While the toxicity of the Brexit debate has far-reaching implications for peace in Northern Ireland, its immediate economic repercussion lies in the opportunities for Ireland
India has a long link with Ireland, a shared history of colonialism by the same coloniser, deep links between the national movements of both countries and similar movements to build national pride and identity. In addition, there exist common myths and traditions binding the two nations together even when full nationhood had not yet been achieved.
The friendship between W.B. Yeats of Ireland and India’s first Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore is well documented. There was even an attempt by the British to suggest that Geetanjali (‘An Offering of Prayers’) written by Tagore in English had been ghost-written by Yeats because its English was so perfect.
A more political link between India and Ireland was established by Annie Besant who discovered Theosophy, a movement that drew on Indian and Celtic mythologies. She travelled to India and helped establish the Indian National Congress. Today the Indo-Irish connection is vibrant with Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar being of Indian origin.
Ireland was never a colony like India but it had semi-colonial status. The historian C.A. Bayly rightly compared 18th century Ireland to an Indian princely state: “Ultimate power remained with the British, but the trappings of native government and native legitimacy remained in place’.
The 1845 potato famine in Ireland which killed a million people and forced a million more to emigrate has often been compared to the great Bengal Famine in 1943 which also killed more than a million Indians because the granaries were deliberately depleted and diverted to feed the soldiers of the British Indian Army in World War II. Both were manmade famines driven by the impulses of imperial conquest and colonial misadventures.
The issue of the ‘Backstop’ in the context of Brexit starkly demonstrates that colonial attitudes do not change that quickly. A key element of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 was an open border between the British-imposed partition lines between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. Any attempt to reimpose a customs and immigration regime along Britain’s only land border with the European Union was always likely to be resisted with violence. The European Union (EU) has been steadfast in its support to the ‘Backstop’. Their chief negotiator Michel Barnier had consistently stated: “Backstop is the only operational solution to address Irish border issue.”
In an opinion piece headlined ‘The malign incompetence of the British ruling class’ for The New York Times (January 2019), author Pankaj Mishra notes forebodingly: “With Brexit, the ‘chumocrats’ who drew borders from India to Ireland are getting a taste of their own medicine… It is a measure of English Brexiteers’ political acumen that they were initially oblivious to the volatile Irish question.”
The complex state of domestic politics in the UK with the stepping down of Prime Minister Theresa May and multiple Tory candidates to replace her has resulted in a further polarisation of the ‘Backstop’ issue. The leading contender, Boris Johnson has threatened a no-deal Brexit with no ‘Backstop’. This has caused a sharp reaction from Irish Prime Minister Varadkar who underlined: “To me no Backstop is effectively the same as no-deal because what the backstop is… a legally operable guarantee that we will never see a hard border emerge again. If we don’t have that, then that is no deal.” He expressed confidence that the EU would not allow the Backstop to go.
Preoccupation with the European Parliament elections in May 2019 had resulted in Brussels remaining a mute spectator to the different statements emanating from London on Brexit as a result of the Tory contest. There is, however, great unease at what an EU official terms as the redefinition of Brexit noting: “They’ve turned Brexit into ‘No Deal’. However, these candidates have ignored its impact for Northern Ireland.”
Ireland is relying on continued EU support for the ‘Backstop’ as expressed by the Irish Prime Minister. There is also indirect pressure on UK to accept the ‘Backstop’ from the US which is the guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement. The huge Irish-American lobby has successfully galvanised public opinion in the US among both Democrats and Republicans in favour of the ‘Backstop’.
The irony of the Brexit issue is the economic windfall as a result of companies and business shifting out of London to either Ireland or Netherlands. While Ireland does not have the advantage of Rotterdam which is the Gateway to Europe, it offers hugely competitive business alternatives in a friendly English-speaking environment so close to the UK. Coming out of the Eurozone crisis, the Irish economy is booming with GDP growth at 4.1 per cent. Ireland is ranked among the top countries in the world to do business. Inflation remains consistently below the EU average and is supported by a weak pound sterling since the Brexit process.
There are several other advantages. Ireland allows companies barrier-free access to Europe’s 500 million consumers. The EU’s free trade agreements and the ability to attract multinational/multilingual staff allow companies to trade across Europe from a single location. Ireland’s time zone makes it the perfect location as an interface to Europe and the US for Indian companies.
What are the implications for India as a result of these developments? There is approximately 34,000 Indian-origin population in Ireland, of whom about 20,500 are people of Indian origin (PIO) and around 13,500 are non-resident Indians (NRIs). The bulk of the community is into healthcare, IT, engineering and senior management positions. The community is well regarded locally and has integrated well into Irish society. Many Indian companies are expected to shift to Ireland in the remaining time-frame leading up to October 31, 2019, which is the final deadline for Brexit to be completed.
While the toxicity of the Brexit debate has far-reaching implications for peace in Northern Ireland, its immediate economic repercussion lies in the opportunities that it offers to Ireland as well as to Indian companies to shift and do business with Europe through Ireland rather than the UK. There can be no greater historical irony for Britain as it continues to navigate the treacherous route to Brexit.
(The writer is a former Indian ambassador. The article is in special arrangement with South Asia Monitor. Views expressed are strictly personal)