Today, Professor Mary McAleese, the former President of Ireland the first born and raised in northern Ireland will passionately urge voters to keep Britain in the European Union. This will doubtless unleash howls of protest from the Brexiteers but she firmly believes that, since both the UK and Ireland joined on the same day in 1973, British influence in Brussels has helped to create a better, more open and more liberalised Europe – which has helped Ireland to prosper and brought years of suspicion and violence in our two countries to an end.
Her family was forced to leave Belfast when The Troubles broke out. So, she and the Irish Government sees a relationship once called ‘sour and edgy’ now closer than since 1922. But this closeness has taken place in the context of both countries’ membership of the European Union. And the real consequences of Brexit on UK-Irish relations have been largely disregarded in this referendum so far.
Which is strange. The concerns of the 600,000 Irish-born who live in Britain and the 300,000 British-born who live in Ireland are legitimate, well-founded and should not be ignored. They involve the economy, trade, immigration controls, the hardening of the land border, security, the weakening over time of the excellent current relationship between Ireland and the United Kingdom, the impact on the peace process and the impact on Europe of Britain's voice being absent from the EU table.
Vote Leave have been dismissive of how Brexit would change the way business, politics, security and border controls work today between our two countries. They have been quick to offer reassurances that nothing will change - that the huge volumes of trade between us which support 400000 jobs will continue exactly as before and that the current open road border between Northern Ireland and Ireland will continue.
Which is why Professor McAleese says that such reassurances are nothing more than wishful thinking at best and bluffing at worse.
The show won’t go on as normal in two main areas: first, the political impact on Northern Ireland, including the stability of the peace settlement with EU-funded programmes terminated and the relationship between communities (including faith communities) north and south. A Brexit vote decided on the issue of controlling immigration would mean the end of the free movement from Europe to Ireland and onward to the UK. This could imperil the Common Travel Area and require the reintroduction of border controls. Also ended would be the current extradition arrangements under the European Arrest Warrant making it harder for terrorist suspects to be moved from one jurisdiction to another.
Second, the economic impact on both countries generally arising from the UK’s absence from the EU in terms of the EU’s promotion of a pro-markets, competitive policy agenda and the loss of a counterweight to French and German influence. Collateral damage would spill over in to trade. The loss of the UK’s privileged access to the EU Single Market would hit hardest the businesses trading in Ireland, the rest of the EU and in those 60 countries with which the EU has free trade agreements.
And, not least, a fissure in Anglo-Irish relations will arise as Britain and Ireland would have chosen profoundly different paths without a guarantee that current relations would remain as they are.
Amongst today’s British politicians there are few who remember how bad relations were in the past, how much British (and Irish) politics were overshadowed by the Troubles and the poisoning effect they had on relations between the two countries. The role of the EU in rebuilding the Anglo-Irish relationship is a barely understood phenomenon within the UK political elite, let alone amongst the wider population.
There is a real danger that in the debate about Britain and the EU, the way the Anglo-Irish relationship has been helped by mutual membership, and how it could be hindered by the UK leaving the EU, will not be properly discussed. The report Mary McAleese is launching today - Brexit: the Irish Dimension - makes it clear that there is no pain-free exit when it comes to Ireland.
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