The Republic of Ireland applied to join the then EEC in 1961 because the UK did so. It joined along with Britain in 1973 for the same reasons: (a) the UK was its most important single trading partner, and (b) Dublin did not want the North-South border within Ireland to become the land frontier of an aspiring continental supranational federation.
Now that the UK is leaving the EU, these remain the key reasons why the Republic should leave the EU along with it. Irish public support for leaving the EU is likely to grow in the course of the UK/EU negotiations, even if the Republic’s political Establishment and media – probably Europe’s most europhile apart from Germany’s and France’s – are still in shock at the whole idea of Britain leaving.
Although the Republic’s trade patterns have diversified since 1973, the English-speaking markets of the UK, North America and elsewhere are still more important for it than those of the EU without the UK, as is shown by the below table for the Republic’s foreign trade in goods. The distribution of its foreign trade in services is broadly similar.
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The only guaranteed way of avoiding customs posts and passport checks on the North-South Irish border when the UK leaves the EU single market and customs union is for the Republic to leave the EU too. For the Republic to attempt to stay when the UK leaves would add further new dimensions to that border – ever more harmonised EU laws and rules on one side, for example in crime and justice, and British-based ones on the other.
There are other reasons why it makes sense for the Republic of Ireland to go with Britain. A key one is that since 2014 the Republic has become a net contributor to the EU Budget, having been a net recipient for the previous 40 years.
Easy money from Brussels, mainly under the Common Agricultural Policy, has always been the basis of Irish europhilia. If Dublin stays in the EU, it must in future pay more in than it gets back. It would have to pay more too to help make up for the loss of Britain’s payments. On the other hand, if it leaves along with Britain it would get back control of its sea fisheries, which are far more valuable for an island country than all the money it has ever got from Brussels.
The common travel area between Britain and the Republic is a relic of the days when the whole of Ireland was part of the UK, before the Irish State was founded in 1922, and recognition that part of it, Northern Ireland, still is. For decades this has been a social safety valve for the Republic’s politicians, enabling them to export hundreds of thousands of their unemployed citizens to Britain. There they are given the right to live and work and even vote in UK elections, although UK citizens have no reciprocal voting rights in the Republic.
Dublin is desperate for this to continue, but why should London oblige if the Government of the Republic is so foolish as to want to stay in the EU rather than keep free trade and free travel links with its Northern fellow-Irishmen and women by leaving the EU along with the UK?
It will presumably be in Britain’s interest to revert to its traditional cheap food policy when it leaves the EU. At the same time the British Government will want to support UK farmers for political reasons, presumably by means of direct farm subsidies to replace the price supports they now get from the EU’s CAP.
Nearly half the Republic’s agricultural output goes to the UK market at present, so such a development will have major implications for it. Will Irish farm producers be displaced in the UK market post-Brexit by New Zealand lamb, Brazilian beef, American chicken etc.?
Instead of comforting themselves with continual effusions of europhilia, intelligent Irish politicians should now start working towards a comprehensive Anglo-Irish partnership deal directed at Brexit being accompanied by Irexit. Such a deal would aim at maintaining maximum free trade between the Republic, the UK and the EU post-Brexit. It would need to guarantee continued free access for Irish food exports to the UK market on the most favourable terms.
It would also need to cover Bank of England support for a restored Irish pound so that that did not have to devalue excessively in the initial weeks following its re-launch. This is necessary to facilitate the Republic leaving the Eurozone, for it is its membership of that – the biggest mistake ever made by the Irish State – that is now trapping it in an EU system that no longer serves the interests of most Irish citizens.
Because it does most of its foreign trade outside the euro-currency bloc, the Republic is probably the only Eurozone State that could abandon the euro and restore its national currency without causing a major crisis for the euro as a whole. When push comes to shove, Germany might be prepared to facilitate this. After all, Germany could more easily aspire to hegemony over the continental EU if Ireland as well as Britain were to cease to be EU members. That should appeal to influential sections of Germany’s current political elite.
The security dimension of Brexit is also relevant to a desirable Anglo-Irish deal. From the point of view of Britain’s military security, it is reasonable to interpret negatively the Republic of Ireland seeking to stay in the EU when the UK leaves. Some may even regard that as a hostile act.
The end of the Cold War removed the need for Britain and NATO maintaining military bases in Northern Ireland. This was the reason for the British Government’s statement that it had “no strategic interest” in Ireland and its commitment under the Good Friday Agreement to facilitate Irish reunification when and if a future majority in Northern Ireland should come to favour that. But if the South of Ireland stays in the EU while the North of Ireland leaves, this security calculus changes significantly.
Future Irish reunification in those circumstances would mean the whole island of Ireland would become part of an EU military security bloc dominated by Germany – now openly talking about an EU army post-Brexit – and potentially hostile to Britain’s interests in some future international crisis.
This would give Britain a new “strategic interest” in remaining indefinitely in Northern Ireland and actively discouraging future moves towards Irish reunification. That is why an Anglo-Irish partnership deal in the context of Brexit should ensure that no part of Ireland would become part of an EU military bloc, as being against the military security interests of both states.
These are the key considerations that need to shape the Irish dimension of the upcoming UK/EU negotiations. Note in passing that there is no constitutional requirement for a referendum in the Republic of Ireland to enable it to leave the EU along with Britain. That needs only to become the policy of a future Irish Government, which the UK should do all that it sensibly can to encourage over the coming two years.
Anthony Coughlan is an economist who is Director of the National Platform EU Research and Information Centre and Associate Professor Emeritus in Social Policy at Trinity College, Dublin. He is a lifelong critic of EU integration on democratic and internationalist grounds and has been involved in a number of successful constitutional court actions on fair referendum procedures in the Republic of Ireland
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