Call it poetic justice, or plain old natural justice. For centuries, Ireland has always been on the receiving end of Britain’s collateral damage from its imperial intrigues. Now, however, Ireland could have the last laugh as Britain wades further into a quagmire of trouble over the Brexit debacle to leave the European Union.
Irish sentiments on both sides of the border within that small island country are clamoring for special status which would de facto create an island-of-Ireland unity. A country which would in effect be independent from British rule and moving closer towards the long-held aspiration of Irish nationalists and republicans for a united Ireland, distinct from the rest of Britain.
As Britain stumbles towards its eventual departure from the EU scheduled for March 2019, the historic break raises special problems for Ireland. Northern Ireland, which is under British jurisdiction, will be obliged to follow the Brexit path of quitting the EU, while the Republic of Ireland will of course remain an EU member. That potentially creates the unique scenario of an EU border being imposed on the island, separating the Northern and Southern territories.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of indicators showing that most people on the island of Ireland, North and South, want the continuation of a “soft border” arrangement which has existed since the signing of a landmark peace deal in 1998 to end decades of conflict. This makes sense from an economic and cultural point of view since the ease of transport and travel is a vital daily convenience. This has become ever-more the case in recent years to the point where there are no visible signs of two different jurisdictions. For example, a motorway now links the northern city of Belfast to Dublin and Cork, in the far south, in a seamless corridor. Elsewhere in rural areas, people criss-cross easily like birds on the wing as if there is no border. In effect, Ireland has become closer to being one country, as would seem to be the natural order of things on an island with centuries of a distinct and common Celtic culture.
However, if the British government’s negotiations with the EU continue on their present rocky path, there are real fears that a so-called “hard Brexit” will bring about a return of the hard border in Ireland which existed before and during the recent conflict up until 1998, when the Good Friday Peace Accord was signed.
Hardline Brexiteers within Theresa May’s Conservative government cabinet are pushing for an abrupt break with the European Union. Ministers like Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, and the international trade secretary, Liam Fox, want to quit the EU altogether and pursue a vision of Britain as a global trading buccaneer nation.
Other British ministers, and many British citizens, as well the opposition Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn, and business leaders, would prefer a “soft Brexit” where Britain still remains part of the European single market and customs union. It would have to pay a fee for such membership and accept Brussels’ rules on EU citizens’ rights in an arrangement similar to that existing for Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.
A “soft Brexit” would leave the situation in Ireland much as it is today, where movement of goods and people is seamless without regulatory controls.
The trouble is that achieving a soft Brexit is far from certain. There are numerous signs that the EU and its chief negotiator on the matter Michel Barnier are becoming increasingly exasperated with London over its bumbling and incoherent stance.
British premier Theresa May faces a tough summit next month at the European Council in Brussels, at which the other 27 member states are to decide whether negotiations can proceed to substantive talks on the final trade deal with the EU.
May’s government is expected to show progress in commitment on three issues: a divorce bill with the EU; the guarantee of EU citizens’ rights in a post-Brexit Britain; and guarantees to uphold the soft border situation in Ireland.
The London government has so far dithered on all three issues. On the divorce bill, Theresa May last week, after months of wrangling, finally doubled the British offer of paying Brussels £40 billion (€45 billion). This is still way short of what the EU is demanding at around €60 billion. But the financial outlay has infuriated the hardline Brexiteers in her cabinet like Johnson who at one time arrogantly said the EU can “go whistle” – meaning, accept no payment at all.
On the Irish question, the British government has also shown an arrogant complacency. Last weekend, international trade minister Liam Fox asserted that London would give no commitment to the nature of the border in Ireland until a final deal with the EU was signed.
“We cannot come to a final answer on the Irish question until we get an idea of the end state [with the EU],” Fox told British media.
The London government is being supported by a small hardline pro-British Unionist party within Northern Ireland, the rather misnamed Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). It says that Northern Ireland must go the same way as the rest of the United Kingdom in its Brexit arrangement. That is, if the Brexit is a hard one resulting in strict external borders, then Northern Ireland should erect a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, according to the pro-British DUP.
But such an outcome is infuriating majority public opinion in both North and South Ireland. It should be noted that when Britain held its Brexit referendum in June 2016, the electorate in Northern Ireland voted clearly in favor of remaining with the European Union. Given the rupture to social and economic relations that the return of a hard border would create in Ireland, it is a safe assumption that a strong majority of people across the entire island would be firmly opposed to such an arrangement.
There is a deep resonance here with how the British political establishment in London has always ignored and indeed violated democratic mandates on the island of Ireland.
