By Darragh Roche
A BRITISH exit from the EU would decimate the Irish economy, according to a recent study from Ireland’s Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI). The UK is by far Ireland’s largest source of imports and second largest export market. A Brexit would see Anglo-Irish trade fall by nearly one fifth, with drastic falls in wages, employment and living standards in the republic. Border controls and police checkpoints could return to the republic’s border with Northern Ireland. Ireland’s government could be forced to follow Britain out the door – a process that would be difficult and could destabilise the political system. If British policy makers aren’t worried about a Brexit’s effect on Ireland, they should be.
Britain and Ireland have a long and unhappy history. Ireland has usually been the irritating afterthought of British governments, while Irish politics was obsessed with escaping from Britain for centuries. Since 1998’s Good Friday Agreement and the determined but slow normalisation of life in Northern Ireland, Anglo-Irish relations have been on a constant upward tilt. The Queen’s state visit to Ireland in 2011 was held up as the glorious beacon of friendship between the two countries. Most citizens of the republic have no ill feeling towards Britain; on the contrary, the British and Irish are more alike than any other pair of nationalities you can name. Britain is much more like Ireland than some obscure EU countries that came into being in the 1990s. But the bilateral relationship is starting to look shaky because of two problems: Northern Ireland and Europe.
Power sharing in Northern Ireland has pleased no-one. It was a necessary compromise that institutionalised posturing by nationalists and unionists. Its’ dysfunctions are ripping it apart. Meanwhile, the republic’s financial crisis – the deepest recession in the country’s history – shattered traditional politics and allowed Sinn Féin and a host of populist to gain a foothold in parliament and the public imagination. Sinn Féin has proved an aggressive opposition party, and they’ll make big gains in next year’s general election. This is the same Sinn Féin that still wants a united Ireland and acts as apologists for paramilitaries. Talk of a Brexit plays right into the hands of nationalists like Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald and Pearse Doherty, rising stars of the party’s southern leadership. Populists on the left, chiefly represented by well-spoken, well-mobilised socialists, bitterly oppose the EU institutions who supervised Ireland’s economic bailout. This somewhat unnatural alliance could smash the remnants of Ireland’s respectable if boring political establishment. Throwing a Brexit doomsday into the mix could ignite a dangerous conflagration.
But why should any of that bother Britain? Ireland is small potatoes compared to all the big talk of the out campaign. Laying aside the serious economic consequences for Britain from the fall off in trade envisioned by the ESRI, the Brexit is raising some very familiar ghosts. There is never a good time for power sharing in Northern Ireland to fall apart but a return to direct rule from Westminster now would be politically catastrophic. Ill feeling towards Britain amongst northern nationalists is very real and Sinn Féin is happy to combine that with the party’s fierce opposition to the republic’s government. Some senior politicians speculate privately that Ireland will have to follow Britain if the Brexit happens. Leaving the EU would require a referendum, which would be bring a new definition of ugliness to Irish politics. The government is unlikely to survive no matter the outcome, creating new opportunities for populists and nationalists.
EU membership is an issue only the British people can decide but that decision can only be made by assessing every possible outcome. Britain and Ireland must not allow themselves to be dragged down into the swamp of their own history. Is Britain willing to risk throwing Ireland overboard? If it is, the British government will face the consequences just as much as the Irish people.