How does Brexit influence the economic and political development in Ireland, in your opinion?
Well, it’s a major issue for us. Britain is Ireland’s largest trading partner in the world, and Britain is Ireland’s number one food export destination. It accounts for about 40% of all our Irish food and drink exports. That includes consumer goods, beef, poultry, sheep, meat, seafood, horticulture, cereal products. Trade in services between the two countries is now increasing too: in the fields of clean technology and electronics, and in the engineering sectors.
Of course, our annual trade from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland is about €1.5bn annually too. That covers, again, food, beverages and manufactured goods.
If any restrictions were to be put in place relating to trade in goods and services between Ireland and Britain, this would have a very negative economic outcome.
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So it’s incumbent on all the parties here, political, business, trade union, farming, civic society, to continue to highlight the political and economic viewpoint that maintaining both the common travel area arrangements between Ireland and Britain into the future and our trading areas as well is vital.
Because whilst I think it’s 14%, maybe it’s 15%/16%, or something in that order, of our trade goes through the UK, that really masks the true reality. When you look at the indigenous Irish companies, away from the multinationals, the pharmas, the medical companies, it’s well over 40%. So it is a big market, and they’re the indigenous companies that employ probably 85% of the people in the small business sectors. So, you can see from that that Brexit has a huge effect on everyday trade between the two countries.
You’ve just mentioned the potential economic impact of a changed relationship between the European Union and the UK, but there are also very specific circumstances in Ireland itself. Do you think that the Good Friday Agreement could in any shape or form be affected by Brexit?
Well, we hope not. The Good Friday Agreement is an international agreement, lodged with the UN. While we totally accept that the European Union takes the driving seat in negotiations on trade, and a lot of other matters, there are many clauses within the Good Friday Agreement where there’s a European mention – where it clearly states that issues to do with Europe, differences on Europe and strategies within Europe, should be discussed between the two governments.
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This holds in strand one, which is within the parties in Northern Ireland, at the Executive, and at the Assembly in the North; in strand two, between the Dublin Government and the administration in the North; and in strand three between Dublin and London.
So I have been saying in a number of speeches, both in Northern Ireland and here in the Republic, and I said it in the House of Lords a few weeks ago, that I believe because of the special circumstances of both the Good Friday Agreement and the close relationship, and the fact that we have the common travel and trade areas, that there should be also be direct negotiations between the Dublin Government and the British Government.
To make sure that none of the issues that have been covered in the Good Friday Agreement, issues like the border, border control, the 300 miles of borders, what kind of checkpoints, what kind of powers, are left to one side … All these issues are hugely important to the island of Ireland, and it would concern me that we wouldn’t get the same platform to be able to talk about these issues in a European context, because Europe will be looking at all the European issues.
I think we have to find a platform for talking directly about the issues that affect Ireland and Britain, and particularly the relationship between Northern Ireland and the South, and between Britain and Northern Ireland and the South.
Obviously consult in Europe as well, but talks directly with the British.
If there is economic as well as political change how do you think that the relationship between Ireland and Northern Ireland, and especially the border, might develop? What are the biggest issues in this respect?
Well, this is the big area. My feeling is we have to consolidate upon the gains of the peace process over the last 20 years. Any final agreement that the British Government reaches with the European Union must enshrine two key elements that are of critical importance to people living on the island of Ireland.
Firstly, people must be able to move freely between Britain and Ireland, without restriction and in an unencumbered manner. Such a system of having free movement of people between our respective countries predates British and Irish membership of the European Union.
Somewhere between thirty and forty thousand people cross the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland every day. Ensuring that people can travel and move easily does support the concept of retaining an open border. In my view, an open border supports cross-community cooperation, future development, the tourism sector, and it can create more business opportunity.
Secondly, and maybe more importantly, we must ensure that the common trading area between Ireland and Britain remains in place. As I said earlier on, there’s trade going on every week – worth just over €1bn a week.
The European Union has also been to the forefront in supporting the peace process on the island of Ireland for 30 years now. I was Mayor of Dublin at the time. They were supportive of the international funds for Ireland programme when it was set up.
