Brexit and Ireland


Ruairi Quinn, Treasurer of the Party of European Socialists and former leader of the Irish Labour Party writes for the Labour Movement for Europe on the effect of Brexit on the relationships between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

It is not engaging in hyperbole to say that Brexit poses the biggest challenge we as a people have ever encountered in peacetime. We must not forget the decades of violence, social breakdown, and fear, which preceded the Good Friday Agreement. Thanks, in no small part, to the UK Labour Party under the leadership of Tony Blair, the achievement of peace in Northern Ireland, is a European success story. The current position of Mrs May and her Government will inflict substantial damage on the economy of Northern Ireland, Ireland, and the UK; and endanger the peace process enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement.


The seriousness of the subject matter needs no embellishment. Brexit poses unprecedented political, economic and social challenges for Ireland. It challenges our prosperity. It endangers our peace.

Due to historical and geographical circumstances Ireland’s relationship with the UK is deeply rooted and complex. Ireland shares a land border with the UK and remains especially integrated with the UK in terms of trade, supply chains, migration and language. The UK’s withdrawal will have ramifications for all of the remaining 27 Member States, but the shock will be distributed asymmetrically, and the impact on Ireland will be greater than that on any other European country.

The potential impacts on the Irish economy are profound. €1.2 billion in trade flows across the Irish Sea every week. Ireland is six times more dependent for exports to the UK market than the EU average and much of that dependency is concentrated in the labour intensive SME sector, which has already suffered a serious loss of competitiveness due to the recent depreciation of sterling.

If the UK were to find itself outside the customs union, and unable to negotiate the ‘associate member’ status that Mrs May has alluded to, tariffs on cross-border trade on many goods, particularly agricultural produce, would be inevitable. Irish businesses trading with the UK would have to submit customs declarations, pay Value Added Tax on their products as they cross a border, and accept delays while waiting for goods to clear inspections. The OECD has estimated that the typical delays and costs associated with goods crossing borders can increase the transaction costs of trade by up to 24% of the value of traded goods.


The transformation of Northern Ireland from a region plagued by incessant violence into one characterised by peaceful co-existence has been made possible not only by Ireland’s and the UK’s joint membership of the European Union but also by the very existence of the Union itself. Providing as it does the institutional framework for building new common structures and providing credible guarantees that civil rights will be respected and enforced.

The withdrawal of the UK from the Union and from the Court will thus upset the equilibrium that has been created between the two governments and, more significantly, between the two communities in the North. Under the most malign scenario any change in the status and security of one community could lead to pressure for a change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, with the potential for a backlash should either community deem itself to be politically disadvantaged by developments.

The EU may be wary of allowing the UK too many exceptions in the negotiations, but it must be stated that the Peace Process in Northern Ireland is a European success story – a story of significant importance not only to a departing Member State, but also to Ireland, a remaining and committed member of the EU27.


The most severe impact of Brexit will be felt on the island of Ireland. If Brexit goes ahead as outlined by Mrs May in her Lancaster House speech before Christmas and as spelled out in the White Paper on the second of this month, it would inflict substantial damage on the economy and upset the peace process enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement. The Conservative Party has never had a grasp of the realities on the ground in Northern Ireland, and this current Government is the least attuned there has ever been.

Fewer than 350,000 people in Northern Ireland voted to leave the European Union. This is out of a total population of over 1.8 million. For many in Northern Ireland – where the vast majority of people are entitled to be Irish citizens, and therefore EU citizens – there is deep concern at the prospect of leaving the European Union and the civil right protections that it provides. The Good Friday Agreement, for example, is predicated on common Irish and British membership of the EU and of the European Court of Human Rights.

The Tories are putting the peace process in jeopardy, with their simple-minded decision to put the control of migration from the EU near the top of their agenda. If the border between Northern Ireland and the South is to be closed, and if the pre-EU conditions were to return to the form of customs posts, with the possibility of passport checks because of UK immigration controls, then the repercussions could be calamitous for both peace and prosperity.

Brexit has already proven divisive among the Northern political parties, and is likely to further exacerbate the region’s problems if it is not treated with the appropriate sensitivity to the North’s unique circumstances. In the upcoming elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, there is a real danger that the political debate will retreat into a sectarian partisan divide. This will result in an ineffective Northern Irish leadership, and which would lead to the marginalisation of Northern Ireland’s concerns.

A number of areas prove of vital importance in protecting the people of Northern Ireland, in which special arrangements will be required, including, but not limited to:

• Preserving the benefits of the Common Travel Area
• Preserving the unimpeded movement of people on the island of Ireland
• Preventing or minimising the visibility of customs controls on the border
• Securing the future of the all-island energy market
• Securing continued funding for the development of border regions
• Ensuring the continued stability of the Northern Ireland peace settlement.
• Ensuring any Brexit deal includes provisions that would allow Northern Ireland to join the EU immediately, if it chose in a referendum to unite with Ireland under the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement. This provision would follow the example of the EU’s absorption of East Germany on reunification in 1990.