Tuesday 23 January 2018

Three ways Ireland - and the Irish in Britain - will be in for a bumpy Brexit ride

Formal exit talks between the UK and the EU can commence (Stock photo)
Formal exit talks between the UK and the EU can commence (Stock photo)

Cormac Breen

Shortly after the vote in June last year, I had a coffee with a few friends, Irish and British.

The initial shock was wearing off; they assured me that wouldn’t be that bad. “They’ll sort something out.” Since then, as booming Britain continued to have a bumper Brexit boost, not all, but most, have been feeling this way.

The government has actively encouraged this mood. Theresa May will go into battle for Britain and will get the best possible deal, (almost) friction- and tariff-free borders, and will hand over nothing like the punishing €60bn divorce bill being demanded. Sure after all, they need us more than we need them.

However, deep principles and vital objectives are at stake. And not only are they economically incompatible – they are ideologically so. History indicates that when this is the case, it does not end well. The effects will be far-reaching. Here are three examples of how Ireland, and the Irish in Britain, will be in the thick of it.

The Divorce Bill

For the EU27, it is a given that there will be a settling of accounts arising from commitments given and responsibilities accepted. All the main actors have said this consistently for many months. In Britain, this is seen as an opening position – nothing but pre-fight bravado before a negotiation which is always described in adversarial terms. Very soon will come the realisation that what is said is what is meant. There will be shock and extraordinary outrage.

Cormac Breen
Cormac Breen

When Ireland makes clear its support for this declaration of war, things will be said. Ireland is no longer a friend to the UK. Ireland needs to remember how dependent it is on British trade. It needs to know its place in history.

It will take willpower not to rise to the provocation.

There’s constant talk of the British people’s views on EU immigrants. Are they a boon or a burden? What sorts do we want? How do we stop them taking advantage of us? Baron Hague of Richmond, the former foreign secretary, wrote yesterday:

”… Instead of trying to control the number of EU migrants, the U.K. could control the conditions under which they work here – no benefits, and no crime or they’re out. Otherwise give them permits to do the crucial work they do in the NHS and many other services or industries.”

People are talking about us, in dismissive and clinical terms, without realising, or caring, that we can hear them. Its odd, and actually a bit creepy.

So I hear a lot of people talking about leaving, though no one I know has left yet. But I suspect that there are many who are simply not arriving any more.

It’s very, very, unlikely that the Irish in Britain will lose their residency rights. But such is the pressure to reduce net immigration, they might lose their right of return. I foresee EU27 citizens who leave the country for more than, say, six months not being automatically let back in. I know of several who are applying for a British passport for this reason alone.

But in the short term, there will be, as always, plenty of jobs for us in building and construction – but not like before. Britain will need lots of new processes as it leaves the EU and its customs union. So if you can design, develop, build, implement, operate, regulate, monitor, apply, administrate, or indeed dispute the application of, a process, you will be in demand.

Read more: Special Brexit report: Irish passport applications have jumped - but what do the Irish living in Britain really think?

The North

Northern Ireland is never much in the news over here, except when there’s a riot. A remain-voting Conservative Party member told me that Northern Ireland was not in the top ten of his concerns over Brexit. So it’s not surprising that the implications - particularly of a return of the border - for peace, for the economy, for simply going-about-your-business, are only superficially appreciated. Talk of “no return to the borders of the past” and “as seamless and as frictionless a border as possible” is cynically disingenuous. The armoured watchtower will not return, but a humble red and white pole would cause more than enough disruption.

Consider what David Davis, the minister responsible for Brexit, said in evidence before a Commons committee.

"People say 'Won't Ireland be a route into Britain?' There are 50 million people landing at British airports every year. It's a very long-winded way to get into the UK to come via Dublin.”

Not with a low cost flight to Dublin and a bus up the M1. I see only three solutions: advanced and intrusive surveillance technology at the border crossings (facial recognition, for example); something like proof of destination address checks at Irish sea and air entry points, or UK immigration control retreating to the links between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Which of those would you chose?

So brace for a bumpy ride. They will sort it out in the end. But it will take ten years or so of upheaval and discontent, and we might find ourselves right back where we started.

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