Article Published November 16th, 2020

An atmosphere of crisis in Ireland north and south is dominating discussions of the future among seasoned observers and commentators there. It is occasioned by the impending decision on Brexit due to be made shortly ahead of the end of the transition period on 31 December. While the wider public may well be more exercised by the immediate effects of the Covid pandemic, those in business, government and politics are becoming concerned at the almost total absence of detail about the consequences in Ireland of the UK leaving the European Union. A Hard Brexit, A Thin Brexit or No Brexit? No one knows. The unease is more pronounced in the north. It results from the earlier acceptance that with Britain out of Europe, concerns about the Irish border require attention to protect the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement. These developments also follow the announcement of a new policy of a ‘Shared Island’ by the coalition government in the south. Both have raised fears in the north once again about a United Ireland through the back door and unionist apprehensions have again been heightened. The new reality is that a United Ireland is still an aspiration but no longer a policy. The famous Four Green Fields of Ireland in the folklore (the provinces of Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connaught) will have to wait. But there may be an interesting role for all of Ireland alongside Wales and Scotland in promoting shared Celtic interests.

What does the future promise?

The future of Northern Ireland following these developments will be dramatic and unprecedented in its 100-year history. For the south, the vision of the Celtic Tiger may begin to wane as the British absence from the European Union takes its toll on its nearest and closest neighbour.

So far, reactions, north and south, have been muted and fairly low key. In Dublin some academic expressions are focussed on the question of identity. To what extent do northerners feel Irish or British or both? In the north the leading voice of unionism, the Belfast Newsletter, dismissed the “Shared Island” initiative as a coalition conspiracy of anti-Sinn Fein tactics in order to avoid a Border referendum too soon, and largely ignored the suggestion.

However, on closer examination there is much more at stake in both parts of Ireland than yet another rerun of the well-worn unity arguments. Brexit has put an end to these old arguments. For Ireland as a whole, Brexit is a fundamental step back and for Northern Ireland in particular, it marks a major fork in the road ahead.

Changing Economic Relationships

When Ireland joined the European Economic Community in 1973, official figures record that 55% of its exports went to the UK. Today the figure is 9% and falling. However, in food products the UK is still Ireland’s biggest trading partner. Around 50% of Irish beef, 34% of dairy products and 80% of mushroom sales go to the UK.

This will inevitably mean radical change in the breadth of Irish export patterns. Change has already begun. Official Irish figures report that in 2018, 9 million euros worth of Irish beef was exported to China. Currently the value of beef exports to China is projected to reach 120 million euros soon.

The search for new friends

Within the negotiating corridors of Brussels and round the ministerial tables of the European Union, Ireland has lost a valued partner. In crisis after crisis in the past, the UK did the heavy lifting. That meant that Ireland could row in behind and reap the consequent benefit from its big brother without sustaining any collateral damage itself. That has come to an end. Since 1973 when both countries joined the then European Economic Community there has seldom been a sliver of difference between the two, with the possible exception of Northern Ireland occasionally. Now all that has changed. Ireland is building up its diplomatic clout in the capitals of Europe and using its renowned charm to make new friends and garner the political support its interests require in this less comfortable setting.

This extends to the nations of the UK as well. A new Irish consulate in Glasgow to mirror the one in Edinburgh. The reopening of the Irish consulate in Cardiff and more attention being paid perhaps also to the value of the little known British-Irish Council. That could be another means of safeguarding Irish influence within Britain. England in particular shows every sign of wishing to lead a separate Global Britain initiative, leaving Europe behind. But Wales and Scotland have other priorities and their relations with Ireland are more instinctive.

The land bridge between Wales and the English east coast ports is being re-examined for possible Brexit related additional cost. A new measurement is being made of the scale of new English border checks of goods and increased bureaucracy.  These will cost time and money, and will be judged against the currently lengthier sea crossings to new coastal continental destinations already being opened up.

The voices of regret

Yet there are Irish voices of regret at saying goodbye to an old friend. There are still many thoughts of yesteryear in Ireland. Remnants of the West Brits survive and still hanker after past relations. Thoughts of Ireland re-joining the Commonwealth surface. Even though Britain is currently the so called “Chair-in-Office” of the Commonwealth, it is no longer the British Commonwealth. Most of its members enjoy substantial financial and trading advantages from their regional connection with the European Union which Britain is unable to match, leaving the Queen as the remaining tower of strength still holding the Commonwealth together. Britain is heading out into an unknown future with many fewer friends than in the past. If strength lies in numbers, those in Ireland who regret the breaking of old but complicated ties with Britain need to calculate the costs of a Britain outside Europe and a Commonwealth long past its zenith. No one seems to have measured Brexit yet in those terms.

