Irish consul general discusses implications of Brexit for Ireland in Kellogg talk

Tim Balk, Managing Editor

Brian O’Brien, consul general of Ireland to Chicago and the Midwest, said Ireland is likely the European country best prepared for Brexit, but acknowledged the change presents “massive” challenges for the country in a talk Wednesday afternoon.

“(Brexit) is a British policy,” said O’Brien, referring to the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union some time before summer 2019. “Ireland didn’t vote for Brexit. The British voted for Brexit, but we have to deal with the consequences.”

About 30 people attended the talk at the Donald P. Jacobs Center, which was hosted by the Kellogg Public Policy Club and the European Business Club. O’Brien discussed concerns Brexit has prompted around the peace process between Ireland and Northern Ireland as well as broader relationships between Ireland and other nations in a changing world.

First year Kellogg student Nick Michael, who helped organize the event, said he was pleased to see O’Brien talk about contemporary European issues, especially because a large population of Kellogg students is from Europe.

“Because Brexit has been such a big story in the news over here as well as in Europe,” Michael said, “there was a high level of interest in it and students left … with a clearer picture of how Brexit will impact the institution of the EU.”

A majority in Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, voted against leaving in the Brexit referendum last June. In the wake of the vote, questions have swirled about of a return of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland and its potential impact on the peace process. Ireland and the United Kingdom currently share a common travel area allowing free passage between the two countries.

“Our peace process has been very, very good — it’s brought peace to the island,” O’Brien said. “But it’s fragile. We can’t lose sight of that. This is destabilizing. … We do not want a hard border going up.”

Brexit could have benefits for Ireland, O’Brien said. He pointed to potential financial opportunities created for Dublin as London leaves the European Union. On the whole, though, Brexit creates a “serious headwind” that Ireland is going into economically, O’Brien said.

Responding to a question about the relationship between Ireland and the United States after the election of President Donald Trump, O’Brien said Ireland is “apolitical” when it comes to foreign nations, and noted that Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny will meet with the president on St. Patrick’s Day per custom. The upcoming visit has prompted controversy in Ireland and in the United States.

“We have to work with the administration as is, not as we may want it to be in our own heads,” O’Brien said. “Given the temperament of President Trump, you don’t want to be grandstanding.”

Second-year Kellogg student Luke Murphy, who is co-president of the Kellogg Public Policy Club, said he appreciated O’Brien’s perspective on Brexit.

“Events like these continue to educate Kellogg and Northwestern students about international perspectives,” Murphy said.

Matthew Choi contributed reporting.

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