Ireland given a sober warning over Brexit

by Bruce Clark | 13.12.2016

In the six months since the referendum, debate over Brexit’s effects on Ireland has been in a kind of stasis. People who warned of disastrous consequences don’t want to make them worse with prophecies which could be self-fulfilling; and people (including Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Arlene Foster, and most of her party’s voters) who took the other side are busy limiting the damage.

That’s why it is very helpful indeed to have a sober assessment from 18 distinguished persons (nine baronesses and nine male peers, to be exact) who in a dispassionate way sought out and sifted evidence from more than 40 institutions and individuals with expertise on the matter.

Without forecasting the end of the world, the European Union committee of the House of Lords has measured the dark cloud that Brexit casts over Ireland. Its report also proposes a common sense way to arrest the billowing of that cloud: an early bilateral deal between London and Dublin, ahead of Britain’s wider Brexit negotiations. Michael Noonan, Ireland’s finance minister, instantly, if sadly, dismissed the idea as impossible; that, too, was an exercise in truth discovery.

To sum up the report’s conclusions: Brexit will not of itself scupper Northern Ireland’s peace settlement but it removes important underpinnings. For Northern Ireland’s Catholics and Irish nationalists, being connected to the Irish republic through common membership of the EU has been deeply reassuring; so has the application in Northern Ireland of the European Convention on Human Rights.

On the question of moving goods across the inter-Irish border, the report throws out a slow-burning petard. The open border cannot be maintained unless the UK remains in the customs union, or unless the EU partners agree to an Irish-UK arrangement on trade. At the moment few people would bet on either possibility. And if any customs border exists, it will definitely require physical checks: electronic equipment and smart cross-border co-operation will not obviate that need.

It’s hard to overstate the economic and psychological damage that any such development would cause in Ireland’s conflict-scarred border regions and far beyond. John Bruton, Ireland’s wise former taoiseach, offered the committee an interesting twist on this theme. The border between EU member Sweden and Norway, which is a non-member but “in a relationship” with the Union, is partly managed by having Swedish customs officers conduct checks inside Norwegian territory. But for historical reasons, the equivalent (having southern Irish customs work inside Northern Ireland) would be politically explosive. There is simply no practical way to make the reinforcement of the inter-Irish border smooth or free of provocation.

The report is no less measured and circumspect about people moving across the border. The “common travel area” which makes legitimate journeys between Ireland and the United Kingdom very easy (while the two countries cooperate to keep undesirables out) predates the entry of either country into the European club. In a sense, it’s a private matter between two countries. But its continued existence required a special provision in EU law; and its perpetuation in the post-Brexit world would also need EU consent, in the committee’s view.

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For the Irish republic’s relatively sophisticated economy, Brexit’s effect is seen as mixed: it could have severe consequences for the agri-food sector (which sends, for example, 50% of the country’s beef exports to the UK) while possibly bringing some windfall benefits to financial services. As part of an English-speaking, common-law jurisdiction, Dublin will certainly have its attractions for any financial businesses that move away from London. In this narrow sense, the old Irish-nationalist slogan, “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity”, could regain some force.  Firms in the City of London are already investigating what Dublin might offer.

But Northern Ireland’s more fragile economy depends heavily on cross-border trade, particularly in food, with the Republic.  In all, about a third of Northern Ireland’s exports go to the Republic, whereas a mere 2% of the Republic’s exports head north. Interestingly, Northern Ireland also relies on EU migrant labour. The Lord’s view is clear: “the risks…posed by Brexit probably outweigh the opportunities”.

None of the dire consequences foreseen by the report is impossible to mitigate if there is close enough cooperation between the governments of London and Dublin, and if (a much bigger if) Irish concerns are given a sufficiently high priority in the forthcoming talks between Britain and its 27 EU partners.

But one thing is clear. When Ms Foster urged supporters of her Democratic Unionist Party to vote Leave, she (like her fellow Brexiters in Great Britain) held out the prospect of “taking control” and giving Northern Ireland greater autonomy in the global economy. Exactly the opposite is happening. Never has Northern Ireland’s future been so completely dependent on factors which are completely beyond its ability to influence.

Edited by Michael Prest