I was invited to make a presentation to the Seanad select Committee on Brexit on 1 June last. On the same day that the European Movement made the case for welcoming further EU integration. I argued that the only way of avoiding the establishment of an EU federal state-style external frontier in the aftermath of Brexit, with all its associated problems, either between the two islands of Britain and Ireland or between the North and south of Ireland, was for the republic to leave the EU at or around the same time as the UK. This seems logically and politically an irrefutable proposition, however unpalatable the prospect of leaving the EU is for many in the republic.
The fundamental point to grasp about the post-UK-general-election situation is that Brexit is going to happen, whether under Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn or someone else. The UK is going to cease being an EU Member state. The only issue still open is how long this will take. This is because that is now the policy of the British Tory and labour Party leaderships. They both accept last year’s UK referendum result. There is no likelihood of any retreat on that, whatever other differences there may be between the two big British parties.
Ultimately a real Brexit means leaving the EU single market and customs union, for these are necessary concomitants of EU membership. such a real Brexit is inevitable in time, for Tory and labour EU-critics will not rest until the referendum result is implemented. It is possible though that the Brexit process will involve a transitional period of some years during which the UK joins either the EEA or EFTA on the lines of Norway, Switzerland or Iceland, or else agrees with the EU some ad hoc transition deal.
If one quarter of the Irish people and one fifth of Ireland’s land area are going to leave the EU because they are part of the UK, has the rest of the country any real alternative but to follow, however reluctantly?
Dublin and London want to maintain the common Anglo-Irish travel and trade area. But if the republic opts to stay in the EU when the North and Britain leave, it is the republic that is putting the common area in peril, not the British.
London has Dublin over a barrel here. It can bend Dublin to its wishes if it so wills. There is no international law or moral right to a free movement facility like this between two different sovereign states. fundamentally the Anglo-Irish Common Travel area exists as a gratuitous gesture, a social-safety-valve offering from the UK Government to high-unemployment and emigration-prone Ireland, an historical vestige of the days when the whole country was part of the UK. It is a long-term consequence of the 1920 Partition.
My basic contention before the Seanad Committee was that the republic seeking to stay in the EU while Northern Ireland left as part of the UK would make eventual national reunification more distant and more difficult for the following three reasons: first, such a course would add several new dimensions to the existing North-south Border: customs posts or other customs controls; food and EU veterinary checks on animals, milk and other items moving across the Border; possible passport controls to prevent EU citizens using the republic for backdoor entry into a post-Brexit UK; and growing divergence between EU-harmonised law and justice provisions in the south and Anglo-Saxon-based ones in the North.
The Republic of Ireland staying in the EU when the UK leaves would give Northern unionists a whole set of new and objectively valid reasons for opposing Irish unity. For them re-unification at some future date, however distant, would mean that the people of the North would have to join the EU, with its 123,000 or so supranational rules, legal acts and international agreements – which is hardly real freedom.
Second, the statement by Northern secretary Peter Brooke in 1990 that Britain had “no selfish, strategic or economic interest” in staying in Northern Ireland if the majority of the people there should wish to leave the UK at some time in the future underpinned the 1993 Downing street Declaration and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Brussels has signalled recently that security and military union is the preferred next stage in EU integration. If the republic remains in the EU when the UK leaves it means that it will become part of an EU military bloc under German hegemony. That can hardly be in the security interests of the UK.
If Ireland were ever to be reunited on the basis of the Good Friday Agreement, however distant that prospect, it would mean that the whole island and not just the republic would become part of such an EU military bloc under German hegemony also. This would give future British Governments good reason from their point of view for remaining in the North and discouraging any future moves towards a united Ireland.
Thirdly, the Republic of Ireland staying in the EU when the UK leaves would give Northern unionists a whole set of new and objectively valid reasons for opposing Irish unity. For them re-unification at some future date, however distant, would mean that the people of the North would have to join the EU, with its 123,000 or so supranational rules, legal acts and international agreements – which is hardly real freedom.
They would have to adopt the dysfunctional euro-currency. They would have to take on the burden of helping to pay for the private bank debt that the ECB and the Troika imposed on the republic when it decided in 2010 that no Irish bank should be let go bust. And they would have to agree to be bound by all the new EU laws and regulations that will be passed between now and whenever Partition might end.
