Division, disruption and demons past
There is cold fury in Dublin at being ignored by the UK government in London. Brexit’s victory for English nationalism has now unleashed Scottish and Sinn Féin Irish nationalisms and a palpable sense of clocks going backwards can be felt in any conversation in Dublin. This has been largely ignored by the commentators in the UK press, especially the pro-Brexit papers, and in other European capitals. Yet the Republic of Ireland is the European Union state most directly affected by Brexit. The Irish and UK economies are in effect one, as the UK recognised during the financial crisis when it offered bespoke assistance to Irish banks.
Ireland entered the European Economic Community at the same time as the UK in 1973. Those four decades of joint membership have transformed the economic and political status of Ireland. Dublin has used EU membership to haul the nation out of poverty. After 1945, every second Irishman had to emigrate to find work in Britain or North America. Today, Ireland has to import foreign labour—120,000 Poles arrived in Ireland after EU enlargement in 2004. This is a much higher share of Ireland’s 4.5m population than the 850,000 Poles in the UK’s population of 65m.
Ireland has cleverly sheltered behind Britain’s skirts in finessing its own relationship with the EU, notably in offering low tax status to companies like Apple and other US firms. Ireland’s upgrade of its education system in the 1960s has reaped a harvest of high-quality graduates adapted to the modern E-economy.
The country has also revolutionised its agricultural output—half the beef and most of the cheddar cheese on UK supermarket shelves is now imported from Ireland. The Brexit effect on this mighty dairy industry could be crushing. Over half the milk produced in the North, where agriculture is the most important export sector, heads south. Open a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream and you are drinking milk from an Ulster cow transformed by a southern Irish process which crosses the border several times during its production. So any withdrawal from the EU Single Market and/or Customs Union will have serious repercussions on both Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Even more importantly, Ireland and the UK’s joint membership of the EU has utterly changed the relationship between the two nations. For the first time in centuries, and certainly since the bitter separation in the 1920s, London has had to treat Dublin as an equal partner, as both countries have equal votes in the council meetings of Europe and the Commission. This became vital as the violent conflict in Northern Ireland between nationalists and unionists intensified after 1970. London and Dublin had a joint interest in defeating the armed insurrection and channelling the violence into peaceful political processes. The Northern Ireland peace agreement is guaranteed by joint UK-Ireland membership of the EU. It has been part-financed by the EU. There is no border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Many companies operate as Ireland-wide, north and south. Any return of border controls will revive tensions that have never fully died away since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Border posts were always targets of choice for Republican opponents of any British presence on the island of Ireland.
There is currently no government in Northern Ireland as the two opposing communities cannot agree terms to share power. The recent election saw a rise in support for Sinn Féin, which opposed Brexit, and a decline in votes for the pro-Brexit Demoractic Unionitsts. There may have to be fresh elections or a return to direct rule from London, which would be a painful step away from the devolved settlement. Sinn Féin is on a roll, north and south, as, like other populist anti-establishment parties in Europe, it claims to speak for the workers and small farmers left behind by
austerity and globalisation. By denying UK nationals a European identity, which is shared with the Irish, Brexit is boosting Irish nationalism, to the point where united Ireland is again a live question, just as it is boosting Scottish nationalism and the SNP.
There is no such thing as a “soft” border. Customs and passport checks and searches of cars are inevitable once the UK, including Northern Ireland, leaves the Single Market and Customs Union. The return of such policing and the closure of many small roads criss-crossing from north to the south will return the population of Northern Ireland that feels Irish and European to the control and surveillance of a British state which had been quietly fading.
In her statement to the House of Commons on Brexit made on 29th March, Theresa May made no reference to the Irish region of the UK or to Ireland itself other than to repeat her wish that there is no return to the border of the past. But that wish may not be compatible with the UK amputating itself from the EU.
Ireland will now be very exposed. By population Ireland is 20th out of the EU27, hovering beside Slovenia and the Baltic States. It has no natural allies in the EU and indeed, as the Apple tax furore showed, Ireland has quite a few governments hostile to its quasi-tax haven status. Over 40,000 jobs are reckoned to be directly at threat if the UK exits the Single Market. Up to 100,000 small dairy and beef farmers will see a significant reduction in their income, especially if the UK negotiates access to cheaper tariff-free produce from further abroad.
Ireland’s fate again lies in British hands. If May insists on hard Brexit and full exclusion from the Single Market and Customs Union and complete rejection of any compromise, then Brexit could easily drag Ireland down. It faces the future worried about past demons returning. But what can Ireland do? Its powerful neighbour has always loomed large over its prospects. The French newspaper Figaro headlined its story on the delivery of the Article 50 letter as “The Day Britain Says Adieu to Europe.” The fear in Dublin is that as a London government amputates Britain from Europe, Ireland will be cut off as well.
Denis MacShane is the former minister of Europe for the United Kingdom and is author of Brexit: How Britain Left Europe (IB Tauris). He is a Senior Advisor at Avisa Partners in Brussels and worked for 15 years as an international trade union official before becoming an MP.