Brexit - an example of radical agnosis

Not knowing how or when or what is part of the human condition. The Brexit process has reminded us of this especially as ‘deadlines’ and ‘agreements’ are pushed out and out. If we have learned one thing through the process it is that nothing is agreed until all is agreed and that all or most of those who matter are fully on board. That includes 28 sovereign Member States of the European Union as of Monday 8th April.


The problem this week as in any other week since June 2016 is that it will continue to remain impossible to reconcile the following:

  1. Frictionless trade across different trading areas.
  2. No special or different treatment for any part of the United Kingdom.
  3. Brexit.

We can have one or even possibly two of the above three but we can’t have all three.  This is not a dilemma but a trilemma.

Businesses, workers and civil society at large are left in a state of profound agnosis. This came home to me recently when my home insurance broker informed me that they could no longer cover me after this Friday 12th April if nothing was agreed by the UK and the EU by Thursday 11th. They suggested alternative quotes which were a bit more costly using insurance companies other than those in the UK. Magnify this up to a hundred thousand businesses, hundreds of thousands of workers and millions of citizens whose lives will be impacted in all sorts of ways that nobody even thought of.

We know from published research that Brexit, if it happens at all, is likely to have a negative impact on employment, trading and investment prospects. We know, furthermore, that these impacts will be more severe in particular regions and sectors of the economy.

But this too shall pass ……

Brexit will not define Ireland forever. Yes, it has changed everything and we do not know where it leads financially, constitutionally and otherwise. It is now doubtful if the United Kingdom is viable. Scotland will put this to the test in the not too distant future. But, eventually, we will have to get on with our lives and elected representatives and enterprises will have to find a way through. It is important to keep focussed on where we want to go, Brexit or no Brexit, hard Brexit or soft Brexit. This is why the task of revisiting the Democratic Programme a century later and envisioning a new Ireland for this century is as important as ever.

In An Ireland Worth Working For: Towards a new democratic programme to be published next week by New Island and the NERI I seek to offer some hope and clarity on what it is that public policy makers and deliverers can do in the now to create a different European Union and a different Ireland at least part of which will continue to be in the EU. The starting point must be an honest and critical appraisal of the failures of the Celtic Tiger. The ideology and sectional interests driving financialisation, privitisation and deregulation that sowed the seeds globally as well as locally of the 2008-12 crash have not gone away. Lessons have not been learned and there is an air of ‘business as usual’. Moreover, the failure of the European Union to defend its own citizens in the crisis of 2010-2012 was responsible in part for opening the door to dangerous political currents including, it has to be said, the pro-Brexit surge in the UK.

Recent benign economic conditions both in the UK and Ireland have masked the huge risks that are present. In the case of the UK, underneath rising employment and wages is the reality of in-work poverty, crumbling public services and a marked slowdown in investment. We have yet to see the impact of this.  Brexit – especially if it is a hard one – will hit the UK economy and in a very acute way Northern Ireland where levels of productivity, EU trade exposure and labour market vulnerability are highest. The Republic of Ireland is buoyed up on multinational revenue. The steroids are working but the underlying body muscles are weak because we have not followed the example of other Northern European states in building a strong home industry sector capable of competing in China and Vancouver.

Some speak of Irish reunification as the only way out of the Brexit conundrum. This may be so some time in the future but I am not at all convinced that either part of Ireland is ready for reunification now or soon economically, culturally or politically. Too much healing is needed and this will take a long, long time. However, we need to focus on what sort of society is possible and necessary both in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

For further information on An Ireland Worth Working For see New Island pre-order page here.

Also, the NERI and New Island will launch the book on Monday 15th April at 5.30pm in the historical and scenic location of Café Cois Life in Liberty Hall, Dublin. You may register here.

Share this blog:

Tom Healy

Tom Healy was the Director of the Nevin Economic Research Institute (NERI). Tom has previously worked in the Economic and Social Research Institute, the Northern Ireland Economic Research Centre, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the National Economic and Social Forum and the Department of Education and Skills.