When a state joins the EU, we get to vote. An accession treaty must be endorsed by every member state. When we joined the then EEC with Britain, back in 1973, the six original members had voted to let us both in a decade after Gen Charles de Gaulle, in vetoing British membership, had also put paid to Ireland’s. Accession would affect every member individually and change the shape and dynamics of the EEC – of course each member state would have a say.
Withdrawal is another matter. One entirely for the state concerned, even though those left behind, and the EU, will be affected – in Brexit’s case, the impact on Ireland will be dramatic. We may not have a vote but our Government would be remiss in the extreme if it did not robustly make our case to our friends and cousins in Britain, and to the 120,000 British voters living in Ireland, that we value the closeness of our long relationship, personally, politically, economically, culturally, and their engagement in the EU . . . and that if they reciprocate such sentiments, they should not cast themselves adrift from the EU.
In 1962 secretary of finance Ken Whitaker, as we made our first move to join, told Seán Lemass in a memo that "it would be economic disaster for us to be outside the community if Britain is in it". Although Lemass would later insist that "if the [EEC] negotiations with Britain should fail we would, nevertheless, wish to pursue our application", our application in reality marched in step with that of our neighbour, dependent as we were on it for 60 per cent of our trade.
Today our successful experience of membership allows us confidently to say not only that we do not see Brexit as something we might have to emulate, as once we might, and that the re-erection of customs posts between Newry and Dundalk will not in fact be a "disaster". Irish and British trade would survive but it would suffer. A new EU-UK trade deal could be negotiated, but the very process, and the potential unravelling of our long-standing free travel area, would set back the historic coming together between and on these islands that has been so crucial to the joint peace process in which both are so heavily invested.
To say as much is not “fear mongering” – the Brexiters’ key failing is that they cannot describe these relationships after Brexit, because no-one can. They will all have to be renegotiated. And simply to assert that it’ll be alright on the night will not cut it. That uncertainty is already unnerving voters and business, and hitting investment.
Some 500,000 British residents were born in Ireland, North and South. Some five million have at least one Irish grandparent. A new London-based campaign, Irish4Europe, is hoping to mobilise them against Brexit. Among the arguments they should weigh is that Brexit will not only hurt Britain but Ireland too. Their country needs their support.