Why Brexit changes everything for Ireland

Ireland (that is the Republic of Ireland) is a small open economy that attracts investment and trades with countries from around the world. It is a pro-European, Anglo-Saxon economy with strong US influences. Ask most Irish people if they are more comfortable in Boston or Berlin, in Perth or Paris and the overwhelming response will be a recognition of Ireland’s positon within the wider “Anglo-sphere”. 

Irish people tend not to understand how economies can even function with personal tax rates exceeding 50% of relatively low incomes. Irish people also don’t understand how some other EU member states seem to fear non-EU investment or are slow to realise the benefits of attracting workers from all over the world. As a small country dominated by your larger neighbour you learn to look outward at the possibilities on offer, rather than always seeking to protect old historical legacies.

For Ireland, Britain leaving the EU is a disaster. Politically, economically, culturally and socially. Since 1973, both Britain and Ireland have used EU membership to grow a peace and reconciliation process in Northern Ireland, to remove borders and increase trade. Ireland could never enter Schengen without Britain, our Common Travel Area with the UK predates membership of the EU and indeed the declaration of a republic in 1948. 

Ireland’s current close relationship with Britain seems far removed from a relationship that for centuries was dictated by violence and bigotry. It is in this context that the position of the main unionist party in Northern Ireland supporting Brexit should be viewed with concern and despair. As should nationalist calls for a referendum on Irish reunification.

The Anglo-Irish relationship in 2016 is about much more than trade or jobs or passport checks.  It is about reconciling a bloody (and often despicable) past within the framework of European integration.  With Britain out of the EU, Ireland’s view towards Europe will change. Ireland’s view must change.

“For Ireland, Britain leaving the EU is a disaster. Politically, economically, culturally and socially.”

In the short to medium term, the Irish government must press both EU members and the British government for special arrangements that reflect the interlinked nature of the Irish and British economies, both economically and politically. For Ireland, the advantages (or in previous times, the disadvantages) of proximity to Britain reflect not just economic priorities, but the cultural and social closeness of their development within the British Isles.

For Ireland, the approach to further European integration must be balanced by a consideration of the relationship with Britain. In a sense, the Irish view of Brussels must become more nuanced and more challenging of how any further proposals will impact upon shared Anglo-Irish priorities. 

Ireland must seek to become a bridge between the EU and a non-EU Britain.  A bridge which could (and should) be utilised by the European Union in the coming negotiations in order to seek the most amicable and beneficial new settlement for all parties. Anything else will draw into doubt the very real achievements of the last four decades of EU membership

The Irish have a complicated relationship with the English. Unlike the relationship with the Scots or the Welsh, with the English the commonalities are harder to find, although cultural and social familiarities remains the same.  History can be a slow beast to retreat into the shadows. Now is not the time to give up this fight.