THERE IS a good case to be made for welcoming the opportunities that Brexit offers Northern Ireland business. Down South, the mood has changed from believing Brexit would never happen, to seeing it happen, to a realisation of the change it must bring to the Republic’s economic outlook. It needs to decide on its best options going forward – and soon.
Nothing new, but there have been hugely irresponsible noises coming out of Dublin to the effect that Brexit means a return to violence in Northern Ireland. The only return to the past being indicated is the use by the Republic’s politicians of events related to Northern Ireland as a distraction away from the economic and political realities on its own doorstep.
Republic of Ireland exports and business life are principally oriented towards two of the world’s largest economies: the UK and the USA. A lot has been made of the EU "single market of 500-million people". However, once the UK leaves the EU, the combined markets of the UK, Canada and USA are within the ballpark of the EU population, but with a greater nominal GDP.
With UK departure, the Republic will be sending almost two thirds of its exported goods (and the same of its services) outside the remaining EU 26, and purchasing around two-thirds of its imports from outside the 26, according to the most recent Irish 2015 Central Statistics Office figures.
And while much is made of arrangements to take goods from Dundalk to Letterkenny having to pass through the UK, that volume of trade is minor compared to trade flowing between the continent and the Republic moving across UK motorways from British port to British port.
Arrangements for goods crossing UK territory will cost money and effort, and no doubt the Republic will make a case for special EU funding in that regard. It should. It is already a net contributor to the EU (likely to increase significantly without the UK’s £12bn contribution); not counting the payments to French and German bondholders as Ireland’s cost of shoring up the Euro.
On the upside, the Common Travel Area will continue. Irish citizens have more rights in the UK than those of British Crown Dependencies. There is little indication that the British Government has any interest in repealing the clauses of the 1949 Act that effectively treats Irish citizens as British in all but nationality.
The UK and the Republic are both outside the EU’s Schengen area. When Irish politicians shout that Ireland would not pay for immigration checks for those travelling to the UK, there’s clearly a lack of awareness that co-operation at that level already happens on a mutual basis under existing protocols.
Once Article 50 is triggered, the Republic of Ireland will be one voice in 27 at the negotiations. While the UK will not wish to compromise its good relations with the Republic, by the nature of negotiations it can only secure agreement with the 27 among which Ireland is a single small voice.
The Republic of Ireland has a significant choice to make in the next year or so. Does it make the best of its membership of the EU, and the significant disruption to trade and relationships this represents? Or does the Republic accept that its economic interests lie outside the EU, making common cause on trade and development alongside its biggest trading partners and friends?
Once Article 50 is triggered the discussion between the UK and the EU27 will focus on the nature of future trade, not constitutional, arrangements post-Brexit. Truth is, as Lord Kilclooney recently wrote to the News Letter:
"The two alternatives are for the Republic to get special status within the EU or for the Republic to exit the EU the same day as the UK – that would mean there would be no problems at the border and would eliminate the damage now being caused to the Southern Irish economy."