Irexit: An Irish Goodbye

Irish Flag, EU in Flames, Irexit

Elliot Leavy

With the founding of Irexit Freedom to Prosper, Ireland’s first official party for leaving the EU, is an Irish goodbye on the cards?

An Irish goodbye is a when a person leaves a social gathering without bidding farewell. The phrase’s origin is thought to come from the Irish Potato Famine when many Irish fled for America and were often unable to ever speak or see their friends or family again. Tragic periods in history aside, what is the likelihood of such an Irish exit from the EU anytime soon?

For the time being at least, this seems unlikely. Current polls state that 76% of the Irish population are extremely happy with the EU and are keen to continue playing a part of it. €200 billion in debt, that’s probably for the best. However, Ireland’s relationship with the EU has by no means been a bed full of shamrocks – repeatedly rocked by rebellion since the country first joined the bloc alongside the United Kingdom in 1973. By looking at some these past rejections, we can perhaps find a few reasons as to why the Irish might kick the bucket of gold at the end of the EU rainbow in the future.

Seamus (Jim) Johnson working outside Gallarus Oratory, Co. Kerry, c.1960. (Richard Tilbrook/National Library of Ireland)

Farming Fears

When 54% of 34% of Ireland first voted against the Nice treaty back in 2001, one of the major reasons given for the rejection was the fear that nations within the EU would be overburdened by the rapid expansion that the treaty was proposing – with many of the agricultural subsidies Ireland enjoyed diverted to Eastern-European countries. This year, in light of Brexit, fears that the EU would become short-changed when it came to agriculture proved true as the union announced plans to cut the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) by 5%. The agri-food industry in Ireland generates almost ten percent of the country’s employment and gross value added to its economy in any given year, so this was of course noticed by the Irish Farming community.

In response, last January Taoiseach Leo Varadkar stated that Ireland was willing to pay more into the EU budget if this problem was addressed. By May Vradkar, just as Tony Blair before him, was proven to have been ignored. President of the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA), Joe Healy, stated that Varadkar had a big political challenge on his hands and that an increased CAP budget for Irish farmers had to be a “red line issue” for him in any future negotiations. The leaders of the smaller Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers’ Association (ICMSA) and Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association (ICSA) both echoed these concerns, labelling the cuts, “unacceptable”. These three associations alone, of which there are more, total 97,000 members.

Second Lieutenant Edward Francis Frazer, May 2nd, 1904. (Poole Photographic Studio/National Library of Ireland)

Neutered Neutrality

Another, and perhaps more symbolic, ‘red line issue’ for the Irish electorate when they first rejected the Nice treaty was the suggested participation of Ireland in a European army, an idea which failed to adhere to Ireland’s history of neutrality. A year following Ireland’s rejection, came the Seville Declarations in direct response to this concern, recognising the right of Ireland (and all other member states) to decide whether and how to participate in European Security and Defence Policy activities.

The electorates’ worries addressed, the second vote was swung in favour of the referendum with a 60% win at a total turnout of around 50%. However, to this day, the declarations are exactly that: declarations – holding no legally binding power whatsoever. Last week’s championing of a European Army (a topic once attributed to conspiratorial anti-EU madmen) by both Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron raises questions as to whether or not Ireland can ever hope to remain neutral, or if it will have to break its history of neutrality in the instance that war rears its ugly head – as it so often tends to do.

Edmund Becher at Castle Farm House, Lismore, Co. Waterford, c.1908. (Poole Photographic Studio/National Library of Ireland)

Repeated Rebellion

Seven years later after Nice, came the Lisbon Treaty. The Treaty was concerned with completing the centralisation of power which previous treaties (Amsterdam & Nice) had started. The second of Ireland’s two referendums, it was first rejected in 2008 with the Irish No campaign winning by 862,415 votes to 752,451 at a turnout of 53.1%. Many within the EU and the press decided that the Irish were simply thick. Neil Kinnock called the Irish vote “a triumph of ignorance,” commission vice-president Margot Wallstrom told officials to “work out what the Irish people had really been voting against” and Liberal Democrat MEP Andrew Duff through all niceties to the wind, dismissing the majority as an “odd bunch of racists, xenophobes, nationalists, communists, the disappointed centre-left and the generally pissed off”.  The EU had no plan B to Lisbon, however, and so once more the Irish were told to vote again. This time, they got the correct answer, with 67% of voters (out of a total turnout of 59%) ratifying the treaty.

What these scenarios demonstrate is that when the EU has overstepped the mark with regards to Ireland in the past, voters did not lie down and take it. They also suggest that with such a low turnout, there is a huge potential for disruption if this invisible electorate decides to cast their votes in the future.

So which other changes might the electorate find unsavoury enough to come out from the woodwork in the coming years? If human nature and our current climate are anything to go by, I can think of one.

Fisherman and boatbuilder Tadhg Devane at Portmagee, Co. Kerry, June 1963. (Richard Tilbrook/National Library of Ireland)

Lingo Lowdown

The ubiquitousness of English as a second language around the world has always been an important factor in its appeal as a migrant destination. As the UK leaves the EU and Ireland takes up this mantle, it leaves the Emerald Isle as the only English speaking country in the bloc. In this scenario, it is quite reasonable to assume that many who speak English as a second language will choose Ireland as their preferred destination. In a country whose attitudes towards immigration are worse than the European average, this could well spell trouble – especially when almost 1 in 5 people living in Ireland are immigrants already. To take the Troika’s own threat – parroted by Varadkar (then Transport Minister) himself in back 2010 –  the EU may find that if it does not listen to the local population going forward, then a little further down the road “a bomb will go off in Dublin.

Whatever the case, an Irish goodbye is unlikely to be on the cards anytime soon, this year’s two referendums could indicate that we are talking about a completely different Ireland today than ten years ago anyway. But such changes do not happen overnight, and the EU would be wise to remember that UKIP was formed over two decades before Brexit. With the founding of Irexit Freedom in September, it will take time to see how much of the luck of the Irish the EU still has under its belt in the years to come.