Neale Richmond is a Fine Gael Senator, and Irish Government’s spokesman on EU Affairs in Seanad Éireann. He is also Chairman of the Seanad Select Committee on the decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union.
Now that Article 50 has been triggered and the sabre-rattling has intensified ahead of the start of the Brexit negotiations, some commentators and politicians in the UK are talking of being happy with a “no deal” scenario: that’s to say, one in which everything currently agreed between the EU and the UK would fall apart, leaving just the Most Favoured Nation clause of the World Trade Organisation to go by – and, in the case of Ireland, the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and of the Common Travel Agreement, which has in place since 1922.
Put bluntly, for Ireland, such a scenario is absolutely the worst case scenario.
The best case one for us is of course the status quo. We didn’t want Brexit – and we weren’t shy of making our opposition to it known. However, as democrats we respect the will of the British people, and have pledged to make the best of it. The possible impacts of Brexit here have received much attention in recent months from a range of perspectives that have involved a range of sectors. But there can be no doubt that the results for Ireland will be, on the whole, negative – and that, of all EU Member States, Ireland will suffer most from a No Deal Brexit.
If it happens, the Irish Central Bank estimates that, after ten years, Ireland’s GDP will be lower by three per cent, and the number of people employed will be down by 40,000. Any possible future gains through the relocation of the European Medicines Agency, or the flight of financial services from the City of London, will only go part of the way to offset an overall negative impact.
So what will actually happen in the event of a No Deal Brexit, and why will the impact on Ireland be so great?
Flights will be grounded – since there will, insuch circumstances, be no replacement for the numerous European treaties and arrangements that govern all matters to do with aviation. No flights originating in or bound for the UK will be able to fly over EU airspace, use EU airports or engage with EU air traffic control. The busiest European air route is Dublin to London; 60 per cent of passengers flying from Ireland to the US originate in the UK ,and all UK flights bound for the US, Canada and most of the Americas traverse Irish – i.e EU – airspace.
Farms will go bust. Ireland’s exports to the UK could drop by more than 30 per cent, creating major economic disruption. Almost 14 per cent of total Irish exports go to the UK, and the UK is the main destination for Irish agri-food and drink exports, accounting for 47 per cent of all such exports. 84 per cent of poultry exports from Ireland go to the UK; 65 per cent of Ireland’s cheddar cheese exports go to the UK; 52 per cent of beef exports from Ireland go to the UK. It is of course not all one way traffic: Ireland remains the main export market for UK food and drink products, accounting for almost one fifth of trade. The importance of Ireland to UK exporters is demonstrated by the fact that this trade is worth more than the cumulative exports to the next two largest markets, France and the Netherlands.
Citizens will be stuck in a no man’s land. 300,000 UK citizens live in Ireland, nearly 800,000 Irish citizens live in Great Britain and 1.85 million people in Northern Ireland qualify for dual Irish/UK citizenship. If there is no deal or transitionary arrangement, what will come of all these people – not to mention the many more UK citizens living across the EU and EU citizens in the UK? Will they become illegal overnight. Will they be deported, will they lose their jobs or will families be separated?
This is just a flavour of some of the very real and very worrying issues that will swiftly become evident if the EU and the UK cannot conclude a deal – or, at the very least, a transitionary arrangement – during the coming months. There are many more concerns relating to, say, educational agreements between Ireland and the UK; the ability of Irish hospitals to use UK-produced drugs and equipment; the isolation of Ireland, when many goods imported from other countries pass through the UK; the threat to Irish energy supplies; pension entitlements – and last but not least, the impact on the fragile peace in Northern Ireland, an issue that would merit an entire article. The vista is bleak – and the country that will suffer the most proportionately is not the UK, or any of the other 26 EU Member States, but little old Ireland.
When Ireland joined the EEC in 1973 it did so as a province, in all but name, of the UK. Our exchange rate, interest rate and economic cycles were set indirectly by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and we were widely seen as an island behind an island. Being part of the European project has been liberating for us – allowing us to grow our economy, modernise our social systems, and claim a place for ourselves in the world. It is an absolute no brainer for Ireland to want to remain within this community that has given us so much, and allowed us to grow out from the shadow of our neighbour, and to engage with the UK as an equal.
I write this as possibly the least nationalistic member in the Houses of the Oireachtas, and as one of just three members who wants to see Ireland re-join the Commonwealth – but also as someone who now fears a worst case scenario. Relations between the UK and Ireland today are probably the best since Irish independence: this is something everyone wants to maintain, but it can only be done so through a progressive and realistic agreement between the EU and the UK.
A deal is vital – vital for everyone.