Three lessons learned about Ireland, Brexit and referendums

I have recently returned from a short trip to Dublin where I had been invited to speak to the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin about Brexit and what the consequences could be for the British-Irish relationship. There are three main things I learned on the trip.

1. Ireland is worried about Brexit

There is a reason many people in Ireland are taking such a keen interest in the Brexit debate. The United Kingdom and Ireland have a common approach to many European Union issues and are usually allies in the council of ministers. And trade between the two countries is vital. Ireland is Britain’s fifth biggest export market. From January to November 2015 the UK accounted for 26.6 per cent of Irish goods imports and was the largest source of imports of goods for Ireland. We do a billion euros-worth of trade with one another every week. If Britain were to exit the European single market it is difficult to be sure what the impact could be on trade between our two nations.

2. Impact on Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland’s constitutional status is guaranteed by the Good Friday Agreement. We should not overstate the EU role in the peace process but the EU has played a supportive role with a specific funding stream for Northern Ireland, and the fact that both the UK and Ireland are in the EU has helped facilitate both cross-border trade and easy movement across the border. If the UK votes for Brexit – and does so in large part to limit freedom of movement – what happens to the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland? On top of this, the Scottish National party is likely to use a leave vote to trigger another independence referendum. Brexit is not just a debate about trade. There could be other consequences too. We cannot assume that if we leave the EU everything else will remain the same.

3. Yes Equality and lessons for progressives

The ‘Yes’ victory for marriage equality in Ireland last year is one of the few victories progressives in Europe have enjoyed in recent years. I met with one of the co-directors of the ‘Yes Equality’ campaign in Dublin to understand their victory and how they built a winning coalition for their own referendum. It is an inspiring story which led to Ireland being the first country in the world to introduce equal marriage through people voting in a referendum. The marriage equality campaign rooted itself in civil society, adopted a positive tone and sought to empower people and make them feel good about their voting choice.

In conclusion, we know that much of the ‘Remain’ campaign is going to be focused on the economy and jobs – the bread-and-butter issues that speak to families about why they are better off remaining members of the EU. However, we should not forget the constitutional implications. And there are lessons to be learned about what it takes to build a progressive referendum victory.

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Pat McFadden MP is former shadow minister for Europe. He tweets @PatMcFaddenMP

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Photo: Hachiman

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