What will be the impact on the Irish border if the UK leaves the EU?

After last year’s hugely successful visit by Queen Elizabeth to the Republic and a joint communiqué of extraordinary warmth following last March’s summit between David Cameron and Enda Kenny, British-Irish relations were generally considered to have reached a closeness unprecedented in more than 90 years since Irish independence and partition.

In July the Irish ambassador to Britain, Bobby McDonagh, spoke of the elements that went into this successful relationship. The first of these was Britain and Ireland’s shared membership of the European Union, which ‘psychologically, has placed us on a more equal footing as nations than at any time in our history’. However, almost as he was speaking, that equality as fellow EU members was starting to become problematic.

There has always been a potential tension between Ireland’s geographical, cultural and economic closeness to the old imperial power and her newer and rather successful relationship with the EU. One of the central thrusts of Irish economic policy since the late 1950s had been to reduce the country’s enormous trade dependence on the UK (as recently as the mid-1950s over 90% of Irish exports went to Britain; in recent years it has been less than 20%). EU membership since 1973 has played a central role in this policy.

Successive Irish governments have always been committed to a deepening of the European Union (despite some serious doubts by the Irish electorate in their initial rejections of the Nice and Lisbon treaties), whereas the UK has tended to see the EU primarily as a trade arrangement to promote British economic interests.

Former Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald foresaw this tension between the two countries’ EU policy directions as long ago as 2000, when he said: ‘There must at least be a possibility that a future stronger pull towards Britain… could conflict with Ireland’s need to enjoy a capacity for independent action in the European sphere.’ [i]

Something of that has begun to happen during the past two years. We all know how in 2010 the Irish Government was forced to seek an €85 billion ‘bail out’ from the ‘troika’ of the EU, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund as its debt-ridden public finances and banking sector came close to collapse. This loss of fiscal sovereignty has tied Ireland more closely to the EU and the eurozone, making its integration into an eventual banking union, to be followed by elements of a fiscal, and perhaps even a political union, more likely. The jury is out on whether Ireland’s submission to a harsh EU and IMF-imposed austerity regime is working, although one major US investor has talked recently about the ‘Irish turnaround’ being ‘one of the best investments of the decade.’[ii]

The situation in Britain could not be more different. Here, with Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne warning that austerity and recession will last until 2018, Euroscepticism is rampant, particularly in the Conservative party. In June one third of David Cameron’s MPs signed a letter urging him to legislate for a referendum on Britain’s EU membership. An authoritative survey of British attitudes in the following month showed that 49% of people would vote for the UK to leave the EU, and only 32% would vote to remain.[iii] Opinion polls suggest that the anti-EU UK Independence Party will eat heavily into Conservative Party support in the 2014 European parliamentary elections. Many authoritative observers[iv] believe that in these circumstances an in/out referendum in Britain must be only a matter of time, with a vote to leave the Union highly probable.

Where does all this leave the small, peripheral province of Northern Ireland? Ironically, one of the few things the DUP and Sinn Fein have in common is their distrust of the EU: the former from a position of old-style Tory ‘British loyalism’, the latter from their insular philosophy of ‘We ourselves’. Those positions probably chime well with the instinctive conservatism and feeling of distance from the EU which is the dominant attitude of most Northern Irish people, unionist and nationalist.

But what will it mean for the island of Ireland if the UK – and with it Northern Ireland – leaves the European Union? A recent paper co-authored by the former Irish ambassador to Britain, Dáithi O’Ceallaigh, warns that such a withdrawal would be ‘a source of enormous instability and turbulence for Ireland’. It would mean that ‘an external border of the European Union would run through the island of Ireland.’ [v]

The extreme fringe of unionism might relish this prospect, but intelligent people everywhere on the island would be horrified. What would happen to the Common Travel Area between the two islands? Or nearly 50 years of bilateral trade treaties? Would Ireland have to agree a trade agreement with Britain outside the EU framework which would endanger its determination to remain at the core of Europe? What would it mean for one of the building blocks of the Belfast Agreement – practical North-South cooperation – which has led, in Peter Robinson’s words, to a ‘better than ever relationship’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic? And on the other side of the ideological fence, what would its implications be for the Irish nationalist dream of eventual unity by consent?

Andy Pollak

i) Fitzgerald, G., Blair’s Britain, England’s Europe: A View from Ireland, 2000

ii) ‘Irish bond trader buys big into ‘Irish turnaround’, The Irish Times, 14 December 2012

iii) Survey of British attitudes by Chatham House and YouGov, July 2012

iv) e.g The Economist, 8-14 December 2012

v) O’Ceallaigh, D. and Kilcourse, J., Towards an Irish Foreign Policy for Britain, Institute for International and European Affairs, August 2012.

  • OneNI

    In direct answer to the question: The Republic’s 10% Corporation Tax would end shortly afterwards – it is largely the UK influence that prevents EU Corporation tax harmonisation at present.
    At that point some might say Irish independence (with 10% Corproation tax) and re-joining sterling might be more attraictive than staying under German economic and fiscal control?
    Those who believe in an All island market and Irish sovereignty would surely welcome this?

