Irish Ambassador Speaks about challenges of Brexit, benefits of US-Ireland relations at FIU’s European and Eurasian Studies Program

Flyer advertising the event. Courtesy of FIU’s European and Eurasian Studies Program.

Michael McEwen // Staff Writer 

After nearly five decades of membership in the European Union, the United Kingdom in 2016 voted to leave the regional body, marking a radical change in political and economic cooperation throughout the British Isles. 

“Nobody in Ireland is too worried about the fact that some of our laws are made at the European level. For me and most Irish people, we shrug our shoulders and say, ‘Well, that’s fine, it’s part of the deal. What’s the problem?’.” said Daniel Mulhall, the Republic of Ireland’s 18th Ambassador to the United States. 

“In Britain that’s not the case–there simply wasn’t that buy-in to the idea of pooling sovereignty with European neighbors.” 

Mulhall spoke at FIU on Nov. 16 as a guest of the European and Eurasian Studies Program about various regional effects of the United Kingdom’s exit, as well as relations between the Irish Republic and the United States. 

Mulhall has served as Ambassador in seven countries, among them Germany, Malaysia and England, where he was posted when the 2016 referendum to leave the EU passed by a margin of 52 to 48 percent. 

While the economic effects of Brexit have proven combative in domestic British politics, the sudden shift it has caused in neighboring economies has also been profound. 

“There’s no good Brexit from an Irish point of view,” said Mulhall. “We are the only European Union country that has the biggest exposure to the UK market in percentage terms, which means that Brexit creates particular problems for our trade with the UK.” 

Brexit: A Bane to Regional Trade? 

As ambassador, Mulhall works for the government of the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state which gained independence from English rule after a 1921 peace agreement ended a five year conflict. The agreement ultimately decided that 26 counties of the island would form the Irish Free State, as it was known then, while six would remain part of the United Kingdom, forming what is now known as Northern Ireland. 

A map displaying the partition of Ireland between the Republic, whose territory comprises much of the island, and Northern Ireland in the north. Courtesy of © OpenStreetMap contributors

The economies of the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom have historically been closely linked, according to a study published by PA Consulting – an international management consultation group. Dating back to the establishment of the Euro in 1999, the UK has been Ireland’s principal export destination, when in turn the Irish economy has imported the highest percentage of goods from its southern neighbor, by far the largest share of the UK market. 

With the United Kingdom’s exit from the European single market, free trade practices guaranteed between the member states became defunct, a phenomenon that particularly affected the Republic of Ireland, according to Mulhall. 

“Even though we now have a free trade agreement between the UK and the EU, there are still administrative burdens which make trade more difficult to pursue,” he said. “On that front alone Brexit is potentially a major challenge to Ireland’s economy.” 

However, Mulhall believes the regional economic disarray caused by Brexit may bring with it inadvertent benefits for the Irish economy. 

“The silver lining is that we reckon about 100 companies have decided to move some of their operations from Britain to Ireland,” he said. 

“What it means is that a lot of companies have decided to set up an operation in Dublin, have themselves regulated by the central bank of Ireland, thereby they’re regulated through the European Union.” 

A History of Partition

Mulhall’s diplomatic career began in the Irish Foreign Ministry, where he rose to Director-General of the country’s European Affairs department in the mid aughts, a role which involved directing Irish policy in Brussels. 

Prior to that, he served as a member of the Secretariat of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, an effort established by the Irish government in 1994 to facilitate a peace agreement in Northern Ireland’s three decade long ethno-nationalist conflict known as ‘The Troubles’. 

The Republic of Ireland’s 18th ambassador to the United States, Daniel Mulhall. Photo via Twitter. 

Fought between Irish Nationalist paramilitaries seeking to reunite Northern Ireland with the Republic–and Loyalist paramilitary and state security forces seeking to prevent that–the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 marked the end of a conflict in which more than 3,500 deaths occured, of which reportedly half were civilians. 

Aside from bargaining peace between two violent factions, one of the most paramount changes in the agreement was the removal of a so-called ‘hard border’ between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. 

“Into the 1990’s there was a hard border in Northern Ireland, and that border was there for two reasons. First of all because there were customs controls between North and South, and secondly because there were security reasons,” said Mulhall. “After the Good Friday agreement and the arrival of the single European market, those controls disappeared completely.”

