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Ireland and the challenges of Brexit

Blog by the Ambassador of Ireland to the US, Dan Mulhall, on Ireland and the challenges of Brexit


This past two years, I have travelled across America telling the story of modern Ireland and seeking to deepen our manifold connections – political, economic and people-to-people – with the United States.  I have given numerous speeches at universities, think tanks, chambers of commerce, and Irish community organisations. On such occasions, questions are invariably asked about Britain’s decision to leave the European Union and its implications for Ireland. This reflects a genuine concern among Irish Americans about the risks Britain’s exit from the EU could pose for Northern Ireland and for the precious, hard-won peace there. Here is the answer I try to give on such occasions.

Ireland has been a member of the European Union since 1973 and has manifestly benefited from membership. Membership, with the unhindered access it gives us to European markets, has enabled us to transform our economy. I have little patience for those who argue that EU membership is incompatible with national sovereignty and independence. That notion is founded on a misunderstanding of the nature of the European Union. As Ambassador to the United States, I represent a fully independent, sovereign Irish State that is also a committed member of the European Union.  Our membership of the EU is based on a sovereign choice we have made. There is currently something in the region of 90% support for the EU in Ireland, which reflects a wide public appreciation of the benefits of membership.   

These past 45 years, the United Kingdom has been alongside Ireland as a member of the EU. Shared EU membership has helped improve Ireland’s ties with our nearest neighbor as we have more often than not found ourselves on the same side in internal EU deliberations. This improved relationship enabled the Irish and British Governments to work together successfully, and with support from the United States and the European Union, to bring peace to Northern Ireland through the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. 

Ireland did not want to see the UK leave the EU and regretted the outcome of the 2016 referendum. We have, however, always accepted the UK’s right to leave the EU. It is in the nature of the European Union that membership is voluntary. 

Since June 2016, our Government’s priority has been to minimize the negative impact of the UK’s EU exit on Ireland and to maximize any potential upsides such as the prospect of increased US investment in Ireland when we become the sole English-speaking country in the EU. We have expressed particular anxiety about the potential impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland and the peace brought about by the Good Friday Agreement.  

Ireland continues to be a committed member of the European Union and the negotiations on the UK’s exit from the EU and future EU-UK relations are conducted on behalf the EU’s remaining 27 members by the European Commission.  After many months of painstaking negotiations, a Withdrawal Agreement was concluded between the UK and the EU, which, unfortunately, failed to secure a majority in the Westminster Parliament. 

From an Irish point of view, the Withdrawal Agreement contains a vital provision called the ‘backstop’.  Let me explain the background to that provision. One of our prime concerns has been to preserve the open border that has existed in Ireland since the mid-1990s with the creation of the EU single market and the end of the 25-year conflict in Northern Ireland. The border in Ireland is 300 miles long and has some 200 border crossings (as many as on the entire eastern border of the EU). It runs through villages, homes, farms and open fields and would be well-nigh impossible to seal.  

No-one wants a hard border on the island of Ireland. Indeed, Ireland, the UK and the EU are all agreed on the need to preserve today’s open border. The problem is how to achieve this if the UK, and thus Northern Ireland, leaves the single market and the EU Customs Union. In such circumstances, there will be a need to protect the integrity of the EU single market, which is a matter of vital interest for Ireland as the other 26 countries remaining in the EU account for more than 40% of our exports.     

An important point I need to make to US audiences is that the challenge that arises on the border in Ireland has to do with the movement of goods and not people. There is a ‘Common Travel Area’ between Ireland and Britain which, which has been in place for almost a century, and which will continue to guarantee that people on both islands will be able to move freely between their two countries and to live and work without restrictions on both sides of the Irish Sea.  

The Withdrawal Agreement’s ‘backstop’ provides a guarantee that whatever happens in the future, there can never be a hard border on the island of Ireland. As such, it is an insurance policy for the future. The hope is that it will never need to be used, that the EU and the UK will forge the kind of close economic partnership that will remove altogether the need for border controls.  

The Irish Government sees the backstop as essential if the open border in Ireland is to be guaranteed in perpetuity. Our Government has made it clear that they would be happy to see further negotiations between the EU and the UK aimed at finding a settlement that can command a majority in the UK Parliament. The Government have said that they are open to exploring alternatives to the backstop provided these are legally workable, but the EU has yet to receive any such proposals from the British Government. 

It is our clear preference that Brexit should take place in a sensible, orderly fashion. It is in Ireland’s interest that the UK should have a close and constructive relationship with the EU.  The prospect of the UK crashing out of the EU without an agreement to regulate future EU-UK trade ties is a destructive one which we earnestly seek to avoid. It would be economically damaging to Ireland, to the EU and most especially to the UK. It is hard to think of any precedent for a country leaving a free trade area that accounts for 40% of its exports without putting any alternative arrangements in place.       

I have been greatly encouraged by the strong expressions of support for Ireland’s position I have received from so many Irish Americans, including members of Congress. Let me be clear, Ireland wants Britain to prosper in the future so that our relations can continue to thrive as they have done in recent decades. But, the fallout from Brexit must not be allowed to damage the Good Friday Agreement and to turn the clock back for North-South relations in Ireland and for ties with our nearest neighbour that have undergone such positive change in recent decades. We look to continuing American support for Ireland at this challenging time as we grapple with the profound uncertainties generated by the onset of Britain’s departure from the European Union.

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