In his Divine Comedy, Dante drew on ancient mythology to write: “The phoenix dies, and then is born again.” Brexiteers, neo-imperialists, and English nationalists predicted a similar rebirth for Britain once they voted to leave the European Union in 2016. By hastening the death of Britain’s ties to the EU, the Brexit Referendum of 2016 was supposed to trigger a return to a mythical time when Britain was a global player, acting on its own, unfettered by any commitments beyond its imperial interests. Three years on, we can safely say that phoenix has not risen from the ashes. The sun has set on the British Empire, and Brexit may relegate the country to an even more minor status within an increasingly globalized world.
While Brexiteer predictions of the re-emergence of Britain as a world power may have been premature, Brexit may indeed have ushered in a golden age for Britain’s smaller neighbor and a former colony: Ireland. Brexit will likely bring initial instability to Ireland, but the long term could see the country become one of the most influential players in Europe due to its unique economic, cultural, and political background as well as its traditions. Leo Varadkar, the former Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland, promoted this long-term vision of Ireland as an international hub by declaring, “We see ourselves as a global country, not so much an island behind an island at the edge of a continent, but rather an island at the center of the world.”
The Irish Department of Business, Enterprise & Innovation (DBEI) and the British Cabinet Office have both predicted dire short-term consequences for Ireland in the aftermath of Brexit. Undoubtedly, the country could plunge into a crisis over the border with Northern Ireland, which common EU membership had eliminated as an issue. A newly “hardened” border after a no-deal Brexit could throw the future of Northern Ireland into turmoil and bring back the rhetorical and actual combat that marked the era of “the Troubles” before the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. There has been an uptick in dissident Republican violence through groups such as the “New IRA” since the Brexit referendum, and this could worsen. The “New IRA” has set off bombs in Derry and infamously killed Lyra McKee, a local journalist, while she was standing near police officers during a riot. At the same time, however, McKee’s murder sparked public outcry among the local population who started a “Not in Our Name” campaign rejecting any return to Republican terrorism. Indeed, polls have consistently shown that the local population is wary of violence and does not want to return to “the Troubles.” Similarly, economists have predicted that the Irish economy could lose as much as 6 billion euros. This short-term loss could be painful, but the EU has already drawn up a multibillion-dollar aid package to limit the damage. Thus, the possibility of violence and a short-term economic downturn, while real, could be manageable.
In the longer term, post-Brexit Ireland could undergo a political transformation that would allow the country to develop significant political clout on the world stage. For one thing, Brexit has made unity a when not if question in Irish discourse. Sinn Féin, the leading nationalist party in Ireland, has recently called for a unity poll and found that 86 percent of Irish people would prefer a united Ireland in a post-Brexit world. The arguments for maintaining the union with Britain are also consistently failing in Northern Ireland. Traditionally, moderate unionists argued that Britain was more economically prosperous, socially liberal, and globally responsible than the backward Irish Republic, but their allegiances could now turn as the UK appears to become the “backward” nation and Ireland thrives as a bastion of liberal democracy. Alex Kane, a local journalist, estimates that at least 150,000 moderate unionists could be persuaded to join a united Ireland. Furthermore, the major parties in the Republic support the European Union. During a time when right-wing nationalism is on the rise through Europe, the Irish remain steadfastly committed to the principles of European integration. Polls have consistently shown that between 70 and 90 percent of the Irish support the EU and believe they have benefited immensely for it.
A post-Brexit united Ireland would most likely see a shakeup of the Irish party system. The current major parties in the Republic of Ireland are Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and the Labour Party. These parties have tended to promote pro-business and “centrist” politics. Sinn Féin, on the other hand, portrays itself as a more left-leaning party, and is the only party that currently contests elections in both North and South. It also enjoys the most support among the Irish diaspora in the United States. With those advantages, Sinn Féin could become the largest party in a united Ireland. It would certainly find itself playing an important role in future government coalition plans. Northern Ireland’s political parties, for their part, would be forced to find a new political agenda or merge with existing parties. Unionist parties, such as the conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who enjoy strong evangelical Christian support in Northern Ireland, could rebrand themselves to appeal to traditionalist Catholics who feel disenfranchised by the socially progressive politics of the last decade in the Republic. This could lead to a coalition of the Catholic and Protestant right into a viable Christian Democratic Party. Similarly, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which has traditionally marketed itself to middle- and upper-class Irish nationalists, could find new life by merging with Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. In fact, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael forming a government together in 2020 increases the likelihood that they may one day merge together to combat the rise of Sinn Féin. This would create a thriving political scene within the nation that represents the ideologies of left, center, and right.
