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Ireland and Brexit: Behind the Facade

How ordinary Irish people think Brexit will affect the Republic of Ireland.

January 26, 2017

Flak of the UK and the EU merged

There are few countries that are as extensively and intricately intertwined as are Britain and Ireland. Their deep historical, cultural, political and economic ties are arguably unparalleled.

Of all EU member states, Ireland will therefore be the country most affected by the UK leaving the European Union – apart from the constituent parts of the United Kingdom itself, of course.

Very close partners

Even the briefest and most superficial examination of their relationship will corroborate this. Approximately 500,000 Irish live, work and study in the UK and millions of British citizens claim Irish Ancestry.

The UK is Ireland’s biggest trading partner, with €1.2 billion worth of goods and services traded between the two every week.

The UK is also the largest single market for tourism to Ireland, accounting for almost 50% of all overseas visitors and roughly one-third of all tourism revenue.

From integration to “extegration”?

Complicating the matter further is the issue of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. An estimated 18,000 workers and 5,200 students cross the border every day.

The UK exiting the Single Market and the European Customs Union would mean a return of customs checks, effectively creating a so-called “hard border.”

This, according to Sinn Fein, would have a detrimental impact on the economy in the north and across the island of Ireland.

Ever since the referendum on June 23, 2016, Irish politicians, economists and political analysts alike have been debating what exactly the impact of Brexit will be.

Although Prime Minister Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech on 17 January provided a little more “clarity,” many things about how Brexit will play out are still unknown.

What do Irish citizens think?

But what do ordinary Irish citizens think? In order to gain an insight into Irish perceptions beyond the official discourse, since I live in Ireland myself (as a foreinger), I asked ten random people from different walks of life.

Of those asked, five were women and five were men, aged between 16 and 63. My exact question to them was: How do you think Brexit will affect Ireland?

The responses from my random sample reflect a broad spectrum of opinion. These can be broken down into four rough categories:

  1. Worries about the economy (4 out of 10)
  2. Worries about the freedom of movement (3 out of 10)
  3. Worries about Northern Ireland (2 out of 10)
  4. No worries because Brexit will have little or no effect (4 out of 10)

What is noteworthy is the ages of those who were pro-EU, anti-EU or simply apathetic towards it. In the Brexit referendum, the majority of younger voters voted to remain while the majority of older voters voted to leave: 18-24 years (75% remain), 25-49 years (56% remain), 50-64 years (44% remain) and 65+ years (39% remain).

The young just don’t care

With the people interviewed in Ireland however, the opposite was true. Older respondents were more pro-EU, while younger respondents were either more anti-EU or quite simply did not care.

Though this was too small a sample group to make an authoritative poll of overall Irish perceptions – which was never the intention of this article – how younger respondents viewed the EU was nonetheless surprising.

Furthermore, although the question asked was “how do you think Brexit will affect Ireland,” no one mentioned – even fleetingly – the implications of Brexit for the wider EU.

This suggests that losing the UK was not viewed as an existential threat to the EU’s legitimacy nor to its continuing existence.

Had this been the case, it is presumable that it would have been mentioned, at least in passing, even though it was not explicitly asked.

An irrational hope?

While talking with people, the overall impression I got was one of disbelief – almost like it was all some kind of dream. Although intellectually, all the people I spoke to knew that the UK would leave the EU, emotionally it seemed like they had not yet accepted it.

I sensed that deep down many people still did not think it will actually happen – that Brexit would just… go away.

Only one person actually said so, however. This impression was gleaned from things that the written word cannot convey to the reader – eye movements, hand gestures, pauses, smirks, frowns, tone of voice and so on.

The recent Supreme Court ruling in London that the UK government cannot trigger article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty – thereby officially beginning its withdrawal from the EU – without consulting Parliament will surely reinforce that feeling here.

But even with Parliament getting to vote on the issue, it is unlikely to block Brexit. Article 50 will be triggered sooner or later and, when it finally is triggered, the reality of Brexit will bite.

Then we will see who was right about what effect it will have on the Republic of Ireland. Whatever the tangible effect, one thing is certain: it will have an emotional impact here far beyond what is quantifiable.


Losing the UK was not viewed as an existential threat to the EU’s legitimacy nor to its continuing existence.

Intellectually, most people knew that the UK would leave the EU, emotionally, they had not yet accepted it.

Of all EU member states, Ireland will be the country most affected by the UK leaving the EU.