The United Kingdom’s historic decision to leave the EU has stunned Brussels and sent shock waves through Europe. The Scottish government has threatened to hold a second referendum on independence, jeopardizing the kingdom’s unity. And in Ireland, the vote threatens to derail a fragile peace process and undermine a recent economic recovery.

Over the past four decades, the EU has transformed Ireland’s relationship with the United Kingdom. Before both countries joined the bloc, in 1973, Ireland had achieved political but not economic independence. Its economy was rural and underdeveloped, leaving it reliant on British markets for its products. In the words of the French author Jean Blanchard, Ireland was an “island behind an island,” its ties with its larger neighbor defined by a combination of supplication and resentment.

EU membership drew the poison out of the relationship. It provided Ireland with new markets and a fresh political forum in which it remade its partnership with the United Kingdom and its European neighbors. Over a period of a few decades, Ireland’s agricultural economy was transformed into a postindustrial one, undergoing, in quick succession, a massive economic boom, a nasty crash, and a partial recovery. As Ireland grew, it stopped defining its identity solely in relation to the United Kingdom and instead began to see itself as a small, successful northern European state.

Ireland did not have to choose between Europe and the United Kingdom, since the latter was also a member of the EU. Sometimes, Ireland was constrained by its larger neighbor, as when it declined to join the EU’s Schengen scheme for border-free travel—despite the Irish government’s desire to do so—on the grounds that it already had a similar arrangement with the United Kingdom, which did not want to join the Schengen area. Usually, however, the tradeoffs were uncomplicated and easy to accommodate.

After last week, however, Ireland will no longer be able to have it both ways. If it wants to maintain good ties with the EU—and all indications suggest that it does—it will have to disentangle itself from the United Kingdom.

The Irish government did what it could to persuade the United Kingdom to stay in the EU; at the same time, it quietly prepared for a possible Brexit and has already announced contingency plans to manage changes over the short run. However, Ireland also faces broader challenges, depending on the terms of any deal the United Kingdom strikes with the EU after its departure.

If Ireland wants to maintain good ties with the EU—and all indications suggest that it does—it will have to disentangle itself from the United Kingdom.

The most immediate problems involve Northern Ireland. After Brexit, the western border of the EU will cut straight through Ireland. Today, the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is largely invisible, meandering along hedges and rural byways and sometimes cutting through farms.

In the future, border controls will have to be tougher. This may be a tall order: the British government will have a hard time maintaining control in the so-called bandit country of South Armagh, for example, where Irish nationalists have traditionally despised its presence. Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, has already started to argue that there should be no border between Ireland and Northern Ireland as part of its campaign for a united island. These pressures may destabilize the uncertain peace between nationalists, who are mostly Roman Catholic and want Northern Ireland to join Ireland, and unionists, who are mostly Protestant and want Northern Ireland to remain a part of the United Kingdom. Radical republicans, who have never been reconciled to peace, may turn again to large-scale violence.

A bar in Dublin has specially made a Brexit beer for the results of the British EU Referendum called "Big Mistake" in Ireland, June 2016.
A bar in Dublin has specially made a Brexit beer for the results of the British EU Referendum called "Big Mistake" in Ireland, June 2016. 
Clodagh Kilcoyne / Reuters

In the past, European largesse helped to support peace in Northern Ireland, providing regional development and agricultural funds and funding reconciliation efforts. Ireland and the United Kingdom will find it difficult to replicate some of these efforts on their own. The EU has funded the Prison to Peace project, for example, a meeting group for formerly imprisoned paramilitaries that has encouraged dialogue among former enemies. Given renewed austerity measures, it will be hard for the Irish or British government to step in and provide such support when the EU withdraws.

What’s more, the EU provided a space for former political rivals to get to know one another. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which led to peace in Northern Ireland, noted that Ireland and the United Kingdom were partners in the EU, as guaranteed in the European Convention on Human Rights. Nationalists in Northern Ireland now worry that Brexit will weaken relations between it and Ireland and fear that the United Kingdom will soon withdraw from the European Convention.

