Ireland's EU Commissioner Phil Hogan rightly points out that Brexit may present Ireland with the chance to seize the next phase in our development and maturity as a sovereign state.
He’s almost right – we have not only the chance of seizing it but the necessity to do so. When the UK leaves the EU everybody will have to adjust – the UK, Ireland and the EU – and Ireland should rightly go forward from a position of strength and stability. Barely 60 years ago, with even more uncertainty and rather less resources, Ireland forged a path to the considerable national wellbeing most of us now enjoy.
Brilliantly backing education, core competencies and outward trade, the late Dr TK Whitaker and his fellow leaders in the early 1960s couldn’t have imagined how right their long-term strategy would turn out to be and how much it would deliver.
While it might not want to be tested at a ballot box anytime soon, the broad commitment of the people of Ireland to the European Union is in very good shape. The same applies undoubtedly to Irish business. Though we do need to diversify our markets to do more business in the EU, that will be helped by the EU renewing its commitment to greater competitiveness and easier real access to the single market.
Many small Irish firms struggle with the particular form of open market applied in France, for example, which has irritated so many UK firms. Diversification is hard work and it will take time, perhaps just as much time again as it has taken us to come this far forward since joining the EU.
In the meantime, our largest trading partner buys most of our exported food, a huge amount of our tourism and much of our financial services, to name just three sectors. And indeed, we are very well placed to host the development of many firms in our nearest neighbour as they too look to secure their footing within the Europe of the future. We need to be dry-eyed, intelligent and hard-working about addressing all of these consequences of Brexit in the months and years to come.
Ireland’s credentials in Europe are undoubted. That will stand us well in challenging times to come. It’s clear that the different sides are taking up their positions ahead of what will be the most important negotiations of our time.
It’s also clearly frustrating to many that the UK has yet to declare what exactly it wants from these negotiations. But that won’t get in the way of acknowledging the reality that Ireland has always traded with the UK and it always will – the issue being at what level of reduced real value due to potential new barriers of various sorts.
Though it may irritate some, a bad outcome for the UK in its future trading relationship with the EU will be a bad outcome for Ireland. More than a billion euro a week in two-way trade, supporting more than 400,000 jobs on both islands, reflects too much positive work by all to be easily diversified away from.
Of course we are on Team EU as are our fellow 26 remaining member states, who will each want outcomes that meet their needs individually as well as ours collectively. That will be the challenge for our negotiators, and our challenge will be to constructively inform and support them in their vital work.
There’s no doubt that many believe the UK has shot itself in Ireland’s foot. And early triumphalism in some quarters has rubbed salt into wounds. We can expect more heat than light for a while yet. But perhaps throwing toys out of the pram is less damaging than throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
In calmer moments, it’s useful to bear in mind that empathy with our largest trading partner – many of whose businesses are Irish-owned and run – does not mean antipathy to the EU.
We don’t need somebody to lose for us to win. We don’t need to define ourselves in terms of our relationship with anyone else, whether the UK, the US or the EU. The reality is that Ireland needs to be strong enough to manage – and contribute positively to – multiple sets of distinct relationships and we have the ability to be excellent at them all. Sixty years on from the Whitaker era, it’s useful to consider what we would want said in 60 years’ time about the choices we get to make now. Let us choose well.
John McGrane is the director general of the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce.