Did Ireland get too close to UK after vote?

In the immediate aftermath of the June referendum vote, Irish political responses were dominated by panic and a desire to keep the British onside while we all figured out what was going to happen next. Some statements came pretty close to saying that Ireland would be Britain’s champion in the Brexit negotiations. Three very separate things tended to get conflated in the desire to avoid a return to a ‘hard border’:

  • Nothing should be allowed to damage the political progress made since the Good Friday Agreement, in which the EU had both principled and practical inputs.
  • Ireland and Britain had a common travel area (CTA) which predated EU membership.
  • Cross-border trade was particularly important both in itself and in reinforcing political progress.

In early July Enda Kenny told the Dail: “There will be no immediate change to the free flow of people, goods and services between our islands.” Even a simple statement like that emphasising immediate continuity could be misinterpreted elsewhere in Europe as special pleading on Britain’s behalf. Last weekend former Irish Times foreign editor Paul Gillespie wrote an excellent piece about the way European attitudes to the UK have hardened, but it might be truer to say that they have simply crystalised as the immediate shock and panic receded and leaders faced the utter inevitability of the fallout from the British referendum. A great deal of early English-language comment was predicated on the idea that the EU would soon realise it had made a strategic mistake and row back on its hard-line on free movement. It was all vaguely reminiscent of the presumably apocryphal Times headline of a hundred years ago: “Fog in Channel – Continent cut off”. For those who could read other languages, however, a very different message was emerging in continental media; this was England’s mess and England could sort it out, but on the terms that had been made very clear before the referendum. There was some recognition of Ireland’s position on one side of the only land border with the UK, and at a high political level there was a good understanding of the need to protect the peace process and indeed some pride in the EU’s role in doing so. There was no understanding whatsoever for what was seen as Ireland’s special pleading on the UK’S behalf for some sort of soft Brexit. President of the EU Council Donald Tusk laid it on the line at the beginning of October: Britain could have a hard Brexit or no Brexit. One EU leader after another has reiterated the same message in different ways, but there has been no hardening for anyone who was really listening, just greater clarity: no access to the Single Market without free movement of people, goods, services and capital. That is precisely what was being said before the referendum.

Ireland has slowly got on message, but with signs of reluctance. This may be dangerous. Brexit in some form is going to happen, we can’t stop it and our ability to mitigate its impact will be negligible if we try to act on our own.

Fine Gael MEP Mairead McGuinness is vice-president of the European Parliament and in prime position to take the presidency as the nominee of the European People’s Party (EPP) in the election in early January. However, it is understood that other ambitious EPP contenders have been questioning whether she is ‘sound’ on Brexit. She has felt the need to stress that she would very much take an ‘EU27’ position on the upcoming negotiations. “We need to turn Brexit into an opportunity for the EU 27 to renew our commitment to the original ideals which arose from the ashes of two world wars”, she told a conference of the Association of European Journalists in Kilkenny. Ask not what Europe can do for your constituency or parish, ask what you can do for Europe.