseach (PM), Enda Kenny, has described it as the greatest foreign policy challenge facing the government since WWII. So far the government has laid out its four priorities and concerns as follows.
The first priority is the continued strengthening of EU27. Ireland will firmly remain a member and strong supporter of the European Union. By the latest polling Ireland is one of the most pro-EU countries in Europe with 80% saying they would vote to remain; they are also the most optimistic about the EU’s future with 77% affirming this. The second concerns those issues of interest to all member-states, but of particular importance in Ireland, such as trade. Ireland’s trade dependency on the UK at 17% is higher than on any other of its partners. The latest research predicts a 4% fall in total annual Irish exports once Brexit occurs.
The third point concerns those issues uniquely affecting Ireland and no other member state i.e. the Peace Process. The EU has provided the constitutional context for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which allows the people of Northern Ireland to hold citizenship in either Ireland, Britain, or both. One in five hold Irish citizenship and there has been a huge surge in this since the vote: now citizenship of Ireland will mean citizenship of EU27, something British citizenship does not. The UK’s departure from the EU removes citizenship, rights, and identity from its people. Northern Ireland voted by a majority of 55.8% to remain in the EU.
The Good Friday Agreement includes a provision for Northern Ireland to become a part of a united Ireland, and thus the EU, if the majority of its population so wishes – a possibility which will have to be maintained as part of the outcome of the Brexit negotiations. Pulling Northern Ireland out of the EU ‘will be seen by many nationalists as reconstruction of political and even physical barriers between north and south, which the Good Friday Agreement was designed to reduce.’ Little appreciation was shown during the Leave Campaign for the fledgling Peace Process, which demands enormous responsibility; and none whatsoever to the citizens of Europe who have provided billions in financial support for it.
The fourth point is the Common Travel Area between Ireland and Britain. The 500km invisible border between north and south is part of several successive border regimes. 30,000 people cross it to work and shop on a daily basis. The last military checkpoint was dismantled in 2002. Nobody wants a return to a hard border but UK departure from the Customs Union will have practical implications for the border. Will visas be necessary? Will checks be automated? Will they require ID? ‘Take back control of our borders’ is the line of the Brexiteers. Co-ownership of this highly sensitive, constitutionally unique, invisible line is the reality of the frontier with the EU that many dreamed. A renewed solution in the new Anglo-Europe context that promotes progress and togetherness in Northern Ireland will require green-white-orange-red-and-blue-sky thinking.
The final point is that Ireland must say goodbye to a great friend and ally in Europe on whom it has been able to rely for support and approach on many important issues, such as competition and free trade, and with whom it shares so much. ‘Our common interest with the UK in many areas has been our defining characteristic of our EU membership to date’ says Ireland’s EU Agriculture Commissioner. On the 15th February, the Taoiseach delivered a speech to the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin entitled ‘Ireland at the heart of a changing European Union’. The game has changed again, now begins Ireland’s greatest foreign policy challenge since WWII, out of the grey and into the blue.Author : 1989 Generation