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Monday, 6 March 2017

Ireland and Brexit

Speakers: Lord Jay of Ewelme (House of Lords), Kalypso Nicolaides (St Antony’s College), Cathryn Costello (St Antony’s College)
Chair: Graham Avery (St Antony’s College)

The ‘Irish question’ did not necessarily receive a lot of attention in the run-up to the Brexit vote, but has since then emerged as one of the hardest issues for Theresa May. It also resonates beyond the corridors of Whitehall as an overflowing crowd in attendance at the European Studies Centre made evident. In response, the three speakers sought to highlight some ways to manage the risks involved, but warned that the stakes are high.

Lord Jay, part of the House of Lords EU Select Committee, began the discussion by saying he fears the Irish dimension would be seen as a consequence of decisions taken on other grounds. He sees a risk that Brexit might bring into question the remarkable progress in the peace process in Northern Ireland. In particular, should the UK leave the Customs Union some kind of controls along the border become very hard to avoid. In turn, this is a serious issue for the nationalist communities along the border and is not impossible for some level of violence to re-emerge. Beyond security, Lord Jay also highlighted the political and economic consequence for Northern Ireland. Agriculture in the region is highly dependent on EU money, and particularly so for regions close to the border, but such subsidies are unlikely to be fully replaced by UK funding after 2020. In addition, political uncertainty in Northern Ireland, even if so far unrelated to Brexit, as well as in the Republic of Ireland, further complicates the situation. Finally, once the UK leaves the EU we are likely to observe increased tensions over what areas of devolution should be returned to Belfast and which ones should be repatriated to Whitehall.

Prof. Kalypso Nicolaïdis focused instead on the place of Ireland in the Brexit negotiations. Coming on top of harsh austerity and a tepid recovery from the financial crisis, Brexit could lead to a significant hit to GDP given one third of Irish exports are destined for the UK. Therefore, as Ireland has the most to lose from the negotiations, it should be given commensurate influence in discussions in Brussels. According to her, Dublin is increasingly worried by how negotiations have drifted from perceiving Brexit as a common challenge to negative sum game discussions. Ireland should play a role in shaping a special place for the UK after 2019, when it will become the first former member-state of the EU.

As part of the Brexit talks, the question of the border will be essential. As Prof. Nicolaidis points out, everyone wants the border to remain as fluid as possible, but as the EU and UK drift apart, this is likely to become increasingly harder. This raises the question of whether Whitehall can come up with a status for Northern Ireland that is different from the rest of the United Kingdom. On the other side, the EU sees itself as also having responsibility for the Good Friday agreement. However, there are equally question marks over whether Ireland will be able to manage its external border differently than other EU states like Italy or Greece.

Finally, Prof. Cathryn Costello focused her remarks on the constitutional, political, and international cleavages generated by Brexit. In terms of devolution, Prof. Costello considers that in the Miller case the judiciary adopted a very orthodox reading of the constitution and missed out on the chance to provide a formal role for the local administrations. This left decisions almost exclusively to Whitehall, but the pressure for a more federal United Kingdom remains. In relation to Northern Ireland, she highlighted the extraordinary outcome of the election and the damage for the DUP by questions surrounding funding sources for the Brexit campaign.

Discussing her native Ireland, Prof. Costello agreed with Prof. Nicolaides that Dublin has an important role to play in the Brexit negotiations. However, she noted that when the British appear ready to throw everything away and leave, it is very hard for Ireland to play the role of honest broker. In turn, given the large role the UK has played so far in restricting the harmonization of policies that would harm Ireland, Brexit also raises a set of institutional questions about Dublin’s position in the EU. The EU has often been used to frame domestic political debates in Ireland, with European norms rarely directly questioned. As contestation of liberal democracy rises on the continent, Prof. Costello wondered whether it is not exactly the peripheral states like Ireland that might be the ones that come to the rescue of the EU, especially in areas such as migration and refugees.

Ivaylo Iaydjiev (St Antony’s College, Oxford)

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