While Brexit throws up many challenges for Ireland to overcome a definite red line is NO return to a “hard” border with Ireland.
When Theresa May arrives in Dublin later this month for talks with her Irish counterpart about the consequences for both countries of the UK’s decision to leave the EU, she will find her Irish hosts ready to assert national interest in the face of an unwelcome development across the Irish Sea.
While there may be some benefits for Ireland if financial services companies in the City of London shift some operations to Dublin, the costs of Brexit for Ireland are likely to be far higher. From Northern Ireland to border controls to bilateral trade to the common travel area between Ireland and Britain, officials are working flat out to ensure Irish interests are preserved as much as possible. But Brexit could change Irish attitudes to the UK in other ways.
When Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, addressed the Irish senate in November, she was given a rapturous reception; senators not only commended her pursuit of Scottish interests in Europe but also declared their support for Scottish independence, with some Irish politicians starting to imagine the break-up of the UK. In Dublin and increasingly London it is accepted that Brexit will affect Ireland more than any other EU member. In a report on the future of Anglo-Irish relations last month, the UK House of Lords said the two countries “have a special set of historical, geographical, economic, social and cultural ties”, and that “the implications of Brexit for Ireland are therefore more profound than they are for any other member state”. For Dublin there are four immediate priorities.
One is the preservation of existing arrangements for bilateral trade, which runs to €1.2bn a week across the Irish Sea. Another is the continuation of the “common travel area”. This ensures passport-free travel in both directions. An additional priority is to avoid any return to a “hard” border involving custom posts and passport checks between the republic and Northern Ireland. If such a border were to be reinstated, Dublin fears, it would alienate border communities and, in the worst case, spark a renewed outbreak of the sort of paramilitary violence that scarred Northern Ireland for 30 years up to the late 1990s.
Finally, the Irish government continues to make it clear that Ireland’s membership of the EU is not in doubt. There is no equivalent in Ireland of the UK Independence party, a vocal force in the campaign to leave the EU. But there are some voices on the libertarian right who advocate such a course. As the only anglophone country in the EU after Brexit, as a substantial base for US foreign direct investment into Europe and as a member of the euro with commitments on integration that it will be required to endorse, Ireland will have to shift the axis of its diplomatic and political world view from London to Paris, Berlin and elsewhere.