The European Union has always backed different EU peace programmes that have been put in place. The European Union, as I have always said, is itself a peace process. And they’ve put so much money, in different ways, into Northern Ireland. Not always economic, but I think a lot of the funds were to help cross-community support and to help to get people working together.
I also think the strong foundation that underpins the structure of the single market is the protection of the four freedoms. Freedom of movement, goods, services, capital are all intrinsic parts of the single market.
And nowhere does that work better than in the island of Ireland, because they all interact with each other to build on the peace process.
About 10% of the money that runs Northern Ireland comes directly from the European Union. Now, I know the British Government has said money will be replaced, but with all the other demands it will be hard to see that.
Northern Ireland, again because of the Troubles over a long period, 30 years, needed many years to settle down.
Whether it’s the Common Agricultural Policy, or the European Regional Development Fund, or the Social Fund, the Maritime Fisheries Fund, the territory across borders funds, they are all big subscribers to Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland will be a huge beneficiary of the Research and Technological Framework, the FP7 programme.
And they got lots of money under Erasmus. That has helped to keep young people in Northern Ireland, under the educational programmes, rather than see them going away. This year the European Union has allocated €150m towards cross-border programmes.
So it’s huge money that’s gone in from the European Union and so the amount of people that are tied into that directly, the communities that are tied into that, are huge in number too.
The promotion of urban and rural regeneration. Developing cross-border programmes. Financing social inclusion measures. Finding new ways for local communities to work together in the spirit of partnership. Financially backing a lot of bottom-up initiatives that deliver upon the key objectives of the peace programme. Helping conflict workshops and key events that support victims and survivors.
So it is an enormous amount of direct aid that Europe is giving.
Let’s broaden the topic a bit. There’s not just been Brexit now. Most recently there’s also been Brexit plus plus plus in the United States.
How do you think that the election of Donald Trump is changing the Brexit dynamics, and the way in which the European Union and Britain will approach the upcoming negotiations?
Well, I would be surprised if there wasn’t a smile on some of the Brexiteers’ faces. I think they would have been happy, because they would see opportunities.
One of the most consistent things that President-elect Trump has been saying is that he doesn’t like trade agreements, and specifically he doesn’t like trade agreements between big blocs.
So one would see the opportunity, and I think because the relationship was there I suppose in Reagan’s time, and Bush’s time, the British Government might have an inside track in being able to push direct deals.
Now, the best of luck to them, but I think this means that the European Union has to change gear fairly quickly and try to convince the new American administration come the springtime…
Nothing will happen until spring or summer, in my view, because we all know the way it takes so long for people to get into position in America. It usually takes six months.
I would fear and think that Trump would make some of these decisions before everyone is in place. He will say on trade issues: “This is what we’re going to do”, and start the process far quicker.
So I think that gives a very short window of opportunity, or if not opportunity, then of necessity, of just moving very, very quickly, for the European Union to try to see where they can get an agreement on trade with the United States.
I think if Hillary had been elected they might have been able to say: “Well, we need to be looking at 2018 or 2019.” I think now they have to be looking at 2017, and that changes the mindset in an extraordinarily different way.
Well, in a sense this could be actually the source of more antagonism between Britain and the European Union. If it’s true what you say, and Britain moves to get an inside track, obviously before Brexit is executed, it’s in breach of EU trade rules.
Yes. I think maybe what Britain would have been originally doing, they may have been saying, “Well, listen, we have to negotiate everything within two years.” Let’s say two years from next March, which would have been March 2019.
They might have been saying, “Well, we will also negotiate that we have a hangover period in the trade relationships. That we can’t do everything within a two-year period.”
I think, from their point of view, they have a positive card now. Because rather than saying, “Well, we might need a bit longer. Yes, we will sign up, but we might need a bit longer”, now maybe it’s the EU that will be looking for things to be done in a faster way. So it changes the dynamics, no matter what way you look at it.
I think a lot of the cards now rotate to being with Britain in the negotiations. I think that’s a plus for Britain – and a minus for the European Union.
Bertie Ahern, thank you very much for the conversation.
This is the latest contribution to a new Social Europe Project on ‘Europe after Brexit’ organised in cooperation with the Macroeconomic Policy Institute of the Hans Böckler Stiftung and the Bertelsmann Stiftung.