Ireland’s British Hangover

Brexit and What Comes After

“I’ve applied for Irish citizenship.” Pre-Brexit, this would have been amazing to hear in a cut-glass accent by a late-middle-aged upper-class British woman. But Brexit was looming and she didn’t want any hassle commuting to her country home, in France.

Anti-Brexit demo. Dublin, September 2019

“Really? So you must have an Irish grandparent?”

“No, my father was born in Dublin. In 1920. He’s wasn’t Irish. He did not go to school there. Nothing like that.”

Not Irish in any ethnic sense, Cut Glass was anxious to make that quite clear.

“But Ireland wasn’t an independent country then. It was still under British rule. Why was your family there?”

“My grandfather was, um, part of the government.”

In a situation replete with ironies and contradictions, this was particularly rich to take part in.

The grandchild of a British official, stationed in Ireland during the final, brutal years of a centuries-long struggle for independence, was relying on the fact that her father was born in Dublin. Her grandfather was there fighting to uphold British rule and prevent the creation of the country she was now seeking to join.

But join only in the most superficial sense. She wasn’t going to live there. Nothing like that.

While a coterie of wealthy Brits had moved to Ireland in the 1960s to escape the heavy wealth taxes imposed by a Labour government, Cut Glass was seeking to avoid the fallout from a Tory government.

These Tories had managed to convince a slim majority of the British public that a return to the glory and riches of the Empire her grandfather represented was within their grasp. All that was standing in the way was nasty, pushy, Johnny-foreigner who had tricked Proud Britannia into an alliance unworthy of her.

Cut Glass is a provocative example but she is far from alone. Since the referendum, applications from Britain for Irish passports and Irish citizenship have risen by 400%.

Heretofore the “discovery” of an Irish granny was largely the concern of English footballers looking for a place on the Irish national squad. Post-referendum they have become the sexiest of relatives.

But the desperation of European-identifying British Remainers, now anxious to obtain a passport that will grant them European citizenship if the UK withdraws from the EU, is the most frivolous of the many ways Brexit will impact Ireland.

While it throws into stark relief the depth of British arrogance and cynicism towards Ireland, the real concerns, the border, the economy, and the myriad issues raised by the prospect of Irish reunification, are potentially devastating for a nation which weathered the worst of British imperialism for centuries.

In an analogous context, Porfiriò Diaz, the 19th-century Mexican politician stated succinctly, “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States.”

Substitute Ireland for Mexico, England for the US and backdate the abuse to the Middle Ages and you get some sense of the misfortune Ireland has suffered by virtue of its proximity to England. And its distance from Europe.

Post-Irish independence, once both nations became part of the EU, many of the remaining disadvantages of Ireland’s location were diminished.

Ireland now had the UK as a landbridge to continental Europe and Britain could not manipulate the Irish economy to suit its own needs. EU regulations would not allow it. 

The Border

As the 2016 referendum results rolled in certain matters became clear.

The Northern Irish had voted to remain by a large margin, 56-44%. Bizarrely, Arlene Foster, head of the right-wing Unionist DUP declared herself “proud of the people of Northern Ireland” who had just voted against the result her party had campaigned for and whose will had been subverted by the English and Welsh who voted to leave.

Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness called for an island-wide referendum on Irish unity. Foster said it was not going to happen. And so the intense focus on the question of the effect of Brexit on the Irish border which “mainland”* (read: the island of the UK comprising England, Scotland and Wales, oft referred to as the “mainland” by the British) voters and the Tory party appeared to not have considered at all, began. 

The potential fallout for the entire island, whether a negotiated or crash-out Brexit transpires, is political, cultural and economic.

The first issue of contention was the return of a hard border. Dublin, of course, objected as did the republican parties. A hard border would be in direct contravention of the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

The EU supported Dublin in its refusal to countenance a hard border. The best Theresa May could cobble together, needing to keep the DUP on her side as their support gave her the slimmest of majorities in Parliament, was the absurd and un-workable Irish backstop.

It was an attempt at a fudge which declared there would be no border until such time as negotiations were concluded and someone, somehow came up with something.

Vague allusions were made to some as-of-yet to be developed technology which would allow NI to Brexit with the rest of the UK and yet have no visible border with the Republic, still part of the EU.

But instead of acknowledging the obvious unworkability of this option, the UK chose to blame Ireland for its obstinance.

The Irish were ruining Brexit for everyone. How selfish. 

Economic Fallout

For the Republic, the Brexit referendum could hardly have come at a worse time.

Ireland suffered one of the worst downturns in Europe following the 2008 crisis. The Irish economy had begun to grow again in the last few years, whether despite or because of the austerity measures imposed by the EU is still the subject of debate.

What is not debatable is that property prices had recovered and stability had returned to the larger economy. But not without real sacrifice from the majority of Irish citizens.

Wages were slashed in every sector over which the government had any control. And because of the unique nature of the industrial agreements which proceed any signing-off of the national budget, first, the Irish government and later the EU were able to exorcise considerable power over most of the workforce.

In this context, the Irish were not ready for more economic fallout resulting from bad decisions made abroad. 

There was one cause for cautious optimism. In the year following the Brexit referendum, there were hopeful noises about a windfall, for Dublin at least, as international banking firms shifted London-based jobs to Dublin. 

But it quickly became apparent that Ireland could not protect itself from the economic fallout of a radically altered relationship with its largest trading partner. The agricultural sector would be particularly hard hit as not only would sales to Britain be affected but the UK would no longer be Ireland’s tariff-free land-bridge to continental Europe.

