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Brexit Special: Trinity’s Arts and Humanities on Brexit

26 March 2019 Since 2016, Trinity’s Arts and Humanities have been exploring the fallout and potential implications of Brexit on Anglo-Irish relations and the future of Europe more generally.

The Trinity Long Room Hub has released a podcast playlist, a ‘Brexit Special’, to highlight a selection of these discussions, which began back in May 2016, prior to British citizens going to the polls and voting to leave the European Union (EU).


In a special 'Behind the Headlines' discussion held in London in March 2019, a panel was convened for an audience of Trinity Alumni to discuss the ‘Crisis of Democracy’. It included Professor Roy Foster, Professor of Irish History and Literature at Queen Mary University of London; Professor Heather Jones, Professor in Modern and Contemporary European History, University College London; Etain Tannam, Associate Professor of International Peace Studies in Trinity College Dublin; and Bill Emmott, journalist & author and former Editor-in-Chief of The Economist.

Bill Emmott opened the discussion by asking “are we in a crisis?” Professor Jones looked at populism in Eastern Europe and the impact, historically, of failing to integrate minorities; Professor Foster explored the current impasse in British politics and what it means for Anglo-Irish relations; while Etain Tannam looked at the political fallout of Brexit and its impact on North–South relations.

"Brexit-Irish relations are in a bad place", but "cooperation is essential to the peace process", Professor Tannam commented, adding that the 'backstop' was necessary given that the relationship between Britain and Ireland wasn't as strong as previously thought. Professor Foster concluded that "the historical echoes raised by the current political convulsions are not encouraging." Listen to this podcast here.

The Trinity Long Room Hub held its first public discussion on Brexit on the 26th of May, 2016, exactly one month prior to the British public going to the polls in June to vote on whether Britain would remain or leave the EU. Panellists included the UK Ambassador to Ireland Dominick Chilcott; Professor and Director of the Trinity Centre for Contemporary Irish History, Eunan O’Halpin; Associate Professor of International Peace Studies in Trinity , Etain Tannam; and Director of the MPhil in Creative Writing, School of English, Professor Gerald Dawe.

The discussion explored the motivations for the campaign to exit the EU, including immigration, and looked at the concerns of British students in Ireland. Speakers also addressed the UK’s relationship with other global powers should it leave the EU, and the potential for the vote to destabilise peace in Northern Ireland. Click here to listen.

 Following a victory for the Leave campaign, the Trinity Long Room Hub convened another 'Behind the Headlines' panel in October 2016, ‘Brexit, Brussels and the Big Apple.’ The purpose of this discussion was to position Ireland within the wider context of Brexit, but also to discuss the EU’s ruling on Apple’s tax affairs in Ireland, posing questions around Ireland’s changing relationships with Europe and the United States of America.

Trinity Business School Adjunct Assistant Professor and columnist David McWilliams addressed Ireland’s opportunity to deal with the huge discrepancy between the tax shortfall from multinational companies in Ireland by creating a sovereign wealth fund. Mark Piggott Associate Professor in American History Daniel Geary reminded the audience of the real-life implications of low taxes on normal people, including poor public services, wealth inequality and rising public debt. He said that we can expect the taxation issue to be a major one for the next US president and more generally to dominate public discourse for years to come.  

Mary Cosgrove, Professor in German at Trinity, discussed the multitude of advantages to being an EU citizen, highlighting her own life experience and arguing that Irish people have a lot in common with other Europeans. Finally, John O’Hagan, Emeritus Professor of Economics, reflected on Ireland’s alternatives to EU membership by looking at the example of Brexit and what can be learned from it, adding that the myth of national sovereignty in a globalised world was just that – a myth.  Listen to podcast here.


Democracy in Crisis?

Parallel to what was unfolding in the United Kingdom with the fallout from Brexit, a narrative of populism was sweeping across Europe and in some cases a move to the far-right was a stark warning sign for many experts and commentators alike, that democracy was potentially in crisis.

In June 2016, the Trinity Long Room Hub started what would become an ongoing discussion as part of the 'Behind the Headlines' series, exploring the topic of democracy. This panel discussion was entitled ‘Undermining Democracy’.

The discussion explored the then challenges to democracy in countries such as Poland, Hungary and Germany. Dr Aneta Stepien, Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies, explored the rhetoric of ‘threat’ and ‘strength’ in Poland. Head of School of Law at Trinity Professor Oran Doyle discussed the language of Orban, Kaczynski and Trump as having many commonalities, particularly the notion of ‘them’ and ‘us’.

