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Ireland, the European Union and the challenges posed by Brexit

Ireland, the European Union and the challenges posed by Brexit

Foreign Policy Discussion Group, 8 October 2019


Before I move on to my main subject, allow me to make a few short comments to this Foreign Policy Discussion Group about Ireland’s foreign policy. As a small country, we have always been devoted to the multilateral system and have been a keenly-committed member of the United Nations for more than six decades. We are not a member of any military alliance but we have an unbroken 60-year record of involvement in UN peacekeeping. 

At the UN, we are especially active on the human rights and disarmament fronts. We operate a highly-regarded development cooperation programme, Irish Aid, and are committed to reaching the UN target of 0.7% of GNI by 2030. We are a strong advocate for the Sustainable Development Goals, which we played a leading role in drafting. 

To mark 100 years of Irish independence, we are seeking a seat on the UN Security Council for 2021-22.  We believe we have an important contribution to make to the UN as country dedicated to the ideals of the UN Charter and possessed with a deep affinity with so many members of the UN, an affinity derived from similar historical experiences.    

Why Americans ought to be interested in the Brexit issue: Americans might well ask me, what do the challenges posed by Brexit have to do with American interests? The answer is quite a lot, in fact. Why do I say this? 

There are two good reasons why Americans ought to take an interest in what is happening with Brexit. The first stems from the fact that the EU is part of the fabric of the trans-Atlantic relationship which has delivered more than seven decades of comparative peace and prosperity to Europeans and Americans alike.  After a half-century of conflict in which so many Americans lost their lives fighting for freedom in Europe, this is no small achievement. The EU cannot claim full credit for relatively untroubled decades for Western Europe and America, but it was an important part of a bigger picture. If Brexit damages the EU and results in deteriorating relations between the EU and the UK that will have ripple effects detrimental to overall US interests. 

Another point has to do with the economic impact of Brexit. There are different assessments among economists about the likely consequences of various configurations of Brexit.  Some predict a negative economic hit of manageable proportions while others envisage more catastrophic impacts on the UK economy. I am not aware of any serious economist who has predicted an economic boost from Brexit. This means that Brexit is likely to damage the UK and EU economies, both of which are significant trading partners of the US. This means that Brexit, and especially the harder form of it, will inevitably be detrimental to the US economy. 

Ireland’s transformation: Ireland’s experience of EU membership has been a very positive one. When we became independent a century ago, after an extended struggle to assert our separate national political identity, our economy did not prosper and emigration continued to drain too many people from Ireland to the benefit of the United States and other countries around the world where Irish people settled. 

Our economic turnaround began in the late 1950s when we opened ourselves out to the world, seeking to attract greater numbers of tourists, pursuing foreign direct investment and prioritizing the development of the export sector of our economy.

Three factors contributed to the growth of the Irish economy in the closing decades of the 20th century and opening ones of this century. Those were investment in education beginning in the late 1960s with the introduction of free secondary (high school) education, burgeoning US investment in Ireland and the impact of becoming a member of the European Union.   

When we joined the EU in 1973, Ireland was well behind our 8 European partners in terms of development. Membership provided opportunities for us to diversify our economy, build our trading ties with our European neighbours and be part of a unique Union of Member States through which we could pursue our national interests and aspirations more effectively in concert with others. 

Recent decades have witnessed a transformation of Irish society. In terms of national prosperity, we have caught up with our European neighbours. Our exports have boomed and we are now far less dependent on the UK market than we were before we joined the EU. 

There has also been considerable social change in Ireland in recent decades. The most dramatic feature of this change has been a been demographic one. The Ireland in which I grew up was a highly homogenous society. Today, about 17% of our population were born outside of Ireland. I had this diversity illustrated to me recently when I visited my old secondary school and met pupils who spoke 22 different languages and came from all over the world and were now living in my home city of Waterford. 

In short, Ireland has always been comfortable as an EU member State, something that was not the case for our nearest neighbour. We had no difficulty with the concept of pooled sovereignty by which we secured better outcomes for Ireland by working in unison with our European neighbours in pursuit of agreed, shared goals.

Although this was not something that animated us when we were seeking EU membership back in the 1960s, it so happened that membership had a positive impact on our relations with the UK. Over the decades, we worked together on EU issues and found that our day-to-day interests often overlapped. 

EU membership enabled Ireland and the UK to develop a rapport at the highest political level which resulted over time in the development of a shared analysis of the Northern Ireland conflict and the shape of its resolution. This led on to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. 

I want to pay tribute to the role of the United States, and especially of Senator George Mitchell, in helping bring peace to Northern Ireland. Successive administrations and Congress made an important contribution to the advancement of our peace process.  The EU has also been consistent in its support for peace in Northern Ireland, providing significant financial support over the years since 1998. 

The European Union: The European Union suffers from a series of misperceptions about its nature and functioning. It is often derided by its critics as an undemocratic, bureaucratic entity with imperial ambition but this is a travesty of its true nature as a voluntary, treaty-based union of sovereign states with their own proud histories and cultures. 

