A complete British withdrawal from the EU’s single market seems increasingly possible. Business organisations such as the CBI are openly expressing alarm about the prospect of a “hard” Brexit, the kind of rupture that would take Britain out of the single market and possibly even the customs union.
But largely ignored in Westminster and Britain more widely is that some of the most profound economic, political and constitutional consequences of a hard Brexit would be on Britain’s nearest neighbour, Ireland, and on British-Irish relations. Theresa May has indicated that, though both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, the English and Welsh majority in favour of leaving must prevail.
I was born and raised in Dublin and have worked and lived for 50 years in England, so I have watched with delight the transformation of relations between the people of the Irish south and the English. The Ireland of my youth was deeply resentful of its former colonial master. Éamon de Valera, who was taoiseach for most of that time, refused to recognise the partition of the island and attempted to isolate Ireland from England and to revive a nostalgic, inward-looking concept of Gaelic culture. Yet despite diplomatic tensions, De Valera pragmatically pursued a fixed exchange rate with the UK, and free movement of people between the countries continued.
A transformation in relations between the two countries began in the 1960s when De Valera’s successor, Seán Lemass, broke the isolation by signing a free trade agreement with the UK, and visited Northern Ireland, to the consternation of the young Ian Paisley. And when Britain and Ireland joined the EU together in 1973, it brought extensive economic benefits for both, and closer political engagement than previously thought imaginable. The 30-year quasi-civil war in the north was eventually ended by the Good Friday agreement in 1998. The Dublin-London air route is now the busiest in Europe, and even throughout “the Troubles”, free movement of people was never restricted.
But Brexit, if it includes withdrawal from the single market and the customs union, could put these remarkable achievements at risk because border controls will have to be established between the UK and the EU, and the free movement of citizens between the two countries would be hard to maintain. The imposition of tariffs could have devastating consequences for trade. Ireland is the UK’s fifth largest market, so politically and economically, there is a lot at stake.
If the British government maintains its present stance, some severe institutional changes will have to be considered. A hard border would reverse the radical changes introduced by the Good Friday agreement and might even trigger a return to the political tensions of the past. As a result of that agreement both the north and south have benefited enormously from new EU funds (a situation that will of course end in the north after Brexit).
A more drastic and highly unlikely option would be for Ireland to follow the UK and withdraw from the EU. Even though Brexit will damage the Irish economy, it is inconceivable to me that confident, modern Ireland would contemplate withdrawal.
A possible compromise might be for Northern Ireland to stay in the single market and create the border controls between the two islands of Great Britain and Ireland – water is a more effective barrier. The north could retain a federal link within the UK, but the links would inevitably weaken; and a possible shift towards Irish reunification would alarm unionists, who would fiercely resist such a proposal.
The Ireland of my youth was bedevilled by twin negative emotions: nostalgia for an idyllic rural past, which in truth had never existed; and resentment against the historic cultural dominance of England. Modern Ireland has, for the most part, rejected such views in favour of an outward-looking engagement with Britain, Europe and the rest of the world.
When I came to England in the 1960s I found a far more prosperous place, but also an outward-looking country beginning to recognise that close engagement with Europe was the only response to the demise of empire.
Yet nostalgia for the past and resentment about the world in general were the deciding factors in the Brexit vote and were ruthlessly exploited by the Europhobic, often xenophobic outpourings of some Brexit politicians.
The irony of what is now happening could not be more painful.
Chris Haskins is a Dublin-born businessman and Labour peer; he is the former chair of Northern Dairies.