New Brunswick·Analysis

The Brexit effect on Ireland

Irish CBC journalist Redmond Shannon analyzes what the Brexit vote could mean for Ireland as he prepares to move back to his home country.

The Irish government says it is in the worst position of any country following U.K. vote to leave EU

A truck crosses the bridge from Blacklion, Republic of Ireland, into Belcoo, Northern Ireland, at the open border. (AP Photo/Shawn Pogatchnik)

Irish journalist Redmond Shannon has worked for CBC News for seven years. He moves back to Ireland this week, after 17 years living abroad.

In 1988, my parents brought my sister and me on a summer vacation to Portrush, Northern Ireland.

Some of my parents' friends thought they were nuts.

"You'll be be driving around The North in a southern registered car? Are you crazy?"

That year saw more than 100 people die in Northern Ireland's civil conflict, euphemistically referred to as "The Troubles."

But north we drove.

We split up the 400-kilometre journey from Limerick over two days.

Before we approached the border checkpoint on the first evening, my dad told my sister and me to keep quiet.

We did. Of course we did! The soldier who was questioning my dad had a gun. I'm not sure I had ever seen a gun in real life before that night.

My sister, who was then aged nine, told me recently she remembers feeling scared.
Northern Ireland's voters sided against Brexit, at 55.8 %. (Peter Morrison/Associated Press)

Anyway, on we went, and it was a wonderful week that included a trip to the famous Giant's Causeway along the Northern Ireland coast.

We also took a moment to stop by the cenotaph in Enniskillen, where a bomb had killed 11 people on Remembrance Day, just eight months before.

Even aged 11, I had a sense of how lucky we were to be living down south, where deadly bombings weren't something we had to worry about.

A few years later, the first signs of Northern Ireland's peace process began to appear, and today the border is fully open.

In many spots along the frontier, there is little to indicate you're crossing from Ireland into the United Kingdom. Just some firework stores on the northern side, or signs warning motorists that speed limits are in miles, not kilometres.

Brexit intervention

The Brexit vote was closely watched in Ireland, but few believed it would actually pass.

Nonetheless, the prospect of the U.K. leaving was so worrisome to Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, that he actively campaigned in Britain, urging the sizeable Irish community there to vote Remain.
Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny speaks during a press conference in Dublin Friday June 24, 2016 after Britain voted to leave the European Union in an historic referendum. ((Niall Carson/PA via AP) )

It's difficult to know if he had any effect, and ultimately it doesn't really matter now.

The U.K. is leaving the EU, and the implications for its only land neighbour and the border are, at the very least, significant.

The most immediate effect has been a huge spike in applications for Irish citizenship.

The Irish embassy in London had 4,000 passport enquiries on Monday, according to Reuters. That compares to a normal rate of 200 a day.

Anyone born in Northern Ireland is automatically entitled to become an Irish citizen, and post offices there reportedly ran out of application forms over the weekend.

Even prominent unionist (pro-British) MP Ian Paisley Jr. encouraged Northern Ireland residents to become dual citizens. A sign, as if one were needed, that these are strange days indeed.

Border conundrum

Paperwork and passports aside, it is at the border where things could get tricky.

Before I explain that, I acknowledge that many of us are a little shaky on how the U.K. actually fits together.

If that's you, I can highly recommend CGP Grey's wonderful video explaining the difference between the British Isles, the United Kingdom, Britain and England.

First of all, if the British government begins reducing the ability for EU citizens to live in the U.K., then something will have to give in Ireland too.

That's because if the land border to Ireland remains open, it will be an easy backdoor for Europeans to walk into the U.K., and fly across to mainland Britain.

A future U.K. prime minister could therefore try to pressure Ireland into restricting EU travel too.

Cowing down to London on this issue would not go down well with the Irish electorate, as it would effectively remove one of the major benefits of EU membership.

Another option would be for the U.K. to keep the Irish land border open, but to impose some restrictions on travel between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain.

That would mean a journey from Belfast to London would involve more red tape than a trip from Belfast to Dublin.

Northern Irish unionists would have a conniption at the very thought of this idea, as it would feel to them like a slow creep toward a united Ireland.

That just leaves us with the option of reintroducing some type of checkpoints at the border.

Northern Ireland has come far since the violence and division of the 1970s and 1980s.

It could now be forced to take a major step back, and for once, through no fault of its own.

It makes for a strange homecoming.

And just like my sister 28 years ago, I'm a little scared.


Redmond Shannon is an Irish CBC journalist who has been working in Fredericton. He is moving back to Ireland after 17 years.