We held four informal meetings on our visit to Dublin: with members of the Oireachtas Committees for Foreign Affairs, European Affairs and Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement; business representatives; Frances Fitzgerald, Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equalities, and Dara Murphy, Minister of State for European Affairs and Data Protection and officials; and with Michael Creed, Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and officials.
During these meetings we heard views about the potential impact on Ireland of the UK exiting the EU, and about the importance of maintaining the close connections between Ireland and Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The main concerns we heard related to possible consequences for trade, possible impacts on the peace process in Northern Ireland and the importance of maintaining the Common Travel Area (CTA).
Ireland is a committed member of the EU, but it has a close relationship with the UK and has particular concerns, such as membership of the CTA and the Northern Ireland peace process, which require engagement with the UK and which it wishes to protect. Brexit is seen by many in Ireland as the biggest economic challenge for a long time. We were told that Ireland has good communications with the UK Government and with the European Commission, and that Michel Barnier understands Irish concerns about Brexit.
Some of the comments made by people we met were:
The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) is something to be proud of, but it is still a process and not a finished product. It followed 30 years of traumatic events and the peace must not be disrupted.
The EU has a good understanding of the implications of Brexit for the peace process. The UK and Ireland must work together to identify possible solutions, although a bilateral agreement between the UK and Ireland is unlikely to be acceptable to the EU Commission.
Ireland is committed to the EU, but wants to keep strong business and trading links with the UK as far as possible, and wants the UK to have a good relationship with EU.
Ireland and Northern Ireland both benefit from the lack of a border but there are conflicting messages coming from the UK Government. Ireland believes that the EU will require customs checks at the border and there may also need to be checks on the movement of people. But border posts could act as a lightning rod for dissidents: if there are border posts and physical controls, they will become targets.
A hard Brexit will risk trade and jobs in Ireland. It will need serious political will between the UK and Ireland to ensure productive bilateral discussions. Even customs checks on the border could have serious effects. Ireland is not optimistic about the future need for customs checks given that it will have EU obligations to protect the border with a third country. Even the least intrusive measures using technology look politically unacceptable and like the re-emergence of a hard border. There is no obvious technical solution which is politically acceptable.
A strong economy and prosperity for people living in Ireland is an important factor for continued stability. The ability to cross the border freely has helped to increase employment levels. Some business sectors such as agriculture are vital to the economy but are dependent on quick and easy movement of goods across the border. For example, the milk and farm economies in the island of Ireland are so intertwined they cannot be unravelled.
Agriculture is an all-Ireland sector of the economy which relies on a seamless cross border operation. Any impediments will put jobs at risk. If the UK were to revert to WTO terms both the UK and Irish markets would suffer. It would be a problem especially for the agri-food sector which would have a major concentration of high tariffs and also a range of non-tariff controls. UK consumers are used to existing agriculture product standards and this could be undermined if the UK started trading with countries with less rigorous standards. It would be very helpful for Ireland to be an indication as to whether the UK might choose to maintain its existing environmental and carbon footprint standards.
Ireland and the UK currently have good opportunities for regular contact at EU meetings and this forum will need to be replaced to maintain strong links between the Irish and Westminster Parliaments.
There is great interest in Brexit in Ireland, and a lot of work is already being done in Cabinet Committees and in each government department examining potential implications for Ireland. All areas are being examined, but the broad priorities for the Irish government are the economy, trade and agriculture (because of the amount of cross border trade); implications for the GFA, given that its status is protected by international treaty; and the CTA.
North–south policing arrangements have never been better; there is currently strong cooperation and very good relations and data sharing in an international European context, and that must continue.
The CTA is very important to Ireland. Citizen entitlements and reciprocal rights are very important, and Ireland would be very concerned if any changes were made. It would be in Ireland’s interests to see progress on maintaining the CTA early on in the negotiation process.
Interim arrangements will be required to continue cooperation on justice issues such as tackling terrorism and organised crime. When the UK leaves the jurisdiction of the CJEU, it will have a huge impact on a range of issues. Putting in place a new relationship between the UK and EU will be a long and complicated process and it needs to be orderly. It will take many years to replace all the necessary instruments. Having a cliff edge is the other option, in which case both Ireland and the UK might be glad of interim arrangements.
3 April 2017