Brexit offers Ireland opportunities as well as threats
Worldview: Strengths and weaknesses of Irish economy and political system will be crystalised
Maintaining Ireland’s role in Europe must take full account of how Brexit affects Northern Ireland and the future of the UK itself. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images
Ireland was described by French writer Jean Blanchard in 1958 as “an island behind an island”. The phrase has regularly been used since then to indicate Ireland’s peripherality in British and European terms. Ireland is determined not to be caught in another pincer of peripherality between Europe and Britain after Brexit.
There tends to be a pessimistic tone in much Irish commentary, harking back to earlier experiences of peripherality
That this will be difficult if the UK exits the EU’s single market and the customs union is becoming much more apparent among Irish interest groups and in everyday discourse. So much depends on specific outcomes between the two major parties, the EU and the UK, which do not necessarily have Irish interests uppermost when they make the final compromises.
There tends to be a pessimistic tone in much Irish commentary, harking back to earlier experiences of peripherality, whether in the 1950s facing the impasse of protectionism and the prospect of freer trade, or in 1980s and early 1990s over the single market and the euro.
In fact these crises were overcome by a mixture of constructive thinking, political and economic innovation, international action and strategic planning. That is worth remembering now, even if those positive processes were partial, incomplete, and overlooked or neglected many of the victims of change.
Similar opportunities arise from the Brexit process, which crystalises several major strengths and weaknesses of the Irish economy and political system. That can be seen in contingency planning under way in employers’ organisations such as Ibec and the Small Firms Association, in the trade unions and in the activities of other interest groups and political parties around the issue.
To anticipate change and plan for it rather than predict a new peripherality is a good first step to more effective action. Assumptions, taboos or neuralgias built into existing structures can be questioned once this happens.
Among the economic strengths are the fact that Ireland is a much more developed and richer society than before. The economic sectors driven most by foreign direct investment are insulated from Brexit because they trade in European and international markets.
They have put down many roots here, whose Irish spin-offs are developing a modern industrial and manufacturing sector with similar global reach. Irish-based food industries such as Glanbia and the Kerry group are similarly positioned. Services exports now outrank most others and benefit from EU access.
Concentrating only on vulnerable agricultural sectors such as beef and food exports to the UK, on sterling depreciation or cost competitiveness with a cheap food UK policy, or as they affect SMEs and tourism, can lose sight of these strengths. These sectors employ hundreds of thousands; but they need to diversify and must be helped to do so.
The Brexit shake-up call is an opportunity as well as a threat. And the fears about these vulnerabilities must be fed into the negotiations on both the EU and UK sides of the argument as well as into domestic politics.
Multiple language use among Irish citizens and in education is way below European averages
Ireland’s low-tax model of corporation tax goes back to the 1950s and is now under pressure from EU regulation and UK competition. It has fulfilled it potential and now needs to adapt and develop. The actual tax take on capital here is too low to fund a developed society with greater expectations. That includes a comparatively very low capital contribution to social insurance.
Ireland spends too little on investment and research compared to other richer EU states. The 50 per cent participation in higher education disguises a relatively poor performance in vocational and technical education needed for emerging skills. Multiple language use among Irish citizens and in education is way below European averages despite the much larger number of foreign languages brought here by recent immigrants.
A Brexit strategy to avoid or contain reperipheralisation must rely on stronger political and diplomatic representation and advocacy to tackle these issues. They are discussed inadequately in the Oireachtas and media even if they are realised by significant interest groups and elites. Brexit is an opportunity to put that right. An Irish EU exit would be a return to dependent insularity on the UK with no European counterweight.
Maintaining Ireland’s role in Europe must take full account of how Brexit affects Northern Ireland and the future of the UK itself. Whether it all foreshadows a united federal Ireland in a confederation with Scotland, each in the EU and enjoying strong bilateral relationships with an England and Wales outside it remains to be seen. But it is no longer fanciful to imagine such futures between these islands and their changing unions.