Make your mind up time

It is make your mind up time for the Irish Republic.

Nothing new, but there has been hugely irresponsible and faintly histrionic noises coming out of Dublin, and Irish republican/nationalism generally, along with other voices (usual suspects), to the effect that Brexit means a return to violence in Northern Ireland. The only obvious return to the past is the use by the Republic’s politicians of events related to Northern Ireland as a distraction away from issues for which they are responsible, a deflection from the economic and political realities on its own doorstep.

The Republic of Ireland has a major decision to make in the months ahead. Its exports and business life are principally oriented towards two of the world’s largest economies: the UK and the USA. There has been a lot made of the EU “single market of 500-million people” EU, yet once the UK leaves the EU the combined markets of the UK, Canada and the USA are within the ballpark of the EU population, with a greater nominal GDP.

When the UK leaves the EU the Republic will be sending almost two thirds of its goods exports and the same of its services exports outside the remaining EU 26, and purchasing around two-thirds of its imports from outside the 26, according to the most recent (at time of posting) Irish CSO (Central Statistics Office) figures, those for 2015.

The greatest threat to the Republic’s economy is likely to come from the longstanding resistance of the French to ending farming support or tariff protection. While that would place significant barriers to agricultural trade between the Republic and the UK, it provides a huge opportunity for Northern Ireland food products in displacing what will become expensive Irish imports, particularly to the rest of the UK and particularly the South East of England.

Meanwhile, while much is made of arrangements to take goods from Dundalk to Letterkenny, effectively passing through the UK, the volume of trade crossing the land border is nothing to the trade flowing between the continent and the Republic across UK motorways from British port to British port; the TIR (Transports Internationaux Routiers) carnets that allow for free movement as important to one scenario as to the other.

Arrangements for goods crossing the border will be made, as with any border. It will cost money and effort, and no doubt the Republic will make a case for special EU funding to pay for the significant investment this represents to its economy. It should, as it is already a net contributor to the EU (likely to increase substantially with £12bn less heading Brussels direction); not counting the payments to French and German bondholders as Ireland’s cost of shoring up the Euro.

On the upside, the Common Travel Area will continue. Irish citizens have more rights in the UK than those of Crown Dependencies. There is little indication that the British Government has any interest in repealing the clauses of the 1949 Act that effectively treats Irish Citizens as British in all but nationality – just as UK Citizens are not treated as Aliens in the Republic; by historical default rather than intelligent design.

With both the UK and the Republic outside the EU’s Schengen area, there is every reason for the substantial co-operation on immigration to continue. When Irish politicians shout that Ireland would not pay for immigration checks for those travelling to the UK, there is a clear lack of awareness that this already happens on a mutual basis under existing protocols. With Irish citizens unlikely to have their existing rights affected when the UK leaves the EU, and internalized systems for managing visas in the UK for workers from other EU States, most are unlikely to notice much difference day to day.

Finally, once Article 50 is triggered, the Republic of Ireland will be one voice in 27 at the negotiations. While the UK will not wish to compromise its good relations with the Republic, by the nature of negotiations it can only secure agreement with the 27 which will be an agreement on the balance of interests of the 27 of which Ireland is a single small voice.

With the triggering of Article 50 there is a set period of two years for exit negotiations between the UK and the then 27 members of the EU. Of course, much else will impact on discussions, not least a line of elections across Europe (including France, Netherlands and Germany) before the end of 2017, that could either smooth, detract or derail EU attention on Brexit.

The Republic of Ireland has a significant choice to make in the next year or so. The dangers are known and already noted. Does it make the best of its membership of the EU, and the significant disruption to trade (and to the key economic relationship) this represents? Or does the Republic accept that its economic interests lie outside the EU, making common cause on trade and development alongside its biggest trading partners and friends?

There are voices warning of the need for a Plan B with respect to the EU, not only because of Brexit.  There is certainly evidence that consideration of IRExit is raising fundamental questions:

It is notable that when taoiseach Enda Kenny travelled to Berlin last summer to persuade his friend the German chancellor Angela Merkel that Ireland should be seen as a special case in the Brexit negotiations, he travelled home empty-handed. In 1916 the Irish Citizen Army paraded in front of Liberty Hall draped in the banner, which proclaimed: “We serve neither king nor kaiser, but Ireland.” Did Ireland achieve its independence from the king and his successors just to hand it over to the heirs of the kaiser?

The UK is leaving the EU, one and all. A border ‘deal’ is deemed to be ‘not legally possible’. The Republic of Ireland seems to be willing to make mischief (using northern Nationalists as pawns), and talk up violence as a means to keep a place at the table rather than to lose its voice among the 27. The discussion isn’t whether or not the UK leaves the EU. Prime Minister May has made that clear. Once Article 50 is triggered the discussion between the UK and the EU27 will focus on the nature of future trade, not constitutional, arrangements post-Brexit. Truth is, as Lord Kilclooney, points out in response to Fianna Fail’s Michael Martin, (and more recently following the House of Lords debate on the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill 2016-17) any “special status” is needed for the Republic, not Northern Ireland:

“Assuming the Republic rejoining the UK or leaving the EU is not on the political agenda – yet – there must be a united effort in Dublin, Belfast, and London to achieve a special status for the Republic following Brexit, in order to avoid the clouds of economic despair which Micheal Martin correctly identifies.”

That discussion is one for the Republic, alone, with its 26 EU partners. Good luck with that.


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