It is hard to see unionist consent to reunification occurring in those circumstances. Yet as the Good Friday Agreement recognises, Partition can never be ended without the agreement of at least a significant section of the present unionist population. One thing is sure. ulster unionists will never be attracted to the idea of running what would effectively be an EU province. for that is what the south remaining in the EU/Eurozone realistically entails.
Sinn Féin’s missed opportunity
Can Sinn Féin in particular keep up its year-long opposition to Brexit in these circumstances? Are Northern republicans really going to stand over the addition of these new dimensions to Partition into the indefinite future? That is hardly what Bobby Sands and his comrades died for. Even less did they give their lives so that their putative successors might aggravate Partition in this way so as to boost the supranational EU project, the subverter of the democracy of Europe’s Nation states and the main political instrument of High finance and Big Capital in our part of the world today!
Are Northern republicans really going to stand over the addition of these new dimensions to Partition into the indefinite future? That is hardly what Bobby Sands and his comrades died for.
Sinn Féin’s call for a Border Poll has given it command of Northern nationalism following the UK general election. At the same time it has made Northern unionism more united and stronger than ever. Sinn Féin should not delude itself that it can prise the North out of the British union with such devices. If a Border poll were held today any proposal for Irish reunification would be rejected resoundingly. Implicitly threatening gestures like a Border poll, or the hope of outbreeding or outnumbering unionists on a head count, is not a realistic way to unite the people of Ireland.
The only way of doing that is for Northern republicans to come to a truly sincere and heartfelt agreement with a significant section of unionist opinion in relation to concerns that are really shared by both communities. That should include opening for unionists the perspective of helping to run a future All-Ireland state and not just its Northern part, together with progressive Nationalists, making the whole of Ireland a better place in the process.
Sinn Féin missed a major political opportunity last year. If it had supported Brexit in the UK referendum there probably would have been a Northern majority for “leave”. Sinn Féin could then have called on the republic’s Government and political parties to follow the North’s lead. Dublin would have been under powerful pressure to do that. It would have been a contemporary case of “The North Began”, with the rest of Ireland following.
If Sinn Féin had taken that course it would have found itself in a position now to go to the British Government together with the DUP and use its influence along with theirs to help get a good Irexit deal alongside Brexit from both Britain and the EU to benefit the whole of Ireland.
Such a deal could have helped restore the lost sovereignty of the Irish state vis-à-vis the EU, enable it get back the Irish pound, take control of our sea fisheries again, eliminate the prospect of Irish taxpayers having to subsidise Brussels into the indefinite future, and restore a meaningful neutrality and foreign policy independence. It would have changed the dynamic of Nationalist-unionist relations. It might even start some unionists thinking of the advantageous role they might play in a united country down the road.
The prospect of Irexit running in parallel with Brexit is not of course a question of the republic rejoining the UK, as ignorant or malevolent people like to misrepresent it. It is rather to see Brexit as an opportunity for the Irish state to get back its independence and national democracy vis-a-vis the EU, including the independent currency and floating exchange rate that underpinned our Celtic Tiger economic boom of the 1994-2001 period. It is still not too late for Sinn Féin to get together with their DUP opposite numbers on the Northern executive and advance such a policy course for the whole country. Its leaders would of course be excoriated by the south’s Great and Good if they did that. But that would pass. Time will show anyway that the current Brexit policy of the republic’s Government and political parties is bankrupt.
Even if we do stay in the EU when the UK leaves we are likely to find the prospect so painful that we shall soon want to leave anyway. except that we should be acting then from a position of utter weakness. Much better that we should decide to leave now at or around the same time as the UK, acting independently of course, but coordinating our EU/eurozone departure with the UK’s and confident that other EU states are very likely to follow. Gerry Adams and his Sinn Féin colleagues should put their thinking-caps on, set out to make genuine friends with their DUP opposite numbers and together with the Northern unionist/Protestant community help to bring about Irexit alongside Brexit. That would be to show themselves real republicans and re-establishers of Ireland’s lost national democracy. And it might encourage some unionists to look on an eventual united Ireland with somewhat different eyes.
Anthony Coughlan is Associate Professor Emeritus in Social Policy at Trinity College Dublin