Analysis & Comment

John Downing: 'Neither Ireland nor the EU blinked as the UK lost out – but are we blinkered?'

The EU did not blink on its own nor on Ireland’s behalf.

The UK, and particularly its true-believer Brexiteers, played a hopeless game from start to finish. But here’s a big question: who will be the real losers in this country?

Irish farmers, workers engaged in food production, transport workers, people engaged in tourism, wholesalers and retailers, every Irish person who goes to the shops each day? The sad answer is all of the above – near enough everyone – will be Brexit losers.

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So, was there a better way for the Irish Government to manage this often borderline no-win situation? Did we have to commit totally to Brussels? Or could we have helped cut some more EU slack for London?

In the wake of the June 2016 UK referendum shock it was hard to see a clear way forward. Ireland’s closest neighbour, with 1,000 years of totally interlocked history, and our second-largest trading partner, was leaving the trading bloc which was central to our economic, social and cultural view of life for more than four decades.

As the great historian Tony Judt wrote, Ireland had followed the UK into the EU in January 1973, along with Denmark, as though linked by an umbilical cord.

Over the past three years, right up to yesterday, we have heard the most committed Brexiteers, such as veteran Tory John Redwood, swear London would never impose a “hard Border” in Ireland. There has been a recurring vibe which said in essence: come to London and we’ll sort everything out – just as we have done since the creation of the Irish State in 1922.

It was an option worth considering. Take Irish-UK food exports. In 2016 these meat, dairy and beef exports totalled almost €5bn. Irish beef exports are worth €1.1bn. They could in a no-deal crash-out situation suffer 70pc tariffs and it is acknowledged that, if this one goes wrong, the beef sector faces wipe-out.

More than a quarter of total dairy exports worth €857m, including half of cheese exports worth €410m, go to the UK market. The World Trade Organisation potential tariff rate is equivalent to 49pc, on average costing €422m.

Urban dwellers might shrug and say farmers will get some level of compensation to break that fall. Workers in the food processing sector might not fare so well.

Nor will people depending on tourism work as potential UK visitors fretfully assess their finances and cancel holidays in this country. Equally, potential mainland European visitors might think they will get a better bang for their euro against sterling by holidaying in Scotland, Wales or England.

These are all rather like Ireland for many such would-be European tourists.

We could go on. But you’ll have got the gist.

So, now we wonder could Ireland have helped cut the UK some slack, especially as its political leaders are all up in a heap? Most of us will agree that gloating about our neighbours’ discomfiture, throwing in some pub rhetoric about ancient history, will not help any Irish worker make ends meet.

The reality is Ireland did seriously look at trying to go “the London route” on this one. On January 8, 2017, senior EU diplomats told this writer they were concerned that Ireland had not done enough to sell its case about the Brexit risks to peace on this island, given the real dangers of the return of a “hard Border”.

The blunt Brussels’ message was that Ireland was looking too much at the potential of influencing the United Kingdom. The message was being relayed strongly from the EU capital in many ways and it led to a change of direction in Dublin. Reality began to dawn: what was Ireland’s other option? Follow a very messed-up and deeply-divided UK in Brexit negotiations? Which UK line would we follow? Truly not much there for Ireland. Ireland and the UK made 45 years of mutual road in the EU. But the experience has been different and now the road has forked.

We are going to have to deal with a new set of relationships.

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