With the UK–and most importantly Northern Ireland–no longer EU member states, trade at the previously unmarked border was now subject to customs controls. 

“Brexit changed the status of that border from an internal border within the EU with no need for any controls to an external border between a European Union country and Northern Ireland, part of a non-EU member state,” Mulhall said. “That was always going to be a problem.” 

The lack of consideration as to what a ‘hard Brexit’ would mean for the Irish border became apparent two years ago, when former UK Prime Minister and initiator of Brexit, Theresa May, left office. May’s resignation placed the burden of a developing trade crisis with the neighboring EU member state on incoming Prime Minister Boris Johnson. 

Should a ‘Hard Brexit’ necessitate the installment of a border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, its construction would separate several communities and thoroughfares connecting the island. Map Courtesy of © OpenStreetMap contributors

Known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, the agreement worked out between the EU and the UK in 2020 initially allowed the border on the Irish mainland to remain open while Northern Irish imports would now be subject to customs checks. 

“In particular, it provides for an open border on the island of Ireland in perpetuity,” explained Mulhall. “In return for that open border, and Northern Ireland essentially having the status of a quasi-member of the European union, the British government agreed to introduce checks on the Irish Sea between Britain and Northern Ireland.” 

“Norway achieves that by being outside of the European Union, but they pay a substantial sum every year into the European Union budget in order to get the access to the single market that Northern Ireland is getting for free,” said Mulhall.

In addition to this preferential access to the European single market, Northern Ireland will continue to benefit from trade arrangements that are a part of the territory’s membership of the United Kingdom. 

Uncertainty over the Protocol has sparked concern over the return of sectarian violence to the island. As negotiations over Britain’s exit from the European Union continued, fears over renewed Irish nationalist violence in response to British military presence at a possible land border grew.  

Instead, in March of this year a broad coalition of loyalist paramilitary groups with ties to The Troubles penned a letter to Mr. Johnson announcing their resignation from the Good Friday Agreement, citing a disaffection with parameters set out by the Protocol. 

Following this proclamation, two hijackings in as many weeks of commuter buses in Northern Ireland were claimed by a fringe loyalist paramilitary group known as the Protestant Action Force, or PAF, in which both buses were emptied of their passengers and then burned. 

A sign fixed to a lamp post gives the message that the Loyalist people of Armagh do not accept the Northern Ireland Protocol, part of the UK Brexit process. Photo via Getty Images

Trade disruptions relating to the customs checks have also led the Johnson administration to accuse the EU of applying trade controls too rigidly, causing some concern that the United Kingdom may pull out of the deal altogether, likely leading to the construction of a hard-border between the two countries. 

Mulhall believes that a renewed relationship between EU member states and the current administration in Washington could play a leading role in settling this dispute. 

“This is where the United States comes in, because the US government has said very firmly that they want to see the Good Friday Agreement protected, and they want to see the open border on the island of Ireland protected,” he said.  

At a press conference last year, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi reiterated that if the Johnson administration were to pull out of the Protocol and unilaterally violate the Good Friday Agreement by imposing a border, any future trade deals between Washington and London would be blocked by Congress

“This is a big aspiration for the British government, because a trade deal with the U.S. is designed, in their view, to compensate for the losses that will be sustained in their trade with the European Union,” explained Mulhall. 

Four members of the U.S. Congress’ Foreign Affairs Committee echoed this sentiment in a statement last week, calling on the United Kingdom to implement the Northern Ireland protocol. 

In an effort to assuage London’s concerns enough to avoid the UK’s departure from the Protocol, the EU offered to reduce checks on food and other goods imported into Northern Irish ports by 80%

“It’s a little hard for us to understand how this agreement reached less than a year ago could now be so controversial in Britain, given that the EU has made a herculean effort to make it as easy to implement as possible,” said Mulhall. 

However, as a more than 40 year veteran of European Union politics, Mulhall remains hopeful for the future of the institution in spite of current challenges posed by Brexit. 

“The European Union has coped with challenges that go way beyond Brexit, and I think Brexit has actually had a positive effect on the EU because it underlined the difference between membership and non-membership,” he said. 

“Who could have imagined the EU would remain solid in its support for Ireland when negotiating with a country ten-times our size? EU support has been genuinely impressive.” 

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