Eirexit: Could Ireland follow Britain out of the EU?
In a year of confounded expectations, another unthinkable idea is gaining traction
At the beginning of 2016, certain outcomes seemed inconceivable. Like Leicester City becoming premier champions. Or Ireland beating the All Blacks in rugby.
On a slightly more profound level, very few people predicted Britain would go storming out of the EU. And, oh, the same goes for Donald J Trump becoming the 45th president of the world’s most powerful democracy.
It’s been that kind of year, so much so that other ideas that seemed fanciful are now beginning to flash up on the radar.
And among them is another portmanteau word: Eirexit. Until very recently, the very notion of Ireland leaving the EU was so outlandish and marginal that it did not feature in any public discourse in a meaningful way.
But it has now been thrust more into the limelight by a combination of Brexit, the Apple case, fears of an EU stealth attack on Ireland’s most sacred cow, corporation tax; and now, the election of Trump.
For major parties and for the Government, the idea does not even begin to feature.
The recently published National Risk Assessment looks extensively at the possible impacts of Brexit but is silent on the possibility of a future Irish exit.
As one sceptic put it adroitly, the attitude of the established political parties (and the Institute of International and European Affairs) to Brussels is as adulatory and hormonal as that of teenage girls to the latest boy-band sensation.
Is the political establishment lagging behind the curve on this question?
Certainly, Eirexit has gained some momentum of late. There is a small but growing band of public figures questioning the basis of Irish EU membership. Some are opposed to any notion of a federal Europe or EU superstate.
Others think Eirexit might turn out to be inevitable if circumstances change. And the public might be with them on this one more than politicians think.
Over the course of 55 years, one person has been almost a voice in the wilderness in his consistent opposition to the EU.
In October 1961, Anthony Coughlan returned to Ireland to lecture at Trinity College Dublin.
A month later he was one of seven people – along with Noël Browne and future Labour TD Barry Desmond – who signed a letter to The Irish Times opposing Ireland’s application to join the European Economic Community. The idea was being mooted in political circles at the time.
Coughlan had read the memoir of one of the EU architects, Jean Monnet, and was alarmed at his enthusiasm for a supranational and federalist entity.
“To me it seemed undemocratic, taking away sovereignty from countries, the ability to make laws or policy.”
Half a century later, Coughlan’s opposition to an integrated Europe remains undiminished.
His energy for constant ‘No’ campaigning has remained undimmed. He was on the No side in the 1972 referendum on accession; and all referendums on the EU since.
He and the late Raymond Crotty took a successful challenge in 1987 that ensured any changes in EU treaties would have to be put to referendum. Now, in retirement, under the banner of the National Platform, he continues to write letters and essays on an almost daily basis.
A recent letter to British Brexit campaigners starts: “All hail to those UK democrats who have made Project Hope prevail over Project Fear.”
Coughlan’s belief is that the long term goal or the EU is a European federation and superstate. He says the creation of the eurozone was central to this.
“Our supreme folly is having joined the eurozone without the UK doing it,” he said. “It was lunacy for us to join.”
But would Ireland have progressed without EU funding, particularly in agriculture? Coughlan agrees that Ireland was a beneficiary but questions the net benefit, given that Ireland compromised on fisheries and made other concessions in return for funding.
Coughlan is adamant that Ireland should follow the UK out. He points to two thirds of Ireland’s foreign trade being done outside the eurozone and says a special bilateral deal with the UK is necessary. However, this cannot happen while Brussels controls trade.
In his thinking on the matter, Coughlan agrees with Financial Times columnist Wolfgang Munchau who argued if Brexit was hard, the Irish economic model might be unsustainable unless Britain is followed out of the EU.
“It is highly probable indeed. I cannot see us staying in the EU if the UK leaves,” says Couglan.
As in the Brexit debate, those who have been most vocal have been either determinedly left wing voices, or their right wing counterparts.
The two main parties in the AAA-PBP alliance, the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party (People Before Profit), both support an exit.
People Before Profit has said that in the event of Brexit, it would campaign for the Republic to leave as well.
“We favour the break-up of the current structures of the EU on left-wing grounds.”
Socialist Party TD Paul Murphy holds the same view. It’s not a “foreground” issue but if a referendum were held, they would support a Leave vote.
“The EU has championed austerity and neoliberal policies, and right-wing governments who won’t deliver for ordinary people.”
He says the radical economic changes his party call for are all illegal under EU law.
The dynamic for any new genuinely left-wing government would be that it would first be forced out of the EU – the experience of Syriza in Greece was telling in that regard.
Sinn Féin’s analysis of the shortfalls of the EU would not differ too much from Murphy’s. MEP Matt Carthy lists its treatment of peripheral countries such as Greece, the TTIP trade deal, and what he calls its anti-democratic institutions.
However, the party wants Ireland to stay in the EU. “Our view is the EU needs fundamental reform rather than an exit,” says Carthy.
“Our priority is fundamentally to get people of the North to stay in the EU. We cannot countenance a situation where one part of the island is operating within EU and the other is outside.”
An important voice was added to the debate on Friday when Frank Keoghan of the Technical, Engineering and Electrical Union became the first significant trade union voice to challenge the nature of Ireland’s future relationship with the EU.
Those on the right are suspicious of what they see as a creeping move towards a superstate and the repercussions this might have for Ireland’s sovereignty.
Former Progressive Democrats leader, Senator Michael McDowell is a sceptic but one who wants to remain in the EU.
He said he believes in a confederal EU, not a federal one and is completely opposed to an EU superstate.
His former adviser Cormac Lucey, a Sunday Times columnist, has written that Eirexit is an option that ought to be considered, also arguing that the bulk of Ireland’s trade is with the English-speaking world and not the EU.
Micro parties such as Direct Democracy Ireland, and other splinter groups, have set up social media platforms calling for an Eirexit.
Renua councillor Keith Redmond, a member of the right-leaning think-tank Hibernia Forum, says if the EU presses ahead with any plans for a superstate, or introduces customs tariffs on UK trade, then he will support Eirexit.
Are these a collection of disparate and peripheral voices, or do they reflect a population far less enamoured of Brussels than its political leaders?
Coughlan has remained consistent over a lifetime, still holding to the view the EU has not really benefited Ireland as a whole, but rather a few bigger players.
He recalls Charles de Gaulle’s famous remark: “Europe is France and Germany; the rest is just the trimmings.”