Support for Ireland from outside

The new American administration will help Ireland come to terms with its new circumstances as well. President Joe Biden will surely identify Ireland as already in a very special relationship with America. Family ties are easily traceable to America from both parts of Ireland and go back a long way. There is also strong Irish American representation in Congress. This will be reflected in strong American support for the Good Friday Agreement and a warning to British nationalists not to interfere with the current arrangements on the Irish border, where future business trends within the Single Market are likely to expand to the benefit of Northern Ireland in its new economic relationships. The Americans with Biden as President see Brexit as a geopolitical mistake but the ‘Five Eyes’ defence and intelligence alliance with Britain will of course continue and Britain remains a permanent member of the Security Council of the United Nations.

There are also several potential benefits for Ireland in inward investment and in the financial services sector. The number of overseas investment projects into the UK has dropped 35% in the last 12 months to September 2020. Foreign investment into the UK is predicted to fall more than a third after it leaves the EU single market and customs union at the end of the transition period this year, according to a study by UCL and the London School of Economics. As one of the principal reasons for investing in the UK was access to the single market, Ireland is well placed to pick up at least some of this slack. Similarly, in the case of financial services, already there are moves out of the City of London into Amsterdam, Paris and Dublin. This trend is likely to continue if the predicted Brexit deal is either non-existent or pretty thin.

Tensions within Britain

With the UK out of the European Union, a debate is already raging internally in Britain concerning the extent to which EU policy, administered until now by the devolved administrations will be reappropriated by London. Scotland is a leading voice in this debate, followed closely by Wales. This does not augur well for a friction free debate with London about devolution, at a time when within England the regions are insisting that their voices are heard and their advice listened to in Whitehall as never before. Ireland will surely become part of this discussion. Its relations with the island of Britain are close. Its transport links cross Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland and England. Trade at some as yet to be determined level, though much reduced, will continue. The common travel area, family ties, voting rights in local elections and the big Irish communities in the major cities and conurbations will ensure that relations remain friendly and close.

The structures are already in place to ensure a smooth transition for Ireland into a new set of relations with Scotland and Wales in particular, if not so much with England.  The existence of the British-Irish Council, created by the Good Friday Agreement, can pave the way. With a membership consisting of Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, as well as England it is well placed to share common problems and agree solutions. It already has a permanent secretariat situated in Edinburgh staffed by British and Irish officials. Departmental ministers from the member countries meet regularly and at a summit level, First Ministers and Prime Ministers meet twice a year. It has become a working arrangement. The fact that it has not drawn much media attention does not diminish its value and potential. It commands influence over common areas of interest but may require some amendment of its procedures to allow more equal access to its agendas by other members than just Britain and Ireland who at present control the agenda.

To the outsider, all of this appears to be a positive response to a rapidly evolving situation. That is, until Northern Ireland is put into the mix.

Is Northern Ireland a misfit?

Northern Ireland is not well known in Britain, nor in many parts of the south either. Its connections overseas are difficult to identify. Nowadays, after 40 years of conflict, very few exist. The north was once the industrial jewel in the crown of Ireland and famous worldwide for shipbuilding. It launched the fated Titanic in the early 1900s. Engineering, textile manufacturing machinery and a famous linen industry whose products were coveted in the salons of New York were among its claims to fame. All that has gone. In contrast, the south has prospered mightily from membership of the EU. which provided the connections and the confidence that was always denied it, languishing as it did then, an impoverished agrarian economy in the quasi-colonial shadow of Britain.

Resistance to Home Rule, the sacrifices of men in the Great War and subsequently the outcome of an Anglo-Irish Treaty, created what is now Northern Ireland, six of the nine counties of the province of Ulster.  As the crow flies the distance between Carlingford Lough in the east and Lough Foyle in the west is less than 100 miles. But the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland between these two loughs is over 300 miles. The difference is the result of a border drawn in order to gerrymander a majority who wished to remain part of the United Kingdom. It is that bald fact that has dogged the history of Northern Ireland from the beginning and in later years led to a period of 40 years of violence, commonly known as ‘The Troubles’.

