It was under these ambiguous circumstances that I arrived in Ireland toward the end of July, just one month after the British referendum was held. The Brexit was still the leading topic of discussion in the country, especially since my visit happened to coincide with Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny's trip to London to hold talks with his new British counterpart, Theresa May, on ties between their countries. Kenny and May pledged to maintain "the closest possible relationship" in the vote's aftermath, but the Irish premier was frank in his admission that the Brexit decision was not the outcome his country had wanted.
His view was confirmed by conversations I had with several people throughout Ireland. In Dublin, I spoke to a city employee who told me that people are "very nervous and worried" about the effects the Brexit will have on Ireland. He said public servants took a 20 percent pay cut in the early years of Europe's financial crisis, and although Ireland now has one of the strongest growth rates in the Continental bloc, he has received only a 1 percent salary increase in each of the past two years. Now, with the economic uncertainty stemming from the Brexit and the potential loss of British trade, he worries that his wages will never recover to their precrisis level. He also fears that his daughter, who lives and works in London, may have to get married to be able to continue residing there.
Of course, not everyone I spoke with shared his views. A Dublin-based tour operator, for example, gave me a less pessimistic and more nuanced outlook. Though he, too, acknowledged that he wished the United Kingdom had decided to remain an EU member, he conceded that its departure from the bloc wouldn't necessarily be a disaster. He noted that while Ireland's trade with the United Kingdom used to account for 60 percent of its total trade, the country's entry into the European Union and access to the common market has diluted that figure to around 15 percent. He added that since people simply do not know what will happen, they assume the worst, even though the extent of the damage would likely become clear only by the end of the year at the earliest. After all, he said, the Irish themselves rejected the Lisbon treaty in a 2008 referendum only to hold another vote approving it the following year.
From Dublin, I ventured west to Galway, a city on Ireland's Atlantic coast. There I spoke with a young professional who works for a major manufacturing company. After allowing that the Brexit is an important topic that directly affects her line of work, she lamented the amount of attention it has received in Ireland. She said she was "sick and tired" of hearing about the Brexit, especially since no one knows what will happen — any media coverage is purely speculation that is overshadowing other important problems in the country.
The busy streets of Galway. (EUGENE CHAUSOVSKY/Stratfor)
When I asked her which topics should be getting more attention, she immediately brought up housing. Prior to the European financial crisis, Ireland witnessed a major housing boom, even earning the nickname "Celtic Tiger" for its rapid economic growth. But a housing bubble and the ensuing crisis caused construction to grind to a halt. Now, a severe shortage of housing stock has created long waits for potential homeowners, particularly in large urban areas such as Galway, Cork and Dublin. (The latter saw less than 13,000 new homes built in 2015, compared with demand for more than 25,000.) She explained that land and home ownership is an important and sensitive issue for the Irish because of their history with British occupation and relatively recent independence. The topic was clearly one that blurred the line between economics and politics.
Upsetting a Delicate Peace
The complexity of the Irish-British dynamic can be seen most clearly in Northern Ireland, which covers the northern sixth of the Irish island but is administered by the United Kingdom. The Brexit vote has only compounded this complexity; the population of Northern Ireland voted by a solid majority of 56 percent to remain in the European Union, compared with the 48 percent minority in the United Kingdom as a whole that opted to stay. Just weeks after the referendum, Kenny said that if the people of Northern Ireland wished to leave the United Kingdom and join Ireland to continue being part of the European Union, they should hold a vote on it.
An EU building in Northern Ireland. (EUGENE CHAUSOVSKY/Stratfor)
This statement was rather extraordinary, considering the history Ireland and Northern Ireland have shared over the past century. Distinct from Ireland because of its Protestant majority, Northern Ireland stayed in the United Kingdom when Ireland gained its independence in 1922. But Northern Ireland's large Catholic minority, which advocated a united Irish territory, became the source of great friction between the two states. Tension escalated in the late 1960s and persisted for more than 30 years in what became known as "The Troubles." The religious and political violence during this period claimed more than 3,000 lives and led to countless more injuries and arrests. It was not until 1998, when the Good Friday Agreement was struck, that the conflict subsided. The deal devolved powers to Northern Irish authorities and opened the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The last element is the one most threatened by the Brexit vote. Because the United Kingdom and Ireland are both EU members, the border between them in Northern Ireland is currently open, and many people live on one side and work on the other. But if the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, border control and security measures could be reintroduced, disrupting the economic, political and social dynamics that have been in place since the Good Friday Agreement — with potentially devastating consequences.
Unity Comes at a Steep Price
Eager to get a Northern Irish perspective, I took a train from Dublin to Belfast, Northern Ireland's capital. The trip took only two hours, and there were no border checks as we crossed out of Irish territory. There was also no discernable difference in the landscape, other than the occasional Union Jack flag on the Northern Irish side. An elderly Irish man sitting across from me on the train said, "You're in Her Majesty's territory now, all right," but it was one of the only cues marking our entrance into Northern Ireland.
Belfast, however, stood in stark contrast to Dublin. It is significantly smaller and grittier in its appearance, and its substantial security presence was hard to miss. In Ireland — in Dublin and Galway, as well as on the drive in between — I had not seen a single police car. But in Belfast I saw several on my first walk through the city, including a heavily armored vehicle near city hall with the label "crimestoppers" on its side.
A police vehicle near city hall in Belfast. (EUGENE CHAUSOVSKY/Stratfor)
The city's heavy security measures can likely be explained by the fact that, despite the considerable reduction in violence since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, tensions between Belfast's Catholics and Protestants still run high. On a taxi tour of the city, my driver — who told me that he was a Catholic and a former member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) — took me through neighborhoods visibly split between Catholics and Protestants. Large murals commemorating fallen IRA fighters and displays of Irish flags (illegal in Northern Ireland) dotted the Catholic areas, while British flags and murals of anti-IRA paramilitary groups decorated Protestant areas just a few blocks away. In some places, Catholic and Protestant communities were literally divided by walls, adorned with partisan messages and rallying cries on either side.
I asked my driver, a grizzled-looking man in his 60s with IRA tattoos on his arms, whether he had any friends or acquaintances who were Protestant. He quickly replied, "Never have, never will." He told me that he was a supporter of Sinn Fein, a political party historically associated with the IRA, and that he moved guns for the IRA as recently as 2006, even though the paramilitary group had officially demobilized. When I asked him what he thought of the Brexit, he admitted to having mixed feelings. On one hand, he thought it might give greater impetus to creating a united Ireland, a cause for which he has been fighting his entire life. On the other, he doubted that Ireland would be able to sustain the sizable subsidies and financial assistance Northern Ireland currently receives from the United Kingdom. He also believed that the Protestant community would try to undermine any serious push for reunification, perhaps through violent means. In terms of peace and security, he said, "Right now is as good as it's going to get."
A wall separating Protestant and Catholic sections of Belfast. (EUGENE CHAUSOVSKY/Stratfor)
Much is at stake for Ireland as the United Kingdom prepares to leave the European Union. Not only could its economy be dealt a major blow, but also the fresh wounds that still exist between it and Northern Ireland could be reopened if the Brexit is not carefully managed. Because London has not yet begun to negotiate its exit, it is too early to tell exactly how things will turn out, but it is clear that the island is collectively holding its breath.