  • BarneyT

    You may see an increase in dual nationality in Northern Ireland with the take-up of more Irish passports for a start. That would enhance the notion of all-Ireland Irish identity which would be positive.

    Whilst I would expect tighter border controls, perhaps in line with those between Switzerland and the EU, Ireland as an island constitutionally presents some challenges with regard to the right to Irish citizenship.

    It all depends on how frosty the UK\EU relationship gets. A UK withdrawal may trigger a release of NI to the ROI, as surely Britain would not want to have the added complexity of a land border with the EU?

  • Brian Walker

    It depends does it not, on whether the Conservatives win a majority in 2015 and go ahead with a negotiation to revise of Britain’s EU relationship to keep it in the EU rather than take it out, followed by a referendum, as Peter Mandelson discusses in today’s Guardian.

    Ireland might well be the gainer in foreign direct investment ( FDI). Andy might look with profit at EU members Sweden and Denmark’s close relations with non EU Norway for a guide on how to handle such an outcome. Another possible headache is if Scotland votes to go independent and join/ stay in? the EU and the resIdual UK votes to leave. The Irish land border problem wouldn’t be alone. One way or another though I bet it won’t happen.

  • BarneyT

    For a start I cant see the Scottish departure occurring so that fly in the ointment will be avoided. Those advocating UK removal from the EU with cite Norway and Switzerland as success stories no doubt…and those comparisons may allow the anti-EU campaign to grow legs.

    If its left to the “people” the Express and the Mail will do the ground work and the UK will depart or at least vote to do so. The Scottish are much more European, so a UK departure from the EU may cause a Scottish independence rethink. I wonder if provision will be made for Scotland in this scenario.

  • Framer

    The Common Travel area predates the EU while the absence of both the UK and Ireland from Schengen means human border controls will not differ greatly. Customs tariffs and the easy movement of goods could well become draconianly different.
    Scottish independence, if achieved, will probably mean extensive border controls for several decades until relations settle, nationality issues are sorted out and the initial movement of refugees and asylum seekers subsides.

  • Greenflag

    It will be a sad day for the EU if the UK ever votes to leave -It’ll be an even sadder day for the UK .Leaving the EU does nothing to resolve the economic, social and political problems that the UK faces . The opposite in fact .

    As for an ‘external EU border ‘ ? Why would that be a problem ? Sweden has an ‘external EU border ‘with Norway and if it’s an issue between those States I’ve yet to hear of it ?

    The GFA will continue regardless -as will mandatory power sharing . An all Ireland market would have 6.5 million customers -The EU has 550 million . The UK 65 million.

    The UK’s economic problems have nothing to do with the EU . Just like the USA the UK continues to suffer from the excesses brought about by the ‘financialisation ‘ of their ‘national economy ‘ over the past couple of decades , such that that over reliance on the financial sector and reckless deregulation has led to the current mess .The UK is the City of London .

    ‘The extreme fringe of unionism might relish this prospect, ‘

    What’s new ? I’ll have no difficulty in choosing between the EU and a bunch of loonies whose idea of progress is to march around Belfast waving flags , attacking police and burning property .

    The EU may have a ‘democratic deficit ‘ but it’s a million light years ahead of the kind of democratic deficit currently on show in East Belfast .

    Re ‘

    ‘as recently as the mid-1950s over 90% of Irish exports went to Britain’

    Ireland joined the EU in 1973 ( 5 years into the then NI troubles ‘ I thought our export dependency of 90% on the UK continued into the early 1970’s ? .

    As for rejoining the ‘sterling area’ ? I can’t see that happening unless the Eurozone is wound up and the likelihood of that happening is remote to say the least .
    Merkel will be re-elected in Sept 2013 as German Kanzler and the Eurozone will continue possibly adding some more members .

    What should be a concern for Britons or for those who are aware of what’s happening in international currency markets is how sterling will perform vis a vis the Euro and other important currencies .Continuing ‘devaluation ‘ to gain trade leverage did nothing for British manufacturing in the 1960,s and 1970’s or indeed in the 1990’s . There is no evidence that such policies will do any better for the City of London’s financial services sector .

    There is in the background of course the economic history of Ireland under Sterling and while the current Eurozone strait jacket (created to a large extent by ourselves ‘alone ‘) is no bed of roses – Ireland’s economic history and performance in the sterling area was nothing to write home about either .Apart from a small area around Belfast in the heyday of Empire -Ireland’s overall economy ‘stunted ‘ for centuries while attached to the sterling umbilical cord . There is no good reason to believe that economic history might not repeat itself .

  • David Crookes

    Here is one complication that we badly don’t need. If it ever happens, only the usual suspects will rejoice.

    The usual suspects like to live in a state of squalid chaos.

  • I imagine the opinions of large manufacturing corporations like Toyota will have a massive input into whether the UK leaves the EU , I think their opinions will be more relevant than UKIP or the Tory right.