With its close political, trade and cultural links to its nearest neighbour, no country is set to lose more than Ireland if Britain leaves the European Union."A British exit from the EU would send Ireland, Britain and Europe into uncharted and treacherous waters," says Danny McKoy, head of the Irish Business and Employers' Confederation, Ibec. "The UK's continued membership of the EU is of overwhelming strategic importance to Ireland and Irish business," adds McKoy, who is joined by many Irish business and political leaders calling for Britain to remain in the European Union when it holds a referendum on June 23. "Ireland exported nearly 14 billion euros worth of goods in 2015 and over 20 billion [euros] of trade in services in 2014 to Britain," says Simon McKeever, chief executive of the Irish Exporters' Association.
"The UK is Ireland's single biggest trading partner and the prospect of them moving outside the single EU market will obviously be a big concern for Irish exporters," says McKeever, who has appealed to Irish voters in Britain to vote to remain in the EU.
British-based Irish citizens, along with those from Malta and Cyprus, can vote in the referendum on whether Britain should leave the EU or remain a member. Citizens of other EU nations who are resident in Britain are not allowed to vote. "We know there's about half a million first-generation Irish, from the passport figures," says Liz Shanahan, co-chair of Irish4Europe, a group set up by Irish people in Britain to campaign against Brexit. "We're a mixed bag of business people, people in science, communications, politics, journalism, all walks of life," Shanahan says. "I have lived in Britain for donkey's years and have worked and set up businesses here while still holding an Irish passport."
A Common Travel Area, in place since 1923, means there are no passport controls for Irish and British citizens travelling between the two countries as well as the British-controlled Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. Britain also gives Irish citizens special treatment with voting rights in parliamentary elections.
"There are no guarantees that the Irish in Britain would retain their special status post-Brexit," Shanahan says.
"We are also concerned about the impact of Brexit generally. Brexit is potentially damaging to Ireland, particularly to Northern Ireland.
"The British and Irish have become much better friends through cooperation in Europe," she says. "We identify with each other and agree on a great deal of policy. This has had a very positive effect on Northern Ireland and our relationship generally. "The European Union put a lot of funding into the peace process and still puts a lot of funding into Northern Ireland. This would be lost if Britain pulls out." Ireland's Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan has said that the imposition of passport controls at the border with Northern Ireland would be "at best inconvenient and at worst a worryingly regressive step in terms of facilitating co-operation between both parts of the island." The reintroduction of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic would also have implications for industry and trade.
"Ireland has a huge animation industry, for example, with bases in Belfast, Dublin and London. Goodness knows how these kind of operations will be affected," says Shanahan. The Irish Exporters Association says its members are already suffering as a result of the upcoming vote.
"The biggest problem at the moment is the uncertainty that surrounds the outcome," McKeever says.
"Last November the euro had dropped to under 70 pence against sterling, making Irish goods sold into Britain highly competitive," he says. "Irish firms were selling into Britain at the most competitive rate in 10 years.
"Brexit uncertainty has since weakened the pound against the euro by 15 per cent and this has had an effect on our members, with 60 per cent reporting that this fluctuation has already had an impact on their business." With the Irish4Europe campaign, which Flanagan has backed, Shanahan hopes to persuade the Irish community in Britain to engage with the debate and turn out to vote on June 23.
"There is a great deal of uncertainty about how changes would affect Irish people," she says.
"The embassy can see an upsurge in the number of applications for Irish passports. There are large numbers of second and third generation Irish in Britain and they could make a difference. It could potentially swing the vote."