The troubles eventually came to an end with the Good Friday Agreement negotiated with the Northern Ireland political parties and the Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom and Ireland all sitting together around the same table.  The Good Friday Agreement, also known as the Belfast Agreement, was recognised by the United States of American as well as by the European Union which both Ireland and the United Kingdom had joined together in 1973. It became an international Treaty, lodged at the United nations too. The Peace Process resulted. It was generously funded by the European Union and presided over by the Irish and UK governments and strongly supported by the United States.

Britain is leaving

Then in 2016 in a referendum the United Kingdom decided by a slim majority vote to leave the European Union. In Northern Ireland the vote recorded 59%in favour of staying. The DUP was strongly against remaining in the EU, preferring to follow the leadership of the British Conservative euro sceptics. Sinn Fein was strongly in favour. Other parties in general wished to maintain the status quo and remain in membership.

Now the UK withdrawal negotiations are coming to an end. They embrace, unless a new disaster unfolds, an Irish Protocol. This is designed to maintain an open border between north and south, to maintain and protect the Peace Process, with Northern Ireland remaining in the Single Market and Customs Union for goods while other trading commodities, capital, services and labour, remain part of the separate United Kingdom arrangements outside the European Union. This complicated arrangement will have the effect of requiring all goods, especially animals, plants etc to be subject to checks both going into Northern Ireland from Britain or moving from Northern Ireland the other way. In effect it constitutes a border of a kind. But it is not a constitutional construct. It is in all respects economic in its effects. It recognises the circumstances of the island’s economic interrelationships without interfering with the constitutional politics.

A shared island – a new beginning?

Understandably this is a divisive issue. There is no single northern consensus. The Northern Irish Executive has not taken a position. However, the final outcome will be the negotiated position of the United Kingdom Government and Northern Ireland will be required to implement it.

In parallel but separately, the proposal for a ‘Shared Island’ has emerged from the Irish Taoiseach’s office on behalf of the coalition government. It means that the old arguments for a United Ireland have been put on the back burner and the hand of friendship extended to a new all-island economic arrangement connected to the European Union. While the voices of the party-political extremes have dismissed the concept as unacceptable, more moderate voices in the north have begun to see some new prospects opening up. The unionist business community is beginning to see their future prospects in a new light. In future decisions are likely to be made in favour of new markets more closely connected to the European single market than with Britain, as its contacts shrink and inward investment recedes. By contrast, Britain’s promised new trade opportunities seem mere chimera in the distance.

This dismal prospect is now being countered by the call from the government in the south to take measures towards deepening the development of trust between north and south. This is not easy in an atmosphere still laden with suspicion and where discrimination is still present to some extent.

Political extremism in the form of the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein control the Northern Ireland Assembly. They have squeezed the other more moderate parties. The effect has been that over the years, the north has lost outside contacts apart from the fringes of the politics of the far right and the extreme left.

So the hope that a policy of ‘sharing’ will invite a warm response is unlikely. Sinn Fein will see it as a ploy to undermine an early referendum on unity. The DUP will cling to the bigoted bellowing of the old Protestant Defender Edward Carson and say NO.  His pointed finger, high on a plinth outside the northern Parliament Buildings in Stormont still points aggressively south at Dublin.

The best that can be expected from the centre ground, now beginning to grow again according to polls, is that they will remain cautious and suspicious and “Wait and See”. As ever there will be no initiative from the north. There never has been. Yet the consequences of Brexit and the Irish Protocol will precipitate change. Britain out of Europe will have repercussions not only in Northern Ireland but also in Wales, Scotland and Ireland too. The growing pressures for greater devolution will become stronger as the common economic interests of the countries in the British-Irish Council, with the possible exception of England, become more pronounced. The relevance of the Council is likely to grow. So too is the role likely to be played by the North South Ministerial Council in the affairs of the island of Ireland itself. A seat at both these tables for Northern Ireland will become a vital instrument in awakening a wider interest in the common interests of these Celtic countries. It could become a crucial stepping stone for the isolated and defensive Northern Ireland to begin to feel much more secure at a table in the company of the Scottish and Welsh. The perennial lurking shadow of a United Ireland could be overtaken by a wider sharing of Celtic interests. This would be a noble beginning to a new phase in the development of both parts of Ireland.