Ireland and Brexit: differing paths for the Isles

How would an exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union shape the future relationship between the Republic of Ireland and the UK?

Aonghus Ó Ceallaigh
31 May 2013
Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny and President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso at a press conference in Dublin. Demotix/Art Widak. All rights reserved.

Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny and President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso at a press conference in Dublin. Demotix/Art Widak. All rights reserved.

On 2 February 1972, the British embassy in Dublin was attacked and destroyed by an angry mob following the Bloody Sunday shootings in Derry/Londonderry. Almost 40 years later, Queen Elizabeth II became the first British monarch to make a state visit to what is now the Republic of Ireland (RoI) in over a century. This visit was seen by most as both momentous and hugely successful. However as talk of a European Union exit by the United Kingdom mounts, the position of the RoI should such an eventuality occur has come in to much sharper focus.

The histories of Ireland and Britain have long been intertwined, even before the raids of Niall of the Nine Hostages brought Saint Patrick from Britain to Ireland in the 5th century. This complicated past includes many dark chapters but also many cultural similarities and has eventually left the two modern states of the UK and the RoI with a deep relationship that has grown and flourished in recent years, in ways that many would have thought impossible in the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s.

Good neighbourly relations have proven beneficial to both and make logical sense. The two countries in general share a common language and have a long established common travel area and similar legal and political systems. The UK is Ireland’s biggest trading partner and Ireland is the UK’s fifth largest export destination and ninth biggest supplier. The long history of migration between the two islands means that over 800,000 residents of Britain are Irish born and approximately 6 million residents of the bigger island could join the ranks of Aiden McGeady and Seán St. Ledger and play for the Irish soccer team based on having at least one Irish grandparent. In the RoI the second biggest non-national group are British citizens who numbered over 112,000 in 2011. The ties that bind the two states are extensive and deep.

The departure of the UK from the EU would in all likelihood lead to serious challenges for the RoI in a number of areas and to such a degree as diplomatic niceties allow the Irish government has been vocal in its opposition to such a move.

Northern Ireland

The UK and RoI share a land border of approximately 360 kilometres that meanders through the Irish countryside. Even at the height of ‘the Troubles’ it was notoriously porous and hard to police. If the UK were to leave the EU then it seems possible that the RoI would have to reintroduce border controls at all crossing points between the two countries with security and immigration checks as well customs points. 

This could potentially isolate and weaken economic gains that have been made in deprived areas of the Border regions, both in the Republic and in Northern Ireland, since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. These same regions have taken a hammering in the economic turmoil of the last few years and as dissident republicans have gained traction, such a scenario could play into their hands. It could also lead to difficulties for the two countries in continuing to implement the All-Ireland bodies that were provided for under the Good Friday Agreement.

To suggest as some have done, including Gay Mitchell MEP of the governing Fine Gael party (traditionally less republican than the other major parties), that a UK exit would lead to a united Ireland is fanciful at best. However, there can be no doubt that it would put stress on a relationship that has only in the last number of years developed into a fully-fledged partnership of equals marked by mutual respect and good relations.

It could also be speculated that nationalists and republicans in Northern Ireland are likely to see Brexit as a movement away from what they voted for in the 1998 referendum on the Good Friday Agreement. This sentiment may be present ironically, despite Sinn Féin - the biggest nationalist/republican party in Northern Ireland - having consistently opposed the passing of various EU treaties by referendum in the RoI, where their political strength and representation in the Irish parliament have been increasing. 

Justice and Home Affairs 

Both the RoI and the UK have opt-outs in the area of Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) under the Lisbon Treaty. The two opt-outs are the so-called “Opt-in Opt-out Protocol” and the Schengen opt-out.

The main reasons for the “Opt-in Opt-out Protocol” were in relation to the immigration and asylum systems of both countries and the desire to protect the Common Travel Area that allows passport-free travel between Ireland the UK (and in particular Northern Ireland) and the nearby British crown dependencies of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. This opt-out was also seen by both countries as a way to protect their common law systems and traditions - particularly in the field of criminal law matters.

It is however noteworthy that the other two common law countries in the EU, Malta and Cyprus, did not seek such an opt-out in this area. The RoI has however set out that they will participate to the maximum extent possible in the JHA area and opt in to police co-operation measures. The UK however recently reiterated that it will opt out of most EU policing and criminal law measures. In relation to the European Arrest Warrant (EAW), this may create tensions between the UK and the RoI as the two countries make great use of the EAW system.

A return to the days of extradition requests from the UK regarding IRA suspects being repeatedly turned down by the Irish courts are unlikely but it will undoubtedly complicate matters. As mentioned above the Common Travel Area would also be open to question and the Schengen opt-out may become obsolete as the RoI remains in the EU and the UK exits the Union.

Financial Services

Financial services account for 8.9 percent of the UK GDP and in the RoI the Irish Financial Services Centre (IFSC) in Dublin’s docklands employs nearly 33,000 people directly and countless others indirectly. The UK has been - and is - a strong ally of the RoI in regard to the issue of financial services when their regulation is brought up at EU negotiations in Brussels. Both countries share a common interest on this issue. Indeed if the UK were to exit the EU and therefore EU rules and regulations (especially in light of the moves towards ever closer banking and fiscal union in the EU) this may cause IFSC tenants to migrate to the City of London. This explains the RoI’s reluctance to participate in the new European Financial Transaction tax (FTT) and the concerns in Dublin regarding the UK’s ability to avoid measures such as the FTT if they are no longer members of the EU. This is especially so given the likelihood of Ireland having to sign up to such measures as the EU moves towards financial union. 

The issue of corporation tax may also come into sharper focus. Northern Ireland has long sought a reduction of this tax rate - to be realigned more closely to the 12.5 percent rate applicable in the RoI. London has hitherto used the excuse that EU law forbids having divergent tax rates within one jurisdiction. Were a UK exit of the EU to take place, a lower corporation tax rate could be introduced in Northern Ireland and multinationals might consider moving north of the border to benefit from lower costs there.

Against this some have suggested that the old republican adage that ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’ will again apply should the UK exit the EU. As the only mainly native English speaking member of the EU, they argue that the RoI could expect to gain business and trade that would slowly migrate away from the now non-EU UK. However this view is open to question and if it was to eventuate it may be a Pyrrhic victory considering the other effects on the Irish economy. It is also possible that the UK may join the European Economic Area (EEA) or the European Free Trade Agreement (EFTA) if it leaves the EU - however this is open to question and the parameters of such a move remain unclear.

Drifting apart?

The view of the EU in the RoI and UK could not be more different. Traditionally the RoI has been at the top of the table as regards satisfaction with membership of the EU while the UK has been almost always at the bottom of the same table. This is born of many reasons which will have to be discussed in a later article, however these differing views may now lead to a divergence that may cause difficulties for both countries - but in particular for the smaller of the two states.

Government policy in the RoI has traditionally been unerringly pro-European. However it will now have to balance remaining in step with the core of France and Germany in their pursuit of ever closer union against not losing sight of substantial shared interests with the UK in many areas.

Note: The author uses RoI instead of Ireland/Éire as is set out in Bunreacht na hÉireann (the Irish Constitution) as this article is written in the English language and the use of the term Éire is sometimes seen as pejorative. Furthermore the use of RoI leads to a better distinction between the island and the state which share the same name according to the Irish constitution if not the same geographical boundaries.

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