Irish eyes aren’t smiling – when it comes to Brexit. As one who hails from the Emerald Isle, I’ve taken plenty of ‘schtick’ from Irish diplomats, relatives and pundits after publicly voting to leave.
For the Republic of Ireland, European Union membership carries deep political significance. Joining in 1973, along with the UK but on equal terms, was hugely symbolic. A country then less than 30 years old was finally able to represent itself on the world stage. It is this escape from British dominance, more than Brussels-funded motorways, that makes EU membership central to modern Ireland’s identity.
Liam Halligan and James Forsyth discuss Theresa May’s Brexit plans:
That’s why Brexit causes such unease – the gnawing sense that, yet again, Ireland will suffer from the seemingly thoughtless actions of its much bigger neighbour. The UK accounts for a fifth of Ireland’s trade, driving one in ten jobs. Will Britain leaving the single market harm the Irish economy? Will no more ‘freedom of movement’ stem the flow of Irish youngsters that have long ‘gone to England’ for work?
I was pleased Theresa May was careful to mention Ireland in her big Brexit speech this week. Safeguarding joint UK-Irish interests was an eye-catching fourth among her twelve stated objectives during upcoming EU negotiations. And, even before confirming that freedom of movement will end, the Prime Minister said ‘maintaining a Common Travel Area with the Republic of Ireland’ will be ‘an important priority’.
The lack of formal borders dates back to the formation of the semi-independent Irish Free State in 1923. Since then, travel between the two countries has required minimal or no documentation. Post-Brexit, though, that could be tricky. If the UK and Ireland have open borders, Brussels may argue, why not the UK and France?
The flashpoint, of course, is the land border between the Republic and the North – which, until little more than a decade ago, featured military checkpoints.