Some companies chose not to wait to find out exactly where the chips would fall. MSD, one of the world’s largest drug companies began restructuring in June 2016, the day after the referendum outcome was announced.

The Irish operation’s CEO devised a new supply route via Belgium and ran two parallel stock supply shipments to ensure the new system worked. No Irish patients were going to be without medication as a result of a British political decision on his watch.

The target date for fully excluding the UK was March 2019, the original Brexit deadline imposed by Theresa May triggering Article 50.

However, this is not an option available to other sectors of the Irish economy.

Nearly 10 per cent of all Irish exports and 10 per cent of jobs rely on the agrifood business. It accounts for 40% of net foreign earnings from exports. 

As shipping over water remains the most expensive way to move goods, the trip across the Irish sea to the “mainland” UK, then across to continental Europe has been the only viable route for most goods.

As well as being more expensive and longer, re-routing around the UK by ship to France and Spain is more precarious as it is weather dependent. Livestock and perishable crops simply can’t handle the longer, more treacherous sea route.

But with the years of uncertainty already endured as a result of the failed UK-EU negotiations and years more uncertainty to come whether Britain crashes out or begins negotiating the specifics of trade arrangements, Irish farmers and food sector businesses find it impossible to plan for the future. 

Dublin’s approval of the sea border solution may have had as its first goal avoiding the sectarian implications of a land border. But there are profound economic implications as well. 

Faced with the projected loss of 100,000 jobs to a country of less than 5 million people if the UK crashed out, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was under significant pressure to agree to a solution which offered the possibility of lessening the impact on some sectors of the economy.

While it remains an open question how a customs union between the two countries could accommodate them being members of different trading blocs and prevent the island from becoming a smuggling mecca, there is still hope that service sectors jobs will benefit.

At last count 27 financial companies have committed to the ‘Brexodus’ to Dublin, among them banking giants Barclays and Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Morgan Stanley has already made Dublin their EU base.

Even if Boris Johnson succeeds in turning the City into an unregulated Turks & Caicos perched in the Irish Sea, many financial institutions are unlikely to endure the uncertainty of staying in London and are waiting to see how Brexit shakes out.

With its highly-educated English-speaking workforce, Ireland is well placed to continue to attract some of these jobs. The larger societal implications of transferring these companies to the Republic is another matter.

Unification by Sabotage

There is a pernicious belief amongst those with only a cursory knowledge of Irish affairs that political unification of the island is something that most Irish want. 

It has been an open secret in the Republic, arguably since the Irish Civil War, that the dangers of taking on ownership of the six Northern Irish counties were simply not worth it. 

Any doubts as to the determination of Leave voters to go at any cost were dispelled by two newspaper polls. When asked if destroying the Northern Irish peace process was a cost they were willing to pay to leave the EU, the majority of British Leave voters said yes.

Even more disturbingly, 87% of leave voters in Northern Ireland said it was a price worth paying. To put this in context, almost all Leave voters in Northern Ireland are Unionists and all members of the most far-right major Unionist party, the DUP, voted Leave.

Writing in The Guardian, Jonathan Freedland highlighted three of the more disturbing displays of Tory insouciance on Ireland.

First up, Karen Bradley, Theresa May’s Northern Ireland secretary, infamously admitted not knowing that in Northern Ireland “people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa”.

Secondly, Boris Johnson’s comparison of the Irish border to the boundary between Islington and Camden, or his fury that the issue now loomed large: “We’re allowing the tail to wag the dog.”

And finally, Brexit secretary Dominic Raab admitted he had not read the Good Friday Agreement, “all the way through”.

But the champion who leaves all others in the dust, a woman so splenetic and lacking a moral compass that she revealed just how far the Tories were willing to go to override Irish objections is British Home Secretary Priti Patel. 

In a leaked report, Patel suggested that the threat of food shortages should be used as leverage in the negotiations with Ireland to drop objections to the backstop.

This would be reprehensible in any context. But especially in light of the fact that during the Great Famine of 1845-1849, the population of Ireland fell by 25%. One million Irish starved to death and another million were forced to emigrate to avoid the same fate.

Theresa May was forced to apologise for Patel’s remarks and give assurances that the UK would not use the threat of food shortages as leverage.

But it did not matter. It was out in the ether and implicit, that if left up to the UK, Ireland would face a stark choice: a hard border and the threat of renewed violence or every possible punitive measure, including the withholding of food imports.

Assuming that Britain does leave the European Union and that it creates the instability and economic damage to itself that every prominent economist predicts, the breakup of the UK appears likely. Scottish nationalists will push for a new referendum, and Scotland may join the EU as a sovereign nation. 

If the current Irish Sea border with the “mainland” UK is the arrangement in the Brexit deal that eventually prevails, the course of action to best minimise the economic damage is greater cooperation.

Should the new arrangements not lead to a major resumption of violence in Northern Ireland, Northern Irish nationalists will seize the opportunity to call for a referendum on unification.

With the UK likely in throes of an economic downturn, London will be only too ready to get shod of Northern Ireland and its heavily subsidised economy.

Never mind that there is no real desire, or, more importantly, a well-considered plan for unification even among the armchair-general type nationalists typically found in the Republic.

And so the final and perhaps greatest irony of the whole sorry mess will play out.

Irish reunification may finally be achieved but not because the British have finally accepted Ireland’s right to self-rule.  But, rather, because they have once again proven that, in the words of a prominent Irish barrister who frequently advises the government, “they don’t give a fuck about Ireland”.

Photograph courtesy of Sinn Féin. Published under a Creative Commons license.