“One unintended consequence of Brexit is that Ireland finds itself for the first time in its history on the stronger side of the table in negotiations with the UK,” noted Brigid Laffan, Director of the Global Governance Programme at the European University Institute, Florence, in the Guardian (23 November).
Leo Varadkar knows it. He has repeated his warning that he will block Britain’s progress to the second stage of negotiations with the EU unless he receives a binding commitment that there will be no hard Irish border.
Arlene Foster, party leader of the tiny DUP faction that props up May in Westminster, called it blackmail. The Sun spat fury from its gutter: “Leo Varadkar should shut his gob.” The Government’s lackeys are whipping up outrage that an Irish premier should try to interfere with “our” Brexit. One would think it had nothing to do with him.
In fact the Irish border has been near the top of the EU’s concerns ever since the referendum vote: it has always been known that the UK would have to clear this hurdle, and that the failure to get it right would entail serious economic consequences for both parts of Ireland. Worse, there might be dangerous political consequences. Leo Varadkar has every right to be worried.
So does Britain, but more of that later.
It is still the Government’s position, rejected by the EU, that the border issue can’t be settled until trade talks have begun because the two are related. This is convincing for the first few seconds until you think about it. Then you realise that the problem is that the British government has two mutually irreconcilable imperatives – the border needs to be material enough to present an obstacle to goods and people, and immaterial enough to be invisible – and that problem cannot be solved by discussing trade or anything else; it can only be solved by discussing the problem itself.
To put it another way, as Brigid Laffan crisply does, the Government’s argument is bogus because “There is no future trade deal available to the UK that will lead to frictionless trade if it leaves the single market and customs union.”
The keyword here is “frictionless.” That is what the border needs to be. It’s a word the Government likes, but it doesn’t seem to understand what it means. “Frictionless” means without custom declarations, tariffs, non-tariff barriers, that sort of thing. To get that, you have to pay a price. The Government won’t pay it.
The rational solution to the border problem is for Britain to stay in the customs union and single market. Over May’s dead body will it do either. The reasons for this are not particularly obvious.
Theresa May, when she took office, did not have to embrace hard Brexit. She did not have to turn her back on the two brilliant ideas that bound the EEC, later the EU, together and made it the second largest economy in the world. After all, we hadn’t been told in the referendum campaign that this was what leaving the EU would entail. We had been explicitly told that this was what it would not entail.
Was the power balance in what would necessarily become her cabinet already so weighted in favour of the numpties? Whatever the cause, she made her choice, and then, some nine months after the vote, she made a serious mistake. She called an election.
The result was catastrophic for pretty well everyone involved. She lost her majority, and we got the DUP.
I have expressed my opinion of that party, and the shabby pact the Government made with it, in a previous post (www.foxoutinfront.com/bacon-from-limerick-stout-from-dublin/), but I focused then on the fact that this narrow sectarian group would enable May to cling on to a mandate which the electorate had just denied her. It was not yet clear how much the DUP would affect the Brexit negotiations. It’s clear now.
Northern Ireland voted by 56% to 44% to remain in the EU. Among the 44% were the supporters of the Democratic Unionist Party, which wants a hard Brexit and has become the fall-back bulwark defending it. As long as Theresa May is dependent on these 10 MPs for her hold on power, there can be no possibility of a rethink on the single market and customs union, no special customs deal or regulatory alignment for Northern Ireland (the DUP can’t allow the six counties to be marked off in any way from the mainland UK), and of course no question of moving the border to the Irish Sea, which would likewise solve the problem.
By ruling out these avenues, the DUP makes inevitable what everyone agrees can’t be countenanced: a hard border, with surveillance cameras, checkpoints, customs posts… With breathtaking inconsistency, it doesn’t want a hard border, either. It’s afraid it might be bad for Ulster’s farmers.
