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Implications for Ireland of a British exit from the EU

I spoke recently at an SDLP-organised event at the House of Commons on the implications for Ireland, North and South, of the coming UK referendum on continued EU membership. Here is a summary of what I said on an issue of great concern for Ireland.

My long experience of EU affairs tells me that the Union is an arena where pragmatism and the pursuit of consensus invariably prevails. That was certainly our experience when we needed to negotiate a protocol following our first referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

There's a big Irish interest in having the UK remain a member of the EU. As the Taoiseach said during his recent visit to London, this is of 'central importance' for Ireland.

As I see it, there are three reasons for this Irish interest in the UK's continued EU membership.

First, Ireland has a unique, multi-stranded, mutually-beneficial, relationship with the UK, which has arrived at a very positive place in the past decade or so. I would say that no other EU State is as closely connected with the UK as we are. The uniqueness of our relations means that Ireland would be more seriously affected by a British departure from the EU than probably any other EU Member State.

This increasingly positive relationship between Dublin and London has paid rich dividends with regard to Northern Ireland where the two Governments have worked together over a sustained period to deliver peace and to encourage political progress and reconciliation.

Second, our economic ties with the UK are strong and mutually-advantageous, and we would not want these to be disrupted by a change in the UK's EU engagement. The UK is our most important economic partner and Ireland is also a very significant market for British exporters.

Third, we like the influence the UK brings to bear within the EU, where on a wide range of policy issues our two countries tend to see eye-to-eye. We want to see the UK continue to wield its influence within the EU in the years ahead on policies favouring, for example, economic openness and enhanced competitiveness.

The depth and extent of our partnership with the UK implies that we will do what we can to support its efforts to secure an agreement enabling them to remain a member of the EU and contribute fully to the Union's future evolution.

Our position is, of course, different from the UK's in that, while we are naturally interested in changes that will make the EU function more effectively, our future is in the EU. This is a matter of fundamental national interest for us, which means that we would not agree to anything that we believe would harm the Union or compromise our ties with our other EU partners.

What would the implications of a British departure from the EU be for Ireland?

First, it would clearly damage the European Union. No organisation could fail to be adversely affected by the departure of one of its larger, more powerful members. Anything that reduces the EU's effectiveness would be unwelcome to Ireland as a country committed to continued EU membership.

Second, a British exit would usher in a period of uncertainty, that would be potentially detrimental to Ireland at a time when our economy is recovering strongly. While I assume that Britain would arrive at a new, cooperative relationship with the EU following an exit from membership, this would not be plain sailing. It is not likely that a Britain outside the Union could enjoy exactly the same relations with the EU than it now has as a member. Any barrier to trade in goods and services between the UK and the EU that may come into play would inevitably have particular consequences for Ireland.

Third, the implications for Northern Ireland would need careful handling. I consider the idea of a physical border between North and South to be impractical, but any prospect of customs and border checks is clearly something to be avoided. The fact is that a British exit would mean that the border would become a frontier between the EU and a non-member State.

Furthermore, a British exit would most likely be a divisive issue in Northern Ireland, although probably not along strict nationalist-unionist lines.

In my opinion, none of these potential problems would be catastrophic. We would have to cope and, in my view, we would do so.

In particular, we would seek to retain all of the advantages deriving from the current positive state of Irish-British and North-South relations. We would of course seek to preserve all the advantages of our present economic partnership with the UK, but this could be tricky to achieve depending on the nature of the new relationship between the UK and the EU. We would continue to work together with the UK with regard to Northern Ireland. The provisions of the Good Friday Agreement would still apply fully as would the arrangements under the Common Travel Area.

Nonetheless, a British exit would clearly introduce an unwelcome element of uncertainty and complication for Ireland, North and South. The best way to avoid any disruption to relations with Britain, or for Northern Ireland, is for the UK to remain in the EU. We will do what we can to achieve that outcome.

Daniel Mulhall is Ireland's Ambassador in London.