Irish eyes aren’t smiling – when it comes to Brexit. As one who hails from the Emerald Isle, I’ve taken plenty of ‘schtick’ from Irish diplomats, relatives and pundits after publicly voting to leave.
For the Republic of Ireland, European Union membership carries deep political significance. Joining in 1973, along with the UK but on equal terms, was hugely symbolic. A country then less than 30 years old was finally able to represent itself on the world stage. It is this escape from British dominance, more than Brussels-funded motorways, that makes EU membership central to modern Ireland’s identity.
Liam Halligan and James Forsyth discuss Theresa May’s Brexit plans:
That’s why Brexit causes such unease – the gnawing sense that, yet again, Ireland will suffer from the seemingly thoughtless actions of its much bigger neighbour. The UK accounts for a fifth of Ireland’s trade, driving one in ten jobs. Will Britain leaving the single market harm the Irish economy? Will no more ‘freedom of movement’ stem the flow of Irish youngsters that have long ‘gone to England’ for work?
I was pleased Theresa May was careful to mention Ireland in her big Brexit speech this week. Safeguarding joint UK-Irish interests was an eye-catching fourth among her twelve stated objectives during upcoming EU negotiations. And, even before confirming that freedom of movement will end, the Prime Minister said ‘maintaining a Common Travel Area with the Republic of Ireland’ will be ‘an important priority’.
The lack of formal borders dates back to the formation of the semi-independent Irish Free State in 1923. Since then, travel between the two countries has required minimal or no documentation. Post-Brexit, though, that could be tricky. If the UK and Ireland have open borders, Brussels may argue, why not the UK and France?
The flashpoint, of course, is the land border between the Republic and the North – which, until little more than a decade ago, featured military checkpoints. ‘There can be no return to the borders of the past,’ said May. ‘We will make it a priority to deliver a practical solution’.
Again, that’s not straight-forward. Both the UK and the Republic want to keep today’s land border open after Brexit, but without providing a back door for EU citizens from elsewhere into Britain. Passport checks between Northern Ireland and the mainland would rile Unionists – as they’d be travelling ‘within the UK’. But checks along the land border would also be controversial, given fears of stoking-up past tensions.
Squaring this circle will mean compromise not just between London and Dublin – with British and Irish authorities collaborating, and perhaps selected UK border checks at Irish ports and airports – but also between both governments and the EU.
‘The family ties and bonds of affection that unite our two countries mean that there will always be a special relationship between us,’ said May, words unthinkable from a Conservative Prime Minister until relatively recently. Relations between the UK and the Republic of Ireland have, perhaps, never been better. Brexit, though, poses a challenge – one the EU could try to exploit.
Liam Halligan writes the weekly Economic Agenda Column in The Sunday Telegraph. He tweets @liamhalligan