A second set of problems involves the economy. The United Kingdom remains Ireland’s most important export market. If the EU drives a tough deal with Britain after its exit, trade is likely to be disrupted. Depending on the exact terms of the deal, trade between Ireland and the United Kingdom could be subject to significant tariff and non-tariff barriers, damaging the Irish economy. Ireland’s recent partial recovery has given the government sufficient leeway to ease austerity measures and increase spending. Brexit will likely put such progress on hold.

Of course, the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU may also create opportunities for Ireland. London’s financial sector is aghast at Brexit, since it may mean that British firms will no longer be allowed to use “financial passports” to export financial services to EU customers. This may lead some companies to relocate their activities to Dublin, which is English-speaking, has well-educated workers, and already has a significant financial services sector. However, the Irish government will have to invest in better transportation and communications infrastructure and build new housing in Dublin if it is to make a strong bid for new business. This may be difficult in uncertain economic conditions.

Finally, Brexit has complicated the already complex relationship between British and Irish citizenship. Ireland and the United Kingdom share a common travel area, making it easy for Irish and British citizens to live in each other’s countries and vote in most of each other’s elections. Irish residents of the United Kingdom, for example, were entitled to vote in the Brexit referendum. Under the Good Friday Agreement, anyone born in Northern Ireland is entitled to Irish citizenship, as is anyone who has at least one Irish grandparent.

After the Brexit vote, a flood of British citizens, worried about losing the benefits they enjoyed as EU citizens, have rushed to apply for Irish citizenship. The Northern Irish politician Ian Paisley, Jr., has encouraged his constituents to apply for Irish passports while they still can. Meanwhile, Ireland’s foreign minister is begging U.K. residents to hold off from applying so as not to overwhelm the passport system.

For now, Ireland can try to square its two objectives—staying committed to Europe while maintaining strong ties with its most important neighbor—by influencing the exit deal the EU strikes with the United Kingdom. Although Ireland’s voting strength is limited by its size, it may be able to play a valuable intermediary role. The United Kingdom will be eager to have a friend on the other side of the bargaining table. Ireland can informally represent the British position to Europe and vice versa. This will, in turn, allow it to advocate for its own interests. Ireland will likely want a deal that is favorable to the United Kingdom on trade issues, but that limits the consequences for the free movement of people of British anti-immigrant sentiment.


When the United Kingdom leaves the EU, its own union may also dissolve. British national identity is a recent historical construct that may now be falling apart. Scotland’s government is already talking about holding a second referendum on independence. And Northern Ireland voted in favor of remaining in Europe, although it is unlikely that a majority of Northern Irish voters will want independence or reunification with Ireland anytime soon.

As the United Kingdom’s constitutional fabric threatens to unravel, Ireland may have an important role to play.

As the United Kingdom’s constitutional fabric threatens to unravel, Ireland may have an important role to play in the institutions that will shape the region’s future. Ireland and Northern Ireland already hold regular North-South Ministerial Councils, in which they cooperate on policy areas such as health, the environment, and transportation. The British-Irish Council—sometimes called the Council of the Isles—provides a forum in which Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the administrations of Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales meet to discuss issues of common interest, including environmental and energy policy.

In the short term, Brexit is likely to disrupt these arrangements. Cooperation will be far harder when some members are governed by EU rules and others are not. Over the longer term, however, these institutions might be transformed. For example, if Scotland votes for independence, a revamped Council of the Isles could assume a critical role in managing relations between the newly independent state and the United Kingdom, as well as providing opportunities to reshape relationships with Northern Ireland and Ireland.

Demonstrators take part in a protest aimed at showing London's solidarity with the European Union following the recent EU referendum, in London, June 2016.
Demonstrators take part in a protest aimed at showing London's solidarity with the European Union following the recent EU referendum, in London, June 2016.
Dylan Martinez / Reuters

In the worst-case scenario—if the United Kingdom ends up with only a limited economic and political relationship with the EU—Ireland’s future will be compromised. It will have to make difficult choices about its border with Northern Ireland, economic policy, and citizenship. Opting for stronger relations with the United Kingdom in any one of these areas will damage relations with Europe, and vice versa.

Yet if the Irish government is able to shape the EU’s deal with the United Kingdom—as well as the future of the kingdom itself—it may well transform its long-term relationships with both the United Kingdom and Europe for the better.

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  • Henry Farrell is Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @henryfarrell.

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