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Brexit has the Irish government worried - here's why

Taoiseach Enda Kenny will be visiting Prime Minister David Cameron in Manchester in the coming week.

Image: Matt Dunham

WHILE BREXIT HAS been on the radar for some time now, it is only in the last week the campaign on this side of the Irish Sea has kicked up a gear.

In just under two weeks, the people of the UK will vote on whether or not they want to remain part of the European Union. Debate has been raging in the UK media – and the Irish government isn’t shying away from making its voice heard either.

Ireland has been putting work in behind the scenes for over two years, preparing for either outcome in the referendum. One senior government source said it would irresponsible not to.

Why so concerned? 

The government’s position is it wants our nearest neighbours to stay. Officials are pretty worried about the ramifications if the UK parts company with the EU.

Ireland’s campaign has intensified with the announcement that Taoiseach Enda Kenny is to meet UK Prime Minister David Cameron in Manchester in the coming week.

Speaking recently, Kenny said a Brexit would likely have an adverse impact on trade between the two countries.

He also suggested a possible return of border or customs controls, saying that such issues would require “some very serious negotiations” between the governments of the two jurisdictions.

The Kenny visit is the culmination of the recent cross-channel charm offensive. A steady conveyor belt of ministers have already been sent across the water to meet with Irish communities.

Diplomatic channels between Ireland and other European countries have also been tended to. Government officials are effectively telling anyone who will listen they think a Brexit would be bad news for Ireland.

In addition to all that the government has even thrown its weight behind the social media initiative ‘#phoneafriend’ which encourages people to get in touch with family and friends in the UK and urge them to cast their votes for the ‘Remain’ camp. 

Meantime, a special inter-departmental taskforce has been established to look at the Irish response in either outcome. 

The Northern question

What would a Brexit mean for Northern Ireland?

That’s been the main issue grabbing the headlines on this side of the Irish Sea – and this week British Chancellor George Osborne travelled to the North for a two-day trip to make the case for staying in. 

Osborne also raised the issue of a return of border controls if the UK left Europe, and also insisted the move would trigger a “profound economic shock”.

The possible need to reimpose border controls is being taken seriously by the government, which has already examined how many customs officers and border control units would be necessary if Britain leaves the European Union. Revenue is investigating the practical implications – like how much reinstating the border checks would cost.

Trade

Aside from the question of the North, there is also the interdependence of the two economies to consider, with €1.2 billion worth of trade taking place between the UK and Ireland each week. The UK exports more to Ireland than it does to Brazil and China combined.

How the markets react to the initial result is also of concern, with assessments showing Sterling could devalue 10-15% in the short term after a ‘Leave’ vote. It almost goes without saying, that would have a major impact on trade and tourism.

The government is very conscious of the impact a ‘Leave’ vote could have on Irish workers in the UK, with concerns raised at the highest political and official levels.

Other concerns surround the impacts it could have on other industries such as agri-food and fisheries, as well as the financial industry.

Impact on agriculture 

Focusing on just one sector, the Irish Farmers’ Association President Joe Healy and the new agriculture minister Michael Creed both warned that a British exit from the EU would be very damaging for the farming and food sector in Ireland.

Healy said the UK is the most important agri-food export market for Ireland, accounting for over 40% of Irish agricultural exports.

It is the destination for over 50% of our beef, 60% of our cheese, €350m worth of pigmeat exports and almost 100% of our mushroom exports. It is a high-value market, with customers sharing the same language and with similar consumer preferences as Irish customers.

Minister Creed said some 800,000 jobs are directly or indirectly dependent on UK trade in the Irish economy.

4/4/2016 Talks on Forming a New Government Michael Fitzmaurice Source: RollingNews.ie

The other side 

There are some in Leinster House who disagree that a Brexit would be a catastrophe, meanwhile. Former Independent Alliance TD Michael Fitzmaurice, who declined to join his colleagues in the independent grouping in government in the wake of the election, said the UK should leave the EU.

According to the Roscommon-Galway deputy:

As many people would know I am no admirer of what Europe has done to this country and other countries and I do hope the British people take the plunge and get out of it.

He said there are many other countries outside the EU which are “fully functional” and have bilateral agreements with the EU.

The two year ‘cushion’ for an exit would allow for planned procedures to be put in place, according to Fitzmaurice. He added:

Anybody that tells you [it would be a] disastrous day in agriculture is delusional, in my opinion. There is a lot of scaremongering going on, I think the British people should be allowed decide for themselves. 

What could a Brexit aftermath hold for Ireland?

On another political level, Sinn Féin has been calling for a border poll in the event of a ‘Leave’ vote.

According to Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness:

If there is a vote in Britain to leave the EU there is a democratic imperative to provide Irish citizens with the right to vote in a border poll to end partition and retain a role in the EU.

And while in reality it’s difficult to predict what will happen in the event of a ‘Leave’ vote, the government is continuing to collect inputs from a range of stakeholders in the private and public sector.

It should be stressed – while the government here acknowledges that the UK and Ireland have a special relationship, any negotiations held after the referendum would be between all 28 member states, not just Ireland.

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