Professor of German and then Head of School of Languages, Literatures and Cultural Studies, Juergen Barkhoff cited the failure of the EU to take decisive action on burden sharing in the two most recent crises in Europe  - the migrant crisis and the financial crisis – as partly to blame for the rise in right wing support. “We thought after the fall of the Iron Curtain that the triumph of liberal democracy was irreversible – we might have been wrong”, he concluded. Listen now.


In November 2018, as part of a day long symposium in association with Columbia University, there was a 'Behind the Headline' discussion on the 'Crisis of Democracy' which explored the rise of populism, the erosion of democracy and the past events and ‘cultural trauma’ which might be to blame. Panellists included Bill Emmott, Professor Marianne Hirsch and Professor Bruce Shapiro of Columbia University, and Professor Rosemary Byrne from Trinity’s School of Law. Listen here.

Future of Europe

On November 1st, 2018 as discussions between the United Kingdom and the EU on the architecture of Brexit intensified, Trinity College Dublin published an open letter in the Financial Times on Brexit and the higher education landscape in Europe.

The opportunity to run the open letter was a direct result of the universities’ participation in the Financial Times Future of Europe project resulting in a free advertisement opportunity in the Financial Times. Trinity College Dublin used this unique opportunity to engage in what some have called “intellectual citizenship” and “clever and impactful use of advertising space.”

The letter's publication was accompanied by a social media and media campaign which saw the letter reach an unprecedented level of engagement on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, and also appeared in all the major newspapers, appearing in the Irish Times digital top read stories of that day.

The Trinity Long Room Hub will continue this conversation on the future of Europe, when it welcomes French writer and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy to Trinity on the 1st of May to deliver a dramatic reading as part of his 22 city European tour.

Looking for Europe

Looking for Europe’ is Lévy’s campaign for Europe; a tour of 22 European cities to reaffirm the great ideals and spirit of Europe. It is a campaign which seeks to combat the rise of populism and prevent the return of totalitarianism, war and poverty. Further details of this special event are available here.

Media Commentary

Trinity's Arts and Humanities' scholars and experts have been particularly active in analysing the evolving negotiations around Brexit, the historical significance of a change to the relationship between Ireland and the UK, and the implications for Anglo-Irish relations, with talk of the peace process creeping back in to the public lexicon. A selection of some of this media commentary is outlined below:

  • 25 March 2019: UK relations with Ireland at worst since hunger strike years, claims academic by Professor Etain Tannam (Irish School of Ecumentics, TCD)- Read full article here | Belfast Telegraph
  • 27 January 2019: Brexit: How British-Irish relations are coping with Professor Etain Tannam (Irish School of Ecumentics, TCD) - Read full article here| BBC News
  • 22 November 2018: Brexit: views from around Europe on future relationship between UK and EU by Professor Etain Tannam (Irish School of Ecumentics, TCD) & others - Read the full article here | The Conversation
  • 31 October 2018: DUP’s red lines are based on a self-destructive Britishness many unionists don’t share by Dr. David Mitchell (Irish School of Ecumentics, TCD)  - Read the full article here | The Conversation
  • 24 September 2018: Brexit: fears in Dublin that time is running out to solve Irish border impasse by Professor Etain Tannam (Irish School of Ecumentics, TCD)  - Read the full article here | The Conversation
  • 19th September 2018: Brexit, the Irish Border & Political Instability with Professor Etain Tannam (Irish School of Ecumentics, TCD) – Watch here  | Sky News
  • 30 May 2018: Four things that should happen before Irish unity by David Mitchell (Irish School of Ecumentics, TCD)  - Read the full article here  | The Conversation
  • 24 January 2018: Ireland must invest in higher education to benefit from Brexit by Professor Jane Ohlmeyer (School of Histories and Humanities, TCD) – Read full article here | Irish Times
  • 4 October 2016:  Brexit presents major opportunities for researchers – but are we ready to grasp them? By Professor Jane Ohlmeyer (School of Histories and Humanities, TCD) – Read full article here | Irish Times
  • 8 August 2016: The Brexit wild card? Ireland with Professor Eunan O’Halpin (School of Histories and Humanities, TCD) – Read full article here | Washington Post
  • 6 August 2016: A Question Lingers on the Irish Border: What’s Next? With Professor Eunan O’Halpin (School of Histories and Humanities, TCD) – Read full article here | New York Times


The Trinity Long Room Hub 'Behind the Headlines' series is supported by the John Pollard Foundation.

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