It will, and not Ulster’s farmers alone. It will hugely complicate the lives and businesses of hundreds of thousands of Irish people in both the north and the south. Eighty per cent of Ireland’s trade goes through the UK; if there’s a hard border, goods passing through it will be subject to tariffs, inspection and delays. A third of Northern Ireland’s milk goes south across the border every day to be made into cheese, butter and infant formula. Some dairy farmers will go out of business.
Many other items, at present seamlessly, go back and forth: Guinness crosses the border twice before it’s shipped out from Dublin. Between 23,000 and 30,000 people, living in the north and working in the south, or vice versa, commute, hardly aware of it since the border is invisible; farmers cross it several times a day from one field to another; people visit relatives. Dogs are walked, horses are ridden, along roads on which, if the border comes back, they’ll need documents.
When the EU taskforce dealing with Brexit and the border listed specific areas of collaborative activity that would be adversely affected by Brexit, it found no less than 142. They ranged from security coordination against paramilitary threats to bus routes.
However, the strongest argument against a hard border is that it might undermine the still-fragile peace process.
Someone left a pipe bomb at Omagh two weeks ago. Dissident republicans are out there. A hard border starts as a soft target: all the bomber has to do is attack a single customs post. Then all the customs posts along the border will have to be fortified, and his job is done. This idea is dismissed in London as fantasy. It is not dismissed in Ireland.
It’s not just in relation to the border that the British Government is shamefully neglecting its responsibilities, or that the DUP is behaving like a spoilt child in a sweetshop. Power-sharing in Belfast broke down in January as the result of a scandal involving the DUP and a green energy scam. As conditions for power-sharing to resume, Sinn Féin want equal status for the Irish language and the ban on same-sex marriage in the province lifted. The DUP want Ulster Scots (spoken by a much smaller percentage than speak Irish) included in the language clause, and believe that same-sex relationships are sinful.
After a lengthy stand-off, Westminster will soon have to resume direct rule. Nobody wants direct rule – certainly Westminster doesn’t – but Arlene Foster last week sounded not too upset at the prospect.
Sinn Féin are upset at the prospect. The reason is both glaring and shocking. The peace in Ireland is founded on the Good Friday Agreement. The Good Friday Agreement is based on power-sharing. Power-sharing is partly based on the principle that the British Government, which is one of the guarantors of the Agreement, is politically neutral. Direct rule is undesirable but not against the principles of the Agreement; but the present British Government is kept in office by the DUP, which is one of the parties to the power-sharing.
Naturally the DUP does not acknowledge that this is a problem. Well, it wouldn’t, would it? It got a cool billion out of its deal with May. And the Government can’t acknowledge it because it can’t do without the DUP’s support in Parliament. It defeated the Labour amendment to retain European law on fundamental rights by 10 votes.
The terrible truth about this government is that it doesn’t give a damn about anything but its own survival. Ireland can go hang. Ireland is, of course, aware of this attitude.
But now Ireland, which used to be a friend (how stupid of the government to lose that friendship), has turned hostile, and what is May to do? It is desperately urgent to get trade talks going: she has to solve the Irish riddle, and on EU terms. Her proffered solution (drones, electronic registration) has been rejected. The EU is steering her towards the single market and customs union but, in addition to a humiliating U-turn, that means facing down the Brexiteers and junking the DUP. She is afraid of the Brexiteers, and if she junks the DUP she loses power.
If she had courage, and understood more about what she is doing, and could find it in herself to trust the British people, she would tell them the truth and put the future of the country where it belongs, in their hands.
That is not going to happen. She is heading for the edge, and taking the country with her. Unless it wakes up.
If it doesn’t, there is yet hope for Ireland. It is that, if Brexit drags Northern Ireland out of the EU, against the wishes of most of its population, the Ireland-wide poll about reunification that is provided for in the Good Friday Agreement is held, and returns a “yes” answer.
But it would be so much better if the Irish could be left to do that when they’re ready; if we could have our own poll first, and junk Brexit, May and the DUP in one fell swoop, and then welcome in the dawn.