2007 - 2021

The Irish Dimension

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.

Comments (8)

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  1. JohnEdgar says:

    English parties are indeed having difficulties except the LibDems, but they are small.
    Where do the branches stand? Onlookers waiting to be told what to say and think?
    They cling on to the mantra that it is in Scotland’s best interest to be in the UK. With Evel and a right wing extreme Tory party aping Ukip after September, hos can that be in our best interests?
    (S)lab and (S)LibDem, we can forget the Tories – mere placemen, have the opportunity to re gain a full place in Scotland if they endorse independence and free themselves from branch status . The choice is there’s!!
    But,like Corbyn clinging on, they cling on to their delusions; how many knock backs like Scots voting to remain with its democratic mandate, which they deny, must we take before THEYsay enough is enough?

  2. Chris Downie says:

    Interesting article. As a Scot living in (Northern) Ireland and married to an Ulster Scots lady (her and the kids all have Irish passports) this situation is close to my heart and so I could write a post the length of this article in response, but will keep it brief:

    We’re both YES supporters of Scottish independence and Irish reunification, having no religious affiliation (though both born Protestant) and seeing the obvious opportunity for the North – 3% of the population of a dying, dysfunctional UK whose influence in the world has been in terminal decline for decades, or 30% of the island of Ireland, where a skilled and highly educated workforce – and Belfast as a second city that would more than give Dublin a run for its money – would open up new opportunities for investment in a single Irish economy.

    Pitfalls however, include more than these delightful people whom the Gardai Siochana would dread having to police. The Republic is a high wage economy, but reunification (initially at least) be not dissimilar to Germany’s early economic challenge in the early 90’s. They are also beholden to corporations, due to low tax incentives. Water charges also apply and there is no NHS, something the North baulks at. Also, like Scotland the currency would be a hotly contested issue and I’m not sure the politicians in Dublin would risk the ire of Brussels by ditching the Euro and reintroducing the Punt.

    Politically, I firmly believe the presence of characters like Gerry Adams are the biggest liability to chances of unity, not only because of their past baggage but because of their grievance politics. That said, they gain traction because the two main parties in the Republic (Fine Gael and Fianna Fail) seem lukewarm about pushing for unity, valuing their good relations with London.

    All in all, the majority of the North seem content with the status quo – for now. I think it will only be when Scotland goes independent that the die will really be cast and reunification become a reality rather than a talking point or pipe dream. As it stands, people are either too comfortable, or too afraid, to stick their heads above the parapet.

    1. stevev says:

      Chris, well stated piece. Its good to hear from the outliers in this debate and i dont mean that disrepectfully. Seems to me opinion taken is : London; then England; Scotland; sometimes N.Ireland and never Wales. I floated the question to my mate who is Scottish and lives in the Northern Irelabd: why not a United Kingdom of N. Ireland and Scotland, makes sense to me and in these chaotic times anything seems possible.

      1. Chris Downie says:

        Thanks for the kind words.

        What I could also add to the above is that demographics alone are very much not on the Union’s side, either in Scotland or indeed Northern Ireland. At partition, the latter was around 70% Protestant, but due to higher birth rates and immigration from Eastern Europe, it’s almost neck and neck between Protestant-Catholic. Once that tipping point comes (likely by 2025) things will get interesting.

        Further to that, with Scotland heading out the door, the question of what NI does in the shorter term comes down to how many of the Protestant community rethink their stance and bearing in mind most are of Scottish (not English) descent, would they fancy remaining in a rump UK controlled by Tory/UKIP types who care little for their Loyalism while they feed the London monster?

        Finally, it’s worth noting the North was, by far and away, the richest part of Ireland at partition. It is now the poorest, long since surpassed by its southern neighbour. Even war-torn countries like Croatia, or former USSR states like Estonia, dwarf NI’s growth. Has the Union been good for the 6 counties? You tell me…

  3. Crubag says:

    I don’t see any possibility that the UK would erect an internal border. Rather RoI’s desire to keep good relations with the UK, including an open border, will be a bargaining chip in the negotiations.

    More likely things wilk remain as they are, with RoI getting a special exemption from Schengen – which is looking shaky anyway.

  4. Fraser says:


  5. David Allan says:

    Fraser it’ll then be up to the UK Electorate to engage and interfere!
    That’s the democratic way . The way it should be.

  6. Muscleguy says:

    All these talks about hard borders are disingenuous, they implicitly assume both Ireland and iScotland would be somehow magically or stupidly made to join Schengen. Ireland is not part of Schengen and Scotland would be stupid to join, we have no border with anyone except England.

    In terms of people we just keep the system currently in place whereby if you wish to travel to the continent from Scotland you must present a passport and if it is not an EU passport you must have a valid visa or your country possess a waiver. Keeping this system would prevent ne’er do wells from Toryshire coming to Scotland and getting on a plane. A separate NI system in Scotland will ensure such a person cannot work here without permission.

    Smuggling might be an issue but it is on the Irish border as well so is obviously not insurmountable. People in Carlisle might cross the border to fill their cars, or not. I can’t see that being much of an issue elsewhere. But number plate recognition cameras could work there. Technology to the rescue.

    We will obviously need good fisheries protection but we knew that.

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