The absence of a government is undermining the extent to which a contingency plan can be drawn up for Ireland if Britain votes to exit the European Union in a referendum in June, a leading Irish academic has warned.
Political scientist Dr Mary C Murphy of the Department of Government at University College Cork said that the outgoing Fine Gael/Labour government had consistently stressed the damaging effect a UK exit from the European Union would have on Ireland.
“If that exit materialises, the incoming government will need to temper the negativity a little and devise plans to limit the potential dangers for Ireland. Opportunities will have to be identified, relationships fostered and creative policy solutions found.
"The absence of a government undermines the extent to which any of this can currently be pursued. There is little sense that our new political representatives are adequately prepared for the immediate and longer term effects of a Brexit on Ireland, the UK and the EU."
The main priority for any Irish government in the event of a Brexit would be to minimise the costs to Irish interests while protecting the key features of Ireland’s ‘special’ relationship with the UK including the common travel area, she said.
Delivering the keynote address at European Movement hosted "National Conversation on Brexit" at UCC, Dr Murphy said that having a government in place would at least allow for some contingency plans to be prepared and developed privately.
“This is not pandering or capitulating to the Leave campaign. It is responsible governance. It is recognising the very real possibility that the vote may be to leave, that the impact could be politically and economically destabilising and that the risks are high.
“The absence of a government at a time such as this is troubling. There are many serious policy challenges facing the Irish state - I would suggest that few are as grave as the possible effect of an UK exit from the EU on Ireland.”
The UK is Ireland’s greatest trading partner and the British Chamber of Commerce had calculated that UK-Ireland trade is valued at € 1 billion a week but it would be difficult to calculate the exact impact of a Brexit as there is no precedent for it.
While a recent ESRI report had calculated that the Irish economy would suffer as a result of a Brexit, calculating the exact cost is not a precise science but even the uncertainty surrounding the impact would itself be harmful in terms of a destabilising effect both politically and economically.
"Opposing Scottish and English referendum results may undermine the cohesion of the UK by triggering a second independence referendum in Scotland and relations between Northern Ireland and the UK may become unsettled and tensions between the two communities may emerge.
“To date, the Irish government has sought to limit these threats to Ireland by supporting the UK government’s reform proposals and through diplomatic and public channels, actively encouraging the UK to stay in the European Union.
But Dr Murphy pointed out that current view in the UK is that the referendum will be particularly close and while the poll of polls suggests those remaining in the UK are slightly ahead at 51per cent as opposed to 49 per cent favouring an exit, the latest poll suggests the vote is swinging in favour of an exit.
The level of support for remaining in the EU is higher in Northern Ireland that for the UK as a whole but within the North, there is a marked difference of opinion between the two communities with 90pc of nationalists favouring remaining in the EU as opposed to just over 21pc of unionists.
“Some have cautioned that given Northern Ireland’s history of conflict, this difference of opinion is troublesome. Now it will play out once votes are cast remains to be seen but it certainly suggests that one community will be happier than the other come referendum day.”