Ireland, the UK, and Brexit

by Danielle Miller

On May 14, the Irish Studies Program at IES was pleased to welcome Maynooth University professor John O'Brennan for a lecture titled “Requiem for a Shared Interdependent Past: Brexit and the Deterioration in UK-Irish Relations,” co-sponsored by the Center for British Studies, the Department of Political Science, and the Anglo-American Studies Program.

O’Brennan, who is also a member of the Irish government's Brexit Stakeholder Group, began his lecture by outlining the many ways in which Ireland will be negatively affected by Brexit. While much of the lead up to the 2016 Brexit referendum excluded Irish concerns from mainstream political debate in the UK, the 2017 Conservative-DUP agreement and gridlock over Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement have made the Irish border and controversial Northern Irish backstop center-stage issues. As a result, political and media attention on Ireland and Northern Ireland has grown. Northern Ireland, which voted 56% Remain, and especially Ireland, O’Brennan says, have a “real sense of regret” about the UK’s decision to leave the EU.

According to O’Brennan, the UK has found it difficult to leave the EU because it underestimated just how deep its legal and economic interdependence on member states and EU processes has been in the years since accelerated integration. The “extraordinary architecture of the EU,” O’Brennan says, has secured peace among member states at war in the 20th century, fostered diplomatic relationships through its bodies (like the EU Council), created formal and informal spaces in Brussels that allow actors and policies to intermingle, and has strengthened the relationship between Dublin and London. O’Brennan concedes, however, that the EU has been more beneficial for Ireland than the UK, since Ireland depends on the single market more than almost any other member state.

To prepare for Brexit, O'Brennan noted, Ireland has been engaging in robust political, economic, and diplomatic activities. The central priority of the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs is to inform other EU member states— especially in central and eastern Europe— and allies across the globe like the US, that maintenance of the Good Friday Agreement is crucial for peace. Within Ireland, the government has worked to diversify its export markets away from the UK, mobilize civil society, and redefine Ireland’s modern relationship with the EU as less about functionality for Ireland, and more about Ireland’s role in helping to shape the EU project.

During Q&A with a lively audience of 30, O’Brennan was asked about Ireland’s geopolitical status with regard to security and defense. O’Brennan noted that Ireland is not part of NATO and that this longstanding commitment to neutrality could be challenged moving forward. Another audience member noted that the growing media attention on Northern Ireland has brought a spotlight to the region’s local and creative sectors, building on O’Brennan’s earlier remarks that in some ways, Brexit may have benefits. For Ireland, Brexit could also mean attracting foreign university students who otherwise may have been bound for the UK.