Noel Whelan: It is naive to say Ireland would never leave the EU
Brexit means our main trading partners, the UK and US, will be outside the EU
Nigel Farage: just because the idea that Ireland could leave the European Union came out of his mouth doesn’t mean it is necessarily wrong. Photograph: Vincent Kessler/Reuters
It is already apparent that Brexit is going to be among the key issues, if not the key issue, in Irish politics and public debate in 2017 and probably for several years thereafter. It is also clear that those in the Government and officialdom who are in charge of policy on Brexit remain deaf to all voices but their own.
In the days after the shock referendum result last June I wrote of how we Irish have been put in a position where we will be forced to make unpalatable choices between our relationship with our next-door neighbour and our relationship with the rest of the street. I warned that, while it may sound alarmist to some Europhiles, there was a real risk that if the European Union didn’t deal with the loss of Britain carefully, it risked losing Ireland as well.
Six months later, there is still a lack of clarity about what form Brexit will take, and even what kind of Brexit Britain wants. There is also little real engagement or debate in Ireland about what the various Brexit scenarios are and what Ireland’s response to them should be.
This week saw a knee-jerk reaction even to the slightest suggestion that Ireland’s future in Europe might be in any doubt. In an extended interview with Sean O’Rourke on RTÉ radio on Wednesday, the former Ukip leader Nigel Farage said that if Brexit proved a success for Britain, then Ireland would also re-examine its relationship with Europe. He didn’t say that Ireland would leave but that Irish public opinion would reconsider its position, his analysis being contingent on a successful economic outcome for Britain from Brexit.
Farage’s comment was immediately dismissed by Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Charlie Flanagan as “fanciful thinking”.
But just because it came out of the mouth of Nigel Farage doesn’t mean his opinion couldn’t come true, albeit not for the reasons he suggests. All the polling suggests that the Irish are currently well-disposed to continued membership of the EU, but that could change as Brexit alters our relationships.
Farage is motivated by a desire to arouse anti-European sentiment, but even some in Ireland who have long been supporters of the EU can see the shifts that Brexit, particularly a “hard” Brexit, might bring.
Britain leaving the EU could force Ireland to choose between a rock and a hard place. The harder the Brexit, the more difficult that choice would be. What is fanciful is to suggest that if the ultimate outcome of Brexit was to see Ireland cut off from Britain, and perhaps also from Northern Ireland, by a high tariff wall and rigid restraints on the movement of people, there wouldn’t at least be a possibility that Irish public sentiment would shift towards disengaging from the EU.
In an interesting opinion piece in the Sunday Business Post last weekend, the former Department of Foreign Affairs official Ray Bassett, whose perspective on Europe is obviously different from Farage’s, also raised the possibility that Brexit might give rise to the possibility of Ireland leaving the EU. Indeed, Bassett went further and argued that drawing attention to the risk of Ireland leaving should be part of our negotiating strategy in order to counter the “punish the Brits” elements in Brussels. His central point was that we should be emphasising the risk of “Irexit” as a means of concentrating minds in the EU about how damaging a hard Brexit could be for Ireland.
The risk of an Irish exit was also raised in a recent report on the implications of Brexit that Dr Brian Murphy, Ralf Lissek and Dr Volker Treier prepared for the German-Irish Chamber of Industry and Commerce. Their study pointed out that Brexit would mean that Ireland’s two major trading partners, the UK and the US, would be outside the EU.
“A hard Brexit has the potential to inflict serious collateral damage on Ireland and may give rise to anti-EU sentiment,” they cautioned.
They also warned that those within the EU who wanted to impose very harsh terms on Britain, to discourage other member states, needed to “actively consider whether this will build momentum towards an ‘Irexit’, further undermining European cohesion”.
In fact, the prospect of a hard Brexit giving rise to the risk of an Irexit was one of the issues of most interest to a delegation of German media who travelled on a study trip to Ireland last month to coincide with the publication of the report.
The year 2016 was one when political certainties unravelled. It is naive to state with certainty that Ireland will still be in the EU in five or 10 years’ time. It probably will be, but there is a real possibility that it may not. A few years ago, a prediction that there would be a referendum vote for Brexit, or that there would be a Donald Trump presidency, would have been dismissed as fanciful thinking.
We live in fanciful times.