fires-north-scotland-irelandMER_FRS_20110502_753_or‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity.’ That old republican dictum was oft-repeated in the run-up to Easter 1916, when King was busy battling Kaiser in far-flung French fields.

A century later, England’s Brexit travails are less welcome across the Irish Sea, even by many republicans. Nevertheless, the decision to leave the European Union represents the most dramatic shift in the Anglo-Irish relations since the end of the War of Independence in 1921.

For more than four decades, the constitutional settlement in Ireland has been implicitly predicated on Europe. That has changed. (I’ll hold back on the hackneyed Yeats’ quotes, we’ve had enough of those in Scotland, from myself and countless others.)

In 1998, Irish voters overwhelmingly endorsed the Good Friday Agreement, giving up territorial claims on the six counties of Northern Ireland. Brussels was not an integral part of this settlement but the EU provided something arguably even more important – a diplomatic underpinning to peace.

When Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter were encased within a European superstructure, the notion of British or Irish “ownership” of the north became somewhat less vexed. Millions in EU funds have poured into Northern Ireland, and particularly the border region.

Now the Republic of Ireland will remain a member of a super-national body, with the UK outside the club despite a Northern Irish vote to remain. The circuitous 300-mile border that weaves in and out through green fields and shallow ditches just north of my hometown will now become an EU land border.

This is a material change in Irish affairs, make no mistake.

A practical solution could still be found to the border question. Even during the dark days of the Troubles, the boundary was still permeable, as it has been since the creation of Northern Ireland almost a century ago.

The most likely outcome is the erection of a ‘hard border’ at Northern Irish ports and airports. Ironically, hard-line unionists who supported Brexit – the only constituencies to vote leave were east of the Bann, the traditional dividing line in Northern Irish political geography – would become de facto second class UK citizens, forced to endure arduous controls to travel to the British “mainland”.

The decision to leave the EU poses more existential questions for the future of Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein calls for a ‘border poll’ will not be heeded – probably just as well as the vote would be heavily in favour of the status quo and give rise to fresh republican violence.

But Brexit puts clear blue water between popular opinion in Belfast and London. The Fifty-six per cent of Northern Irish voters who backed remain effectively have no representation in Stormont. The Democratic Unionists – along with the Cruella de Vil-esque NI secretary of state Theresa Villiers – campaigned for a leave vote, while Sinn Fein do not engage in British politics.

Liberal unionists who backed the EU could easily find that it is the Dublin government that argues most forcibly for their wishes.

This should be seen within a broader Irish government approach in which a united Ireland is now a strategic, very long-term goal to be achieved through an open, pluralist outreach to Northern Protestants. Quotes in Ulster Scots in the most recent iteration of the Irish passport – something many unionists have applied for in the last few days – are more than just symbolic. Dublin has moved a lot way from the anxious irredentism of the early post-independence years.

But while Brexit may bind the two Irish jurisdictions closer together psychologically in new ways, it could have a severe economic affect on both sides of the border.

Last week’s vote is a disastrous outcome for a fragile Fine Gael minority government in Dublin. Ireland does 17 per cent of its trade with the UK. Ratings agency Fitch has warned that Irish government debt could be downgraded.

Of course, the markets are not everything. But Dublin’s fears are not purely economic.

On Europe as in most everything else, Ireland and the UK have been symbiotically linked. Ireland only joined the then European Economic Community when the French deigned to invite the British in.

The great irony of the EU referendum was that the entire European project was largely built in the British image: low taxes, flexible workers, business uber alles.

These are nostrums that the Dublin supported, too. It’s no coincidence that so many of the leading Brussels TINA voices speak with an Irish lilt.

With Britain at the European table, Ireland could silently acquiesce to the UK’s right wing agenda. Now its representatives will have to pipe up in Brussels – made more difficult by popular anger at home after years of austerity.

England’s post-Brexit challenge, however, could provide space for closer Scottish and Irish co-operation. Dublin and Edinburgh have grown increasingly close in recent years, as president Michael D Higgins’ visit this week attested.

With Britain at the European table, Ireland could silently acquiesce to the UK’s right wing agenda. Now its representatives will have to pipe up in Brussels – made more difficult by popular anger at home after years of austerity.

The Irish government remained studiously neutral in 2014. But with the UK out of Europe, support for Scottish independence is growing in Leinster House. Opposition leader Micheal Martin has said Scotland should be fast tracked into the EU if it leaves the UK.

An independent Scotland and Ireland would share similar short term aims. Both would want some form of common travel area across Britain and Ireland.

There are longer term opportunities, too. The kingdom of Dalriada has descended into the mists of history, but many political leaders in Edinburgh and Dublin would welcome the advent of an independent Celtic fringe.

England’s difficulty may yet provide opportunities for Scotland, as well as Ireland.