Skip to main content

An Irishman on Brexit, the border and what will come next?

Sebastian Strohmayer, Trinity College, Dublin

Firstly let me point out that I do not, in no way whatsoever, represent the views of the people of Ireland. I am no expert nor do I profess to know the answer to the question: what comes next? I am simply a Galwegian who studies in Dublin who has felt the tremendous impact Brexit has had not only on our future but the current debates in our Nation. What follows is a brief perspective that I wish to offer you, the reader, on how an Irishman feels, deals and treats the issue of Brexit now more than one year on from the referendum. While the vote in June 2016 was insular and domestic, its impacts have had far reaching consequence, none more prevalent for us in Ireland than the border we share with the Northern Ireland.

While on the morning after the referendum, most eyes looked over at the United Kingdom, our eyes went elsewhere: to the north. The shock of Brexit meant a reflection into our own history and a re-evaluation of our relationship with Northern Ireland as well as the UK. We had, in that instance, lost our biggest and most important trading partner and the promises and hopes of the Good Friday agreement seemed to be in absolute limbo. A year on and most people in Ireland are still left asking the same questions that they did in June 2016, what happens next? Where do we go from here? And what will this mean for the shared border?

I have, on countless occasions, driven from Dublin to Belfast, as have many other travellers, commuters and tourists. Most will agree that there is a sub-conscience if not serene pleasure at driving, nonstop, on the motorway until you reach your destination. My personal political convictions aside, I find this journey one of the most present and visual statements of a successful end to hostilities and of launching an enterprise into the future together. Left in the wayside of the M1 are the reminders of a bygone era, abandoned border installations and guard posts.

For Ireland the referendum and the ensuing debates have brought about a longing for that status quo which had sustained a stable relationship with the Northern part of Ireland. Now we reel in the aftermath and bathe daily in uncertainty. If the referendum is fully enacted, with this I mean the UK leaves the EU in its entirety, there will be two parallel developments in Ireland. To one degree this will be an economic development and the other will be dealing with the border.

Economically Ireland will lose its biggest and, until now, most important trading partner. I do not fear this development as much as others may. Our Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar having struck up quite the “bromance” with Justin Trudeau and foreign minister Simon Coveney spending more time in Germany than anyone thought possible indicate Ireland is willing to go beyond the British Isles in search of long- term economic partnerships.

The difficulty lies in adjusting our dependence on the UK and ensuring a diversified trading portfolio with the EU. Others may disagree but the uncertainty into which Brexit has lunged our economy is only temporary if we continue to adjust our priorities and dependencies as we have been doing in the past, thank god for Kerry Gold! The economic infrastructure of Ireland has increasingly gained its independence from the UK; it is a malleable and flexible instrument that has been furnished into well-oiled and international machine.

Ireland’s diplomatic credit rating has maintained its high status following our bailout. Despite the societal dislike for the IMF, ECB and countries such as France and Germany for what was imposed on Ireland in the wake of 2008, as Irish Ambassador to Germany, Michael Collins has stated, “our European credentials are not in doubt”. [1] Am I suggesting that Ireland has the backing of the EU? Yes I am, we are part of team EU and despite the grumblings in the pub, most Irish people (in particular this one) is in favour of remaining a small but strong player on that team.

However, despite being part of this team, Ireland’s geographic position and historic ties make it difficult to devote the entirety of Ireland’s diplomatic position in a post- Brexit EU to the European continent. It is important that we realise how dependent we are on the UK, not only economically but also in the on-going negotiations. As Leo Varadkar stated in the Dáil on the 8th of November 2017, the border question cannot go ahead until the UK-EU ties have been clarified. And he is right; it is impossible for Ireland to move beyond any form of hypothetical solution until we know the exact extent and shape of the exit Britain achieves.

In terms of our economy and my confidence in it, patience must prevail, as we are sadly spectators in our own game and only time will tell what the extent of our economy strategy will be in the future.

But an Irish perspective on Brexit must go beyond the debate and revert to the geography of it. The second development, if the UK eventually leaves the EU, is of a more historic and emotional nature. As many of us are aware the latter half 20th century was plagued by the troubles in Northern Ireland. Sectarian violence and terror spread across the province and engulfed the northern Irish society in fear, death and terror. The epilogue of this was written in the form of the Good Friday agreement, a subjectively peaceful and compromised ending to the conflict that set out the future relationship between not only the internally divided groupings but between Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

In a paper released in September of 2017, the EU parliament recognised the “unique position of and the special circumstances confronting the island of Ireland”, special indeed. Due to the existing Good Friday agreement an issue plaguing the Irish mind is the extent of negation imposed on this agreement through the Brexit Referendum? How will the common travel area that exists be kept in place? Will it be through a hard, soft or invisible border? The EU parliamentary paper states, and I agree, that the responsibility lies with the UK to come up with that solution but this solution must be in accordance wit the will of the people of Northern Ireland. I am tempted to draw upon the referendum result in the north as a clear indication of the will of the people of Northern Ireland but that, to me, simplifies an incredibly diverse and difficult situation.

The Good Friday Agreement must be protected in the exit negotiations and Northern Ireland’s unique position not lost in the wayside of the referendum. On November the 6th James Brokenshire, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, told a seminar in Brussels, "I find it difficult to imagine how Northern Ireland could somehow remain in while the rest of the country leaves. I find that impossible." Mr Brokenshire, I can imagine it. And I hope the policies of the United Kingdom have not ruled out theimpossible seeing as there is no reasonably possible policy of departure in place.

The northern Irish question is not one of nationalistic IRA revisionism (granted to some it may be just that) but of ensuring that Brexit does not negatively affect Northern Ireland and in doing so destroy a hard fought compromise with the Republic of Ireland.

What will come next? I have absolutely no idea! None of us do. An article such as this one ends up revealing more questions than answers, grim predictions and honest truths. The past year in Ireland has been filled with debates and arguments each attempting to answer these questions but to no avail. Varadkar is right, we need to wait, and Ireland cannot jump the gun. We are in an unstable balancing act where the best thing to do is to stay still. The ball is in your court Great Britain, just one favour: please don’t forget the past when you move into your new future.


[1] This is from a seperate interview The Colloquium conducted with the Ambassador in September 2017.