So, here we are. With Britain leaving the European Union, the Irish economy is finally – after almost a century of independence – about to definitively choose Europe as its future. It’s the only possible choice given Britain’s political path since 2016. But the ongoing carnival of the Brexit process should not blind us to the fact that the coming months will have more significance for Ireland than that of Britain just leaving the EU.
For Brexit will also herald the official end of the Anglo-Irish economic partnership which has been the bedrock of Irish economic policy since independence in 1922. It has been an arrangement that has served Ireland well (for the most part) through war, political instability, economic chaos and the occasional bout of Anglo-Irish shadow boxing. For all the protestations of “Europeanness,” Ireland’s post-Brexit economic landscape is far less certain.
Forget the Irish border or tall tales of the imminent break-up of the United Kingdom. The real tragedy of Britain leaving the EU is the break in economic continuity which has been carefully crafted (within the European framework since 1973) between all parts of the previously restive British Isles.
The policy of economic continuity followed by all Irish governments since 1922 has not been based on some impulse to preserve the status quo or slavishly follow British practice. This was a consistency of policy followed by every Irish leader; from W.T. Cosgrave in the 1920s to Bertie Ahern in the 2000s. It was based on the economic reality – driven by geography, trading flows and access to capital – that permitted the surest, and least disruptive, path to further Irish economic development. It survived Ireland’s neutrality in the Second World War, the declaration of an Irish Republic in 1948 and even the terrible violence in Northern Ireland from the 1960s on.
This is not a narrative that fits well with the contemporary retelling of twentieth century Irish state building. A story of Irish dependency resulting in decades of low growth, high unemployment and continuous emigration. A tale of an economically-captive Ireland still subject to the might of the British chequebook. The reality is that the impediments to progress - both economic and social - that hampered Ireland up to the 1990s were largely home-grown, not directed from some shadowy lair in Whitehall. Official Ireland was still fantasising about rural idylls and the Protestant, Irish Times-reading menace in the late 1940s, while the rest of Western Europe was rebuilding with Marshall Aid.
But the onset of Brexit has changed the narrative again in both Dublin and Brussels. Now, it is plucky little Ireland – globalising, liberalising, pro-European – pitted against a populist-sating, regressive Britain. In this context, the political symbols of Brexit are emphasised – the Irish border question, for one – as an example of Ireland’s progressive, immaculately coiffured European credentials.
But such an approach, while understandable in the context of events since 2016, fails to acknowledge the meaning Ireland (and Britain) derived from the continuity offered by the much deeper Anglo-Irish economic partnership. Even Ireland’s great globalisation since the 1990s has been facilitated, not hampered, by our proximity and deep economic ties to Britain. The initial growth of the International Financial Services Centre (IFSC) in Dublin was driven by Anglo-American firms based in the world’s great financial centres, New York and the City of London.
Even Ireland joining the then EEC was only made possible when Britain joined in 1973. The Irish economy was simply too embedded in British frameworks to join without them, and too poor to remain isolated looking in. Ireland was like a supermarket coupon, a “buy one get one free” for the Brussels eurocrats with Britain as the real prize. Ireland will remain outside the EU’s Schengen, barrier-free travel zone, even after Brexit. The reason? Ireland’s centuries old free travel area with Britain is simply more important.
Economic ties run deep, far deeper than the changing political currents that crash around above them. In October 2010, the Tory-led British government granted Ireland a £7 billion bilateral loan in order to ensure economic stability in the midst of our modern bankruptcy. For all the subsequent Brexit rhetoric of “Global Britain,” the loan represented Ireland’s importance to Britain as a trading partner and the degree of British exposure to Ireland’s financial sector. We are providing this money “for a friend in need” the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne noted - a friend to which Britain “exports more … than to Brazil, Russia, India and China put together.”
But today, Ireland has no choice but to dig deeper into the European mainstream. For Ireland, the modern British message is too toxic, too imbued with the scent of imperial ardour for there to be any other choice. Britain, for its own reasons, has chosen to leave the European framework which has further enlarged the Anglo-Irish economic partnership in recent decades.
In theory, this is the opportunity that Irish policymakers have been dreaming about since independence. But there is danger, too, in Ireland’s stampede to embrace its European future. Without a pause, denied a space to reflect, Ireland (once again) risks repeating Britain’s mistakes. Because being trapped in a reimagined, idealised version of your history will ensure you cannot reconcile properly with the economic and social challenges of the future. That would be the true tragedy of Brexit for Ireland, and a sad epitaph to the economic partnership which defined our twentieth century freedom.
- Dr Eoin Drea is a Senior Research Officer at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies and a Research Fellow in the School of Business at Trinity College Dublin.
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