All decisions are taken, at the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, by democratically-mandated representatives of the governments and peoples of Europe. As for bureaucracy and regulation, the EU has managed to replace 28 sets of national regulations with EU ones in areas in which the EU has competence.  This has been of great benefit to US corporations in facilitating their operations across Europe. In short, the EU is not a United States of Europe, although there are those who aspire to deepen further the EU’s level of integration. That, however, will be a matter for decision by the Member States, their Governments, Parliaments and, in cases where a referendum may be required to approve constitutional changes, by the people.    

The EU’s nature can be gauged from what it does not do. It has no common police force, no European army, no involvement in social welfare, education or health care.  Justice and foreign policy are all essentially national competences although there is cooperation between the Member States in those areas.   

The EU is a real presence in today’s Europe and internationally. Thoughts that it will fold up or collapse in the face of the various challenges it currently faces are illusory. The EU is here to stay. Indeed, public support for the EU is quite strong across Europe. In Ireland, the latest opinion polls indicate support for membership of more than 90%.  

The Challenges posed by Brexit: Ireland is, and will remain, a committed member of the EU. Membership has been good for Ireland and for our relations with the UK. We regret that the UK has decided to leave the EU after 45 years of membership. We had hoped that the British electorate would have decided to stay, but we accept their decision. During my time in London, I tried to point out the potential downsides of Brexit with regard to the border in Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement, but the issue of Northern Ireland never became a major focus of debate during the referendum campaign. 

Ireland’s position since 2016 has been a consistent one.  The UK is perfectly entitled to leave the EU. But their departure poses a set of dilemmas for the UK, including with regard to Ireland. 

We have sought to minimize the downsides of Brexit for Ireland and to maximize any upside such as our ability to attract further US investment when we become the sole English-speaking country in the EU.   

Ireland faces the prospect of economic damage arising out of Brexit.  This is because, while only 12% of our current exports go to the UK, for certain sectors including the food industry the figure is more like 40% and even more. Any disruption to EU-UK trade could therefore be very costly for Ireland. We are prepared for a negative economic impact from Brexit and our Government’s Budget for 2020 has set aside €1.2 billion to cope with the anticipated economic fallout. 

Our second concern, and the one that has attracted most attention, is a political one concerning Northern Ireland.  The 1998 Good Friday Agreement brought peace to Northern Ireland after a conflict that lasted the best part of 30 years and caused the loss of 3,500 lives. Our Government is determined to protect this precious peace process. That is why we have insisted that there should be no hard border on the island of Ireland.     

Since the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland has enjoyed 20 years of peace but the political process that underpins the peace remains a fragile one.  The power-sharing executive that is part of the Agreement has not met since January 2017 and the Northern Ireland Assembly has effectively been in abeyance since then. This has created a political vacuum and the risk is that this vacuum will be filled by individuals and organisations with malign agendas who are not supportive of the peace process and the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement.  There have been significant tensions in recent months and the uncertainties generated by Brexit have added to these. 

Northern Ireland voted 56-44% to remain in the EU, but there were differences between the unionist and nationalist communities on the Brexit issue. An overwhelming percentage of Nationalists opposed Brexit while a majority of Unionists, perhaps 60% supported it. 

No-one wants a hard border in Ireland as this would be economically disruptive and politically very risky. The fear is that border infrastructure of any kind could become a target for paramilitary attacks and that could lead to an escalation of the situation. These are real fears that are shared by the Police Service of Northern Ireland.  

The border in Ireland is more than 300 miles long. It has no geographical basis. It runs through houses, farmyards, villages and open fields. It has been an open border for the past 20 years and any change to its status would be deeply resented by communities on both sides of the border. 

The problem is that if the UK leaves the Customs Union and the single market as it intends to do, and unless some special arrangements are applied in Ireland, there would be two customs and regulatory jurisdictions on the island of Ireland. In the circumstances of a no-deal Brexit, Ireland would come under pressure to take steps to protect the integrity of the EU single market. 

The best solution to this problem would be for the UK to leave the EU with a deal which would include the ‘backstop’ incorporated in the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated last year between the EU and the UK, or some agreed alternative that would achieve the same outcome as the backstop – a permanently-guaranteed open border, the protection of the Good Friday Agreement and respect for the integrity of the European Single Market. 

We are in uncertain times and even as the deadline of 31 October looms, a number of outcomes remain possible. We continue to argue for an agreement that will enable the UK to leave the EU in an orderly manner that would minimize the damage inflicted by Brexit on the EU, on the UK, on Ireland and on the future of peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.  We will never support a so-called ‘no-deal Brexit’ and if it comes about it will not be for want of strenuous efforts on our part to avoid such an outcome. The outcome we want is one that will preserve the open border in Ireland, that will protect the Good Friday Agreement and that will maintain close ties between the UK and the EU, including with the UK’s nearest neigbour, Ireland.     

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