A peaceful and prosperous united Ireland could become the poster child of the European Union and a powerful ally for the United States. The EU would undoubtedly use the successes of a united Ireland to preach the benefits of membership. Ireland will become the main economic link between the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union. The country has already become the center of gravity for U.S. multinational businesses. American enterprises in Ireland employ over 150,000 people and paid 4.25 billion euro into the Irish economy in 2017. Most importantly, American financial institutions, including Bank of America and Morgan Stanley, have committed to relocating from London to Dublin in the aftermath of Brexit. Ireland could see itself gaining a large chunk of the 1 trillion-pound financial services exodus from the United Kingdom within the next few years. Ireland is one of the United Kingdom’s largest trading partners. Britain exports over 5% of its goods to Ireland, which matches or exceeds exports to larger markets such as China, Italy, and Spain. Britain also imports 16 billion euros worth of goods from Ireland every year. Ireland also remains Britain’s friendliest ally in Europe, but this relationship will change as Ireland will negotiate from a position of strength as a member of the EU27. Thus, the United Kingdom will become more dependent upon Irish trade while Ireland can diversify its portfolio through U.S and European investments. Post-Brexit, these conditions will be amplified, and Ireland could act as a nucleus between America, the UK, and Europe in the same fashion as Singapore does between Asia and the West.
Ireland’s importance will grow post-Brexit due to its cultural traditions and heritage links. As Britain leaves the European Union, Ireland will become the only English-speaking nation in the EU and the country most linked to America through shared cultural heritage. Daniel Mulhall, the Ambassador of Ireland to the United States, has called Ireland the natural bridge between Europe and America due to the strength of the Irish diaspora in the United States. Mulhall suggests that Ireland has the “most intensive relationship” with Washington because of shared “cultural norms.” Shared culture and the strength of the Irish-American lobby will make Ireland the chief liaison between America and Europe. Moreover, Irish schools are bracing themselves for increased enrollment from international students due to their status as the largest English-speaking country in the European Union. Private high schools are gaining a “Brexit bounce” in enrollment as students from Korea, China, Spain, France, and Germany flock to Ireland. These students would have traditionally attended English high schools, but Ireland will continue to become a more enticing prospect as the country continues to enjoy a favorable relationship with the European Union. Irish universities believe this will have a positive impact on their standings in world rankings, so they are ramping up investments in their infrastructure. Trinity College Dublin is planning a 1-billion-euro makeover that would involve building a campus on 5 acres of land in Grand Canal Quay in Dublin. Most recently, Trinity, which has become the fastest growing business school in Europe, opened a new 80 million euro home for it. A potential united Ireland would also benefit from having Northern Irish schools such as Queens University and Ulster University within their system.
There is much uncertainty in a post-Brexit world, but Ireland seems to be in a unique position to capitalize on it. Economic and political uncertainty in Britain could remain for at least a decade after Brexit. This uncertainty, combined with the view that the nation has become obsessively nationalistic, has ensured that European and American investors, students, diplomats, and tourists will turn elsewhere. Ireland seems most likely to benefit from this situation due to its unique cultural background, political connections to most of the world’s major players, and status as an essential investment hub. Politicians in Ireland are already thinking about benefiting from Brexit by positioning the nation as a small, forward-thinking bastion of liberal democracy. David McWilliams, an economist and faculty member at Trinity College, has referred to the island as the “Singapore of Europe,” a vision that the political establishment is happy to promote. In fact, Leo Varadkar, the first openly gay and youngest ever Taoiseach in Irish history, has also supported progressive policies such as same-sex marriage and the legalization of abortion, creating what, Leo Varadkar called a “modern Constitution for a modern country.”
The major obstacle for the working people of Ireland is that the ruling elite has demonized the most vulnerable members of society. The politics of the ruling elite has created a socially liberal power structure. Still, it has not been accompanied by a meaningful economic program that would allow the working-class to thrive. Unemployment has fallen, but rent prices have drastically outstripped wages. Rental prices in Dublin have skyrocketed by over 23 percent, while homelessness has increased by 280 percent since 2014. Working people have suffered, but Leo Varadkar created a campaign titled “Welfare Cheats Cheat Us All” instead of combatting poverty. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that Ireland must invest in infrastructure, healthcare, schools, and social safety nets to ensure the nation’s future. For better or worse, Ireland has come a long way from the restrictive and inward-looking country it has been for much of its modern history. However, social liberalism and symbolism will run hollow if we do not reform the economy to benefit more than large corporations and the wealthy.
Euroskeptics, neo-imperialists, and English nationalists believed they were promoting an English national renaissance through Brexit, but they have seen their phoenix struggle to rise from the ashes. Ironically, they may have done a better job facilitating the growth of Britain’s “smaller sibling” and first colony. Understanding these possibilities, Ireland’s politicians should work to create a situation in which a united country becomes a leading conduit between America, Britain, and Europe. Merging a renewed economic influx from across the globe with a comprehensive reform program that could help the working-class would mean that the long-term prospects of the Emerald Isle have never sparkled more brightly.
Conor Joseph Donnan is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also on the board of several non-profits including, a compassionate listening organization named Someone To Tell It To.