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Five reasons the Irish are worried about Brexit

John Dorney By John Dorney Published on June 16, 2016
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The point is, two countries are difficult to disentangle.

Ireland has a history messily entangled with that of Britain.

Until 1922, all of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom. In that year, amid much strife and bloodshed, 26 of Ireland’s counties left the UK to form the Irish Free State, while the 6 north eastern counties remained, forming a new self-governing entity named Northern Ireland. To this day a border runs through the island separating the two.

The Irish state has retained close ties with Britain since independence and is the only EU state that shares a land border with it.

The Irish Free State, originally a Dominion of the British Commonwealth, gradually became the Republic of Ireland, in theory a fully independent state. The truth is though that Ireland (as the state officially calls itself) remained linked to Britain in many ways. Up to 1949, when Ireland left the Commonwealth, its citizens were even entitled to claim British citizenship.

The Irish currency was also tied to Sterling until 1980 and aside from a brief ‘economic war’ in the 1930s, there has always been free trade between the two. So the two countries had many of the characteristics of the European common market and even aspects of political union well before either was admitted to the European Economic Community in 1973.

There has also been, from the start, free travel between the two. At present there are about 400,000 Irish born people living in Britain and over 110,000 Britons living in the Republic of Ireland. Unlike other migrants in both countries they have full voting rights in general elections.

None of which presents a problem as long as both are members of the European Union. There were some quirks, both states for instance stayed out of the Schengen passport free zone because they wanted instead to keep their bilateral free travel arrangements.

By and large though, common EU membership helped to integrate the two. Since the peace process that ended the conflict in Northern Ireland, the Irish border has been a largely notional entity. In the early 1960s one could have found customs posts there. From the 1970s until the late 1990s there were heavily fortified British Army outposts.

Now there is nothing. The signs change from kilometres to miles. Travel a little into Northern Ireland and you must change your euro for pounds. But that is all.

The prospect of a British exit from the European Union – now looking a real possibility – changes everything, to the deep concern of most in Ireland. Ireland, unlike Britain, has absolutely no interest in leaving the EU, which has enabled it to prosper economically, paid it large funds to develop infrastructure and allowed to play a role in an important international alliance.

So here are five head scratching challenges which ‘Brexit’ would pose.

1. Would Brexit mean the end of free travel between the UK and Ireland?

Obviously this would be a great inconvenience for the many who currently move freely between the two. While most Brexit advocates argue for some renewal of the old bilateral arrangements, it is difficult to see how this would work while there was still free travel between Ireland and the rest of the EU.

2. Would the Irish border be closed again?

Not only would this have potentially dire economic consequences but re-erecting a physical border would also have serious political consequences. Northern nationalists literally tore down border barriers and physically re-opened closed roads at the end of the Troubles. Putting them back up and blocking the thousands of daily trips people make to neighbouring towns would be, to say the least, provocative.

Again, the Brexiteers say they have no such intention, but if their primary aim is to block immigration, what would stop immigrants from flowing over the open border EU between Dundalk and Newry? Short of that, some have suggested that travel checks would instead be re-introduced between Northern Ireland and the ‘mainland’, i.e within the UK, which would inconvenience everyone but infuriate Northern Irish unionists.

3. Would the effectively common citizenship of the two states be threatened?

Currently Irish and British citizens have rights in each others' countries that almost amount to common citizenship, including voting rights. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that ended the Northern conflict guarantees the right of Northern Irish residents to both Irish and British citizenship. Would any of this be tenable if Ireland remained in the EU and Britain did not? A wider question here concerns all EU citizens in Britain and Britons in the EU. Would they all have to leave after Brexit?

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  (Above, loyalist paramilitaries march in Belfast in the 1970s)


4. Would the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern peace process be threatened?

Technically no, as the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement is a bi-lateral Treaty between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland as well as an internal agreement within Northern Ireland. Its terms would be unaffected by Britain leaving the EU. However, the implications of Brexit are potentially extremely worrying. Common EU membership softened the stark choices between Irish or British sovereignty.

If a ‘hard border’ went back up, the ‘with us or against us’ logic of nationalism and unionism would again would again be real political dilemmas. It is not difficult to see how currently marginalised republican paramilitaries could muster support around armed attacks on an unpopular border, which they cannot get for sporadic attacks on an increasingly cross-community police force.

Add to that the fact that about 90% of polled nationalists (usually Catholic) support continued EU membership and majority of unionists (usually Protestant) favour Brexit and it is hard to see how Brexit would improve community relations.

5. Could free trade between Ireland and Britain last?

The UK is, unsurprisingly, Ireland’s most important trading partner, but Ireland is also Britain’s fifth largest trading partner. Free trade is very important to both countries. Neither side could afford to see the tariffs go back up. The difficulty is, could Ireland as an EU member have free trade with the UK if it left the EU? Brexiteers point to non EU countries such as Switzerland which enjoy free trade with the Union, but the truth is that nothing is certain.

It may be that there are answers to these questions, but most people in Ireland are currently extremely concerned about the possible negative consequences of Britain leaving the EU.

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Image via VisualCapitalist

Irish historian. Author of 'Peace After the Final Battle' The Story of the Irish Revolution 1912-1924. Editor of the Irish history website www.theirishstory.com


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