Brexit has thrown up a particular curve ball in terms of future relations between Ireland and the UK. And this is considered particularly unwelcome given Ireland’s resurgence over the last three years in becoming Europe’s fastest growing economy. Last night’s talk ‘Ireland after Brexit’ held in Liverpool University’s Victoria Gallery and Museum was part of the University’s Open House series and presented by the Institute of Irish Studies. In the Chair was the Institute’s Director, Professor Peter Shirlow, the speakers being HE Dan Mulhall – Irish Ambassador to Britain, Arnold Dillon – Brexit Lead for IBEC, the Irish business and employers association , and Professor Michael Dougan – Head of Law at the University.
Short and sweet, each speaker had fifteen minutes to present their views on the issue. Ambassador Mulhall lamented the fact it had happened at all and believed the current phase was primarily about ‘damage limitation’ with the sensitivities and peculiarities of the UK/Irish border thankfully recognised by Brussels. He highlighted four key areas of concern: the border, the future of Irish/English relations, trade, and the future of UK/EU relations. His trade concerns centred on whether the recent resurgence of the Irish economy might be impeded by Brexit. He is also concerned that Ireland may struggle to have the same voice within the EU now that Britain is leaving the table, given that together they were a formidable force. He remains absolutely certain that smaller countries like Ireland do well in multilateral organisations like the EU, and hinted that there may be a small consolation in some international companies decamping to Ireland from the UK to retain a presence within Great Britain.
Arnold Dillon agreed that neither did the 7500 members of Ireland’s largest employer organisation want Brexit nor saw it coming. He is further dismayed by the Hard Brexit rhetoric coming from Westminster, although he senses that this has been heightened by pre-election posturing. IBEC is already seeing a hit in cross border trade currently valued at £1bn a week, and interestingly, suggests that the importance of UK trade to some Irish processors might result in them eyeing bases within the UK. Otherwise he hopes for an orderly transition and a benign trade arrangement for the future, although it was stressed that this is not for Ireland for negotiate – if the EU wishes to punish the UK then there could be a different outcome which might suit Brussels more than Dublin.
Professor Dougan went on to develop the theme of who is actually driving the terms of the UK’s exit. In a short but fascinating overview, he bluntly put it that even now, UK pro-Brexit politicians simply do not recognise the legal framework they are in. The view that the High Court would come to the rescue on all legal complications being cited as naïve in the extreme. He also unravelled the concept of ‘the border’, putting it that it was not a single entity but a whole host of different controls and checks that could be treated in any number of different ways. It may be simple to negotiate, or it may be an endless morass. But for this very reason, he believes that despite the best will in the world, the border will harden. Borders are not just about customs and customs revenue!
So, there is concern amongst all we heard from that the current excellent relations and economic performance between the two states could suffer. This is compounded by a complex interrelationship between the Irish state, the UK and the EU – and in the case of trade you can also include WTO. And furthermore, the issue goes far beyond trade and people movement: complex as these are there are many other potential disconnects buried in the detail. And the final straw? There are too many media operators and politicians who are wilfully misleading the UK and Irish public on the true issues behind Brexit. One speaker’s view was that Scotland is making a far better fist of understanding and articulating the true issues around Brexit than is the UK. So, Pandora’s Box is open. And it will be a long road to restoring any sense of ‘business as usual’.
My thanks to all concerned for an excellent distillation of some important issues. On the basis of this offering, the Institute seems to be very well resourced and placed to offer an important perspective on Brexit. And spare a thought too for HE Dan Mulhall. He leaves his post shortly to take up another in Washington DC.
Anyone wanting further detail and insight from this is welcome to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.