An Irish Brexit Parable

It’s hard to follow Brexit without my Irish hat on. Because Ireland is both the best argument for leaving Europe, and the best argument for staying in.

The argument for independence

Ireland left the UK in 1921. At the start of the breakup in 1916, most Southern Irish were in favour of staying in. At the time, leaving the UK would have been seen as a jump into the unknown.

The pro independence camp harked back to Grattan’s Parliament – a short-lived Irish national Parliament in the late 18th century, which coincided with a period of prosperity. The argument went that political independence would lead to good times.

The pro-independence side won the argument (or should I say, won the war). And by the time Ireland declared independence in 1921, most people were in favour of it.

But independence was not an unqualified success. For 70 years, the economy didn’t really get going. Millions emigrated to places like Britain, the US and Australia. Ireland was an economic backwater.

Independence wasn’t easy. But the thing is, the vast majority of Irish people wouldn’t have had it any other way. Ireland felt like it should be a sovereign nation. Nobody was pushing to re-join the UK. And eventually, the economy turned around.

The Irish State might not have been terribly effective. But at least it was legitimate, and legitimacy matters a lot. You can’t deny Leavers that one.

The argument for integration

Ireland’s economy took off in the 1990s and didn’t stop for 15 years. What happened was that lots of foreign (mostly American) companies started to locate in Ireland. They ploughed billions into building new factories and offices, and hiring workers.

Why Ireland? The first main reason is that Ireland had been assiduously courting foreign investment since the 1960s. The second is that Ireland was a member of the EU – the biggest market on the planet.

Because Ireland was a member of the EU, international businesses could operate from there and sell into EU markets. And they could hire good people from all over Europe.

The crash in 2008 knocked the country back, but it’s come back strongly in the last five years. The old formula of EU membership, low taxes and openness to foreign investment / workers is still working.

The EU has been a spectacular success for Ireland (euro membership aside). Ireland has become per capita one of the wealthiest countries in the EU, from one of the poorest. It’s a much more modern and international place than it was. If you want a clear-cut example of how integration with the outside world can make a country better off, look at Ireland.

Talking across each other

Of course the parallels aren’t exact. A referendum on leaving the EU is not equivalent to a war of independence to found a new nation state. And EU membership hasn’t given the UK a golden goose the way it has Ireland (ie foreign direct investment).

But I think there’s something to it. Brexiters talk about sovereignty and legitimacy, like the Irish pro independence camp did in 1916 (back then they were called rebels).

Remainers speak a different language. They talk about the concrete benefits of EU membership, like how it benefits the financial industry or the farmers or tourism, or how it preserves peace.

They’re both reasonable arguments. A democracy needs legitimacy to function. And the whole point of its functioning is to deliver concrete benefits, like peace and a healthy economy.

Me, I lean remain. I’m an Irish EU passport holder, working in the UK. I care a lot about practical issues like trade and free movement of people. I don’t see the EU as illegitimate, the way Leave voters do.

But then I wouldn’t be expected to. That would be like asking an Englishman in 1916 to understand Irish independence.

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