Pat Leahy: Brexit is looking worse and worse for Ireland

The prospect of a hard Brexit is the biggest of all the threats facing Ireland

Responding to a question from Laurence Robertson, British Prime Minister Theresa May has suggested that the status of Irish citizens living in Britain could change post-Brexit

 

The remarks by the Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan in an interview with The Irish Times published today are evidence of a growing nervousness inside the Government about how the Brexit process is going to play out, and the potential consequences for Ireland, North and South.

Bluntly put, Ministers and senior officials are beginning to fear that everything may not turn out to be alright in the end.

The likelihood of a very bad outcome from this process is probably greater now than it was in the immediate aftermath of the vote six months ago. And that represents a significant threat to both parts of Ireland.

Charlie Flanagan gave voice to the growing frustration in the Government that the British have not yet decided what sort of Brexit they will seek to negotiate, and to the growing doubts not just about the will of the British, but about their capacity.

Like much of what Theresa May says on the rare enough occasions when she speaks on the subject in public, “Brexit means Brexit” is meaningless piffle, as Boris Johnson might say.

Indeed, Flanagan’s observation that the British had not moved beyond slogans seems directed especially at May’s tabloid-headline explanations.

May says she wants “no return to the borders of the past”. Again, this is an empty wheeze disguised (not very well) as a statement of firm determination to do something or other. What about the borders of the future? Would that be okay?

May’s ineffectiveness

In one of the only interventions she made in the referendum campaign, on a visit to Northern Ireland as it happens, she argued quite explicitly that Brexit would have consequences for the open Border.

A British think tank, UK in a Changing Europe, published a report which characterised May’s administration as being transfixed in the headlights of the oncoming article 50 deadline.

“The articulation of little more than a series of unrelated and mutually conflicting aspirations cannot hide the absence of a game-plan,” the report found.

I expect that soon the British political class will begin to ask aloud just what it is that May has actually been doing since she became prime minister.

In Dublin, many people in the top echelons of Government have moved from bemusement at the lack of direction from Downing Street to alarm that it might not be a temporary phase.

Meanwhile, the mood among EU leaders appears to have hardened in recent months, with the British attitude provoking a rare degree of unanimity among the 27 countries. It’s not going to be pleasant, they shrug, so let’s get it over with.  It is highly optimistic to assume they will all be thinking about the effects on the Border when their representatives sit down to negotiate a deal with the British.

Kenny’s questions

May is scheduled to outline her policy in a major speech in the new year. She is also scheduled to visit Dublin to meet with the Taoiseach.

Given the shared responsibility for Northern Ireland via the Belfast Agreement, Enda Kenny is entitled to require some answers from her.

Because if the British are indeed drifting towards a hard Brexit, either by accident or design, then the Government here will have to take some immediate steps to prepare for the impact.

The obvious ones would be to cancel tax cuts, public sector pay rises, social welfare increases and some planned spending increases.

A comprehensive spending review already planned for next year would assume new importance, as departments are ordered to produce reductions in expenditure rather than controlling increases.

Tax increases in some areas may be on the cards, as budgets contract either in response or anticipation to a sharp reduction (and possibly reversal) in economic growth.

There are significant grounds for doubt that the present government would be able to agree or implement such a package of measures, no matter how much they were needed. But that would be the easy bit.

The hard bit would be figuring out and responding to how the relationship between North and South, and between the Republic and the UK, would be affected.

An analysis by the Bruegel Institute published during the week demonstrated just how much the southern and northern economies have meshed since the ceasefires and the Belfast Agreement.

Consequently, Northern Ireland, already one of the poorest parts of the UK and also the one worst-hit by the recession and slowest to recover, is more exposed to the negative trade and economic effects of Brexit than England, Wales or Scotland – all of which makes you wonder about the sheer recklessness of the DUP in advocating a Leave vote.

Triangular relationship

The economic consequences would be felt south of the Border too, but the Republic’s economy is bigger, more flexible and almost certainly more resilient. More concerning is the consequences for the stability of the North, for North-South and east-west relations.

Whatever way you look at it, a hard Brexit, unmediated by a special arrangement for the unique triangular relationship between Dublin, Belfast and London, would be a disaster for Ireland.

Perhaps Enda Kenny and his Ministers should not have been so hasty is dismissing the idea of the House of Lords committee of a special treaty between Ireland and the UK. Treaty, protocol, special arrangement, special understanding – call it what you will: there is no higher priority for the Government than avoiding the imposition of a hard Brexit.

It is the first national priority. If the British and the rest of the EU – or both – need convincing of the fact, Irish diplomats and politicians had better get busy

As it stands, British indecisiveness and EU insouciance now pose a significant threat to Ireland’s national interest. That is quite a state of affairs, you’d have to say.

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