Britain and Europe

Forgotten during the campaign: The Irish problem

30 June 2016

The knowledge that the uncertainty of Brexit could stir up serious problems for Ireland has necessitated a calm and measured response so far

Maeve Glavey

As the UK is engulfed in political turmoil and onlookers across the EU wait for some semblance of order to return to British politics, one country is quietly and calmly reacting.

Ireland joined the European Economic Community in 1973 along with the UK, then its largest trading partner. Since that time, it has maintained close economic and political ties with the UK while developing a vibrant export-led economy and becoming one of the EU’s greatest beneficiaries. The €17bn it has received in EU structural and cohesion funds helped modernise the country, and a strong pro-European sentiment has built up both among the political classes in the Republic and many (but not all) ordinary people. Although all of this was challenged during the recession and the implementation of austerity, Ireland has fought hard to return to growth and has always had much to fear from Brexit. Now that it has come to pass, the government is working to minimise negative fallout.

Prime Minister Enda Kenny, who was re-elected earlier this year, reacted almost instantly, making a statement on the 24th June after the result in the referendum became clear. The government, he assured the public, had been working on contingency planning for months. Top of the list of immediate priorities are trade and the economy. The UK is today Ireland’s second largest export market (after the US) and for some sectors it is the top destination (for agriculture, it takes 41 per cent of exports), meaning Ireland stands to lose enormously if the UK eventually finds itself outside the single market. While little can be done about this until the nature of the UK’s post-Brexit deal with the EU becomes clear, the government is in the short-run concentrating on offering practical support to businesses. The government agency Enterprise Ireland has set up a hotline and is advising businesses on how they can adjust to cut supply chain costs, maintain competitiveness, and evaluate new market opportunities.

Far trickier and more sensitive is the possible impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland. The border between the Republic and the North will now become an EU external border, an issue that to the irritation of many Irish people, was not properly considered or debated during the referendum campaign – somewhat ironic given the leave camp’s focus on the importance of controlling borders. On this, Kenny has outlined plans to undertake bilateral discussions with the UK, before Ireland enters discussions at EU level. Priorities will be the common travel area, which allows UK and Irish citizens to travel freely between the two countries, and minimising any possible impediments to movements of goods and services.

Kenny has also reacted to Sinn Féin’s calls for a referendum to now be held on the reunification of the Republic and the North, insisting the conditions are not met under the North’s peace deal, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The party issued a statement after Northern Ireland voted remain by 56-44 per cent stating that the British government had lost its mandate to represent the North and the calls of the deputy first minister Martin McGuinness for a border poll have grown louder over the past week.

Ultimately the outlook for Ireland in a post-Brexit world, is as in the UK, uncertain. The referendum result has created unwanted economic risks for a country and threatened to stir up divisions best left forgotten. For now there is a feeling that what can be put in place to mitigate the risks has been, and a hope that as the reality of Brexit sets in, the leave leaders will pay more attention to the many issues ignored during the campaign.


Photo credit: cc 2.0 Northern Ireland Office