What a Brexit could mean for Ireland

So what is the British EU-Referendum? A British issue? A European issue? Or a global issue? Depending on where you come from, you might say its the one or the other or all three of them. Actually, there are more geographies that might have an issue with a British Brexit. One of them, as I learned on Thursday, is Ireland.

That’s not just because of the strong trade relationships between the two countries – although that is not to be underestimated. According to Daithi O’Ceallaigh, a former Irish ambassador to the UK, goods and services worth 1,2 billion pounds are traded every single week between the UK and Ireland. The UK is Ireland’s most important European export market. Entire supply chains rely on the continuation of existing trade patterns between the UK and Ireland.

But this is not the only reason why the Irish fear the potential outcome of the referendum. The main issue, leaving the economy aside, is the relationship between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, a constituent unit of the UK. “The consequences of a Brexit for Ireland will be entirely negative”, said O’Ceallaigh at an event of the Federal Trust in London.

He fears that the relationship between the protestant North and the catholic South will worsen, should there be a British vote to leave the EU. “We need another two to three generations before the peace process is completed”, he said. A Brexit could, according to him, hinder or even stop the continuation of the peace process – a point that both former Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Prime Minister John Major made on Thursday when visiting Londonderry.

Once governed by the UK, Ireland declared itself independent on December 6, 1921, ending a five year long struggle that had begun with the Easter Rising. The North however, remained part of the UK. Over decades, it experienced violent clashes between Catholics (supporting Ireland) and Protestants (supporting the UK).

That’s where the economy comes into play again. One of the drivers for the convergence between the South and the North over the years has been trade, the open border and the single market. Today, there is a common energy market between the South and the North, products are manufactured in one part of the country and sold in the other.

After Brexit, the whole arrangement could be put into question, as the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would become part of the external border of the EU. “Just image if there were customs posts again at the border” said the former ambassador,” the police would hate it.” He believes that anything that would underline the fact that there are two sovereigns sharing one island could stir up past tensions.

That’s a view that is shared by John Palmer, the former Political Director of the European Policy Centre. According to him, there would need to be some form of passport controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, should the UK leave the EU. This could also affect the Common Travel Area that exists between the UK and Ireland.

“This is highly explosive territory”, he said, “I see an immense amount of minefields.” Sinn Fein, one of the main parties in Northern Ireland, has already announced a potential referendum after a British exit. Not only could Scotland leave the Union with England and Wales, but so could Northern Ireland.

That, argued Mary Murphy, a lecturer at the University College Cork, could then result in new tensions between Unionists and Nationalists in Northern Ireland. Over 80 percent of Nationalists support a British remain-vote, whereas only 18 percent of Unionists do, she said. “Northern Ireland will be the worst affected after a British exit”, she said.

Thus, the “British question” not only affects the UK or its relationship to Europe, but also its relations with its constituting territories. Already in July could we see tensions rising, when the traditional marching season takes place. During that time, members of the Orange Order and their opponents march the streets of Belfast and other Northern Irish cities.

Now, is anybody in London paying attention to this? Mary Murphy shakes her head, as if she wanted to say, not really. There seem to be more important topics to talk about.

I sometimes wonder whether David Cameron knew what he was getting himself into when he promised to hold a EU-referendum. Is he prepared to see his country not only suffer a severe recession but possibly break up in several parts? I really doubt that.

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