Guest post by Mary C. Murphy, University College Cork. This article is part of an ongoing blog series ‘Brexit Countdown’ by the Political Studies Association of Ireland (PSAI) and Political Studies Association (PSA).
Fears about the implications of Brexit for Ireland have had a profound impact on the Irish body politic. Even before the 2016 UK referendum, the state apparatus was heavily focused on confronting and addressing the dangers and risks associated with (a possible) Brexit. This kind of political and administrative mobilisation has been important and necessary, but it comes at a considerable cost.
The political and administrative resources of the Irish state have been mobilised to deal with Brexit in a myriad of ways. Two Taoisigh (Prime Ministers) – Enda Kenny and Leo Varadkar – have seen their premierships dominated by Brexit. The current Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, has spent a disproportionate amount of his time working on Brexit-related matters.
Irish officials, particularly those in the Irish Permanent Representation in Brussels, the Department of the Taoiseach, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade have been heavily focused on Brexit diplomacy and negotiations.
At a practical level, the Irish civil service and various state agencies have been involved in the organisation and administration of several new initiatives including: the All-Island Civic Dialogue, the Brexit Stakeholder Forum, the ‘Getting Ireland Brexit Ready’ initiative, the Brexit Loan Scheme, and the Brexit Call Centre for Agriculture, amongst others.
The Oireachtas (Irish parliament) has been similarly consumed by Brexit. Many parliamentary committees have devoted time to Brexit inquiries and hearings. During the first quarter of 2019, Oireachtas proceedings have been completely dominated by Brexit preparations to the near exclusion of any other legislation.
The passage of the Brexit Omnibus Bill through the Oireachtas was a necessary and vital legislative endeavour. It prepares Ireland for the possibility of the UK leaving the EU without a deal and is one of the largest and most wide-ranging pieces of legislation in the history of the Irish state. However, as Brexit dominates the government agenda, all sorts of other new laws have been (temporarily) side-lined and domestic projects have been affected by Brexit contingencies.
For example, there are concerns that in the event of a no deal plans to tackle climate change will be delayed. The replacement of data retention laws following a successful legal challenge have been put on hold to make way for the Brexit Omnibus bill deliberations. The roll out of rural broadband – a project which has already been mired in controversy – may be affected by the need for a Brexit bailout for farmers. The Taoiseach has advised that new indicative cost figures for the delivery of rural broadband will only be publicised following the Brexit outcome.
The government has also committed significant financial resources to support Brexit preparations. In its 2019 budget, €110 million was set aside to combat ‘the political challenge of a generation’. This is arguably just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the overall financial cost associated with preparing for Brexit.
From Ireland’s national perspective, Brexit poses an obvious set of immediate and urgent challenges and there is an onus on the state to be proactive in meeting those challenges. Irish Brexit preparations, activities and initiatives have enjoyed broad cross party support and public approval. There has been little serious criticism of the government’s contingency planning during the Brexit crisis period.
But Brexit has effectively meant that the Irish state has been forced to spend a disproportionate amount of time, money, resources and human capital preparing for an event which remains doggedly unclear.
When viewed through this lens, Brexit planning has come at a very high cost. Other political and policy priorities have been overshadowed by the Irish government’s heavy focus on Brexit, and it may take years to correct the imbalance.
For this reason, the impact of Brexit has been even more nefarious than we might assume because it has interrupted the legislative agenda, distracted from major domestic projects, absorbed civil service energies, redirected government finances, and reoriented Irish policy priorities. Brexit is effectively influencing the content, timing and focus of the domestic policy-making agenda.
And even should the UK leave the EU with a deal, there will continue to be a need for the Irish government to remain vigilant and engaged with negotiations on the future UK-EU relationship into the future.
Brexit, it seems, will continue to have an invidious impact on the Irish policy landscape for many years to come.
Dr Mary C. Murphy is a lecturer in politics at University College Cork. She is the President of the Irish Association for Contemporary European Studies (IACES) and is currently working on a three-year ESRC project ‘Between two unions: The Constitutional Future of the Islands after Brexit’ with colleagues across the UK. She is the author of Europe and Northern Ireland’s Future: Negotiating Brexit’s Unique Case (Agenda Publishing 2018).