Brexit: The Irish Dimension

Series Title
Series Details May 2018
Publication Date May 2018
Content Type

The negotiations for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU had been greatly complicated by the unique relationship between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. The two countries, though often at loggerheads in the past, had enjoyed a closer and more constructive relationship since they both joined the European Communities in 1973.

Mutual membership of the EC/EU had fostered increasing economic integration and underpinned the co-operative handling of past disagreements. It had thus paved the way for a more positive relationship. In particular, EU membership had enabled the often contentious issue of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, (notwithstanding the fact that there was the Common Travel Area for people and the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Area Agreement for goods before the UK joined the EC), to be managed in a way that had eased community divisions and stimulated economic growth in both countries.

The prospect of Brexit had led to fears that the improved cross-community relations that followed the signing of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement in 1998 could be undermined. This was partly because the British Government had decided that the UK would not remain in the EU’s Single Market or Customs Union after Brexit, which would ordinarily mean the restoration of customs and other checks on what will become an external border of the EU.

In addition, the EU was specifically referred to in the text of the Good Friday Agreement. Northern Ireland voted to Remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum while the UK as a whole voted to Leave.

The situation was further complicated by the outcome of the 2017 general election, which resulted in a hung parliament with Mrs. May’s Conservative Government dependent for its working majority on a confidence and supply arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The DUP was the largest of the Northern Ireland political parties and it had campaigned for the UK to leave the EU.

In this briefing the SEE examined the issues at stake in the Brexit negotiations specific to the island of Ireland, including the implications for the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement.

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ESO: In Focus: Brexit - The United Kingdom and the European Union

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