The Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Enda Kenny, announced at a press conference at 10 Downing Street on Tuesday that EU membership is crucial to Anglo-Irish relations and a Brexit would not only disrupt trade between the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain, but would also disrupt the Northern Irish peace process, which began in 1998.
The Guardian reported on Tuesday that PM Kenny’s comments about Anglo-Irish relations and the peace process represent an underlying unease in Dublin in the context of its British neighbour leaving the Union. Britain is Ireland’s largest trading partner, this being stated by a joint committee of the Oireachtas Éireann (Parliament of Ireland); according to a report published in 2014 by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Britain and Ireland trade over €1bn worth of goods and services every week. The report continues, stating Ireland is the UK’s 5th largest export destination, with £17bn of British goods exported to Ireland in 2012. The PA Consulting group wrote in a report in 2013 that this scale of exports meant Britain had the largest share of Irish imports, with 32.5% of the total. From this stance it is clear to be concerned as to the potential fallout from Brexit; the EU has an external tariff and if Britain cannot negotiate past this, then an exit by Britain could lead to a serious disruption of trade across the Irish Sea, which would have negative effects for both countries.
Perhaps however, even more concerning for some is the threat a Brexit poses to the success of the peace process in Northern Ireland; Northern Ireland, particularly Belfast and Derry, were ravaged by violence beginning in 1968 over the discriminatory regime maintain by Protestant Unionists against the Catholic minority; with the increasing discrimination, persecution and inequality, the IRA became involved from around the late 60s, which spilled into open violence from 1968 and lasted 30 years until the peace agreement was signed – the Good Friday agreement – in 1998. During this time, the violence led to the deployment of the British Army, curfews, draconian laws permitting arrests without warrant or charge, the deaths of 14 unarmed protesters, and the severe injury of 12 more on Bloody Sunday in 1972, and finally the spilling over of the violence to the British mainland with the IRA bombings later in the 70s and 80s (one of which was an attempt to assassinated the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher). This was no small period of history in Britain and Ireland then, and Enda Kenny in his statement to the press on Tuesday said that he attributes the success of the peace process to economic factors, which has in no small part been supported by both Britain and Ireland’s membership of the EU. The Guardian reported the Prime Minister as having said “The guns are silent. This has taken a great deal of work from so many people over so many years”. According to Prime Minister Kenny, Britain and Ireland cooperate in trade missions, and in Northern Ireland there is a lot of agreement over the economics of Europe; to endanger that now would mean “a serious difficulty for Northern Ireland”, which the Prime Minister said he did not want to see happen.
The Good Friday Agreement, among other things, established a series of cross-border organisations, allowed the Northern Irish to claim both British and Irish citizenship and established an effectively open border, allowing the Irish and British to move freely; this is a particularly sensitive issue to nationalists who before 1998 wanted to see Northern Ireland join the republic. Considering the emphasis by pro-Leave campaigners on border controls, it is likely that the Irish border would have to be strengthened in order to stop EU citizens using this route as a backdoor into the UK. Such a move would prove seriously difficult to manage under the previously agreed settlement of 1998. In a report in April 2015, the Joint Committee of the Oireachtas Éireann consulted a series of people on the potential fallout specifically on the Northern Irish question in the case of a Brexit (which to me seems to be a great deal more consulting than the British government has been doing). Professor Jennifer Todd of University College Dublin, a specialist on north-south relations, reported to the committee that there were regional and geopolitical issues that could arise in the event that the UK opted to leave the European Union. According to the committee chairman, parliamentarian Dominic Hannigan, “Professor Todd raised matters of significant concern to the Committee, particularly her belief that a British exit and the instability which would occur in Northern Ireland as a result would impact significantly on North South relations” – the conclusion of the committee meeting was “the significant psychological impact that may be brought to bear on those living near the border and consequently on cross-border relations”.
It seems as always that the Vote Leave campaigners have struggled to fully comprehend the impact of a move to leave the European Union, the impact on people that many of them – being mostly Englishmen – will not have for a second considered. Beyond any of the wider regional and geopolitical issues, there are a significant number of people living on both sides of the border and who rely on their ability to live and work in both Ireland and the UK. Never mind the potential reawakening of nationalist fervour, or sectarian violence. The FT in its article made a particular point about the potential threat to Anglo-Irish trade, and then gave the usual pro-leave response to anything trade-related ‘there’ll be an agreement’. How can they say this with blatant disregard to the geopolitical situation we will be in once having left the EU. There are 27 member-states who would all have to agree with signing a treaty with a country who has just walked out of the room. It beggars belief, the disregard of these people, to bet Britain’s future on a gamble which may or may not give Britain some other benefits, and even then at great cost in the short term. It’s as if they see this as some high-stakes game where winner takes all; here’s a newsflash for them – it’s not, it’s people’s lives.
Sources: FT, The Guardian, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Oireachtas Éireann Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs.
by Sam Hufton