In a general election back in 1918, when the entire country was at that time under British colonial rule, the vast majority of the electorate – over 70 per cent – voted for the pro-independence Sinn Fein party. The response to that democratic Irish mandate by London was to artificially partition the country in order to create a British-run Northern state where formerly minority Unionist parties would thereby become the majority, thus providing London with a “mandate” to retain its jurisdictional presence in Ireland.
Likewise today, the British government is ignoring the majority wish across the whole of Ireland for the de facto non-existing border to be maintained. London seems though to be using the eventual border status within Ireland like a bargaining chip in its negotiations with the EU.
However, such British attitude is likely to rile the rest of Europe. The EU has so far shown solidarity with Ireland and the maintenance of the invisible border that has existed for the past two decades. No doubt the EU is mindful that the resurrection of a hard border could reignite conflict in Ireland. Irish republicans agreed to the peace deal in 1998 largely because it held out the promise of a gradual, eventual reunification of Ireland. The British government is now threatening to undermine that peace deal.
Brussels also backs a soft border in Ireland because it does not want to cause harmful economic repercussions for the Republic of Ireland, a member of the EU. For London to harm a EU member in this way is seen as unacceptable by Brussels.
Here’s where the history of British meddling in Ireland and the denial of natural democratic rights of the Irish nation comes back to haunt.
The government of the Irish Republic, in Dublin, is stepping up a tougher line on the Brexit negotiations. The Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar says that his country will veto any moves towards a final trade deal between the EU and Britain at next month’s summit in Brussels – unless London gives a written guarantee that it will make a special case for Ireland by maintaining a soft border regardless of the Brexit outcome.
If London refuses to comply with the Irish demand, then it faces a even more tortuous process in negotiating Brexit and on less favorable terms. That will, in turn, pile on even more problems for Britain’s ailing economy which is already floundering over Brexit anxieties.
In many ways therefore, the fate of post-Brexit Britain is now in the hands of the Irish. After centuries of being collateral damage for British political rulers, that makes for a certain poetic justice.
But, more importantly, what the whole debacle demonstrates more than ever is that Irish independence and territorial unity is an ineluctable case of natural justice. It is only British intransigence and intrigue that has impeded the natural democratic rights of Ireland and the Irish people. That kind of baleful British interference in Irish national interests is no longer acceptable, no longer tolerable.
No longer an imperial power, in fact a shambolic decrepit Little England, the case for a united independent Ireland is again clearer than ever.
A final decision on the Northern Irish border cannot be made until a UK-EU trade deal has been agreed, Liam Fox has said, despite warnings from Brussels that trade talks cannot proceed unless an agreement is reached within days.
Ireland is seen as the key obstacle to proceeding to negotiations about a future trade relationship with the EU at a December summit, with the Irish government dissatisfied with the options offered so far to prevent a hard border with Northern Ireland.
Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, has said he wants a written guarantee that there will be no hard border, which Dublin believes can be achieved only by keeping the region within the single market and customs union.
Fox said that option was out of the question. “We don’t want there to be a hard border, but the UK is going to be leaving the customs union and the single market,” he told Sky News’s Sunday with Niall Paterson.
Government sources conceded there was still some way to go on the question of the border, compared with the other two key areas the EU has said also need to see sufficient progress, the financial settlement and the rights of EU citizens.
However, the government is likely to stress the common ground on both sides, that neither side wants a hard border with Ireland or physical border infrastructure and the option to agree to Varadkar’s written guarantee has not yet been definitely ruled out.
Fox said the UK had always come to special arrangements with Ireland that could be written into the final agreement but said there needed to be clarity about the future trading relationship with the EU before the border question could be settled.
“We have always had exceptions for Ireland. Whether it’s in our voting rights, our rights of residence in the UK, we have always accepted a certain asymmetry and that will have to be part of whatever agreement we come to with the European Union. But we can’t come to a final answer to the Irish question until we get an idea of the end state,” he said.
“And until we get into discussions with the EU on the end state that will be very difficult, so the quicker we can do that the better, and we are still in a position where the EU doesn’t want to do that.”
Fox’s suggestion that a deal on the Irish border won’t be finalised until later in the negotiations does not necessarily clash with the EU’s position. The 27 member states need only “sufficient progress” to be made by the next European council summit.
Coveney also dismissed a claim from Ukip that Ireland was threatening the UK, but insisted that his country must be protected in the Brexit process.
“Ireland is not threatening anybody, least of all a friend,” he said on Sunday, “but we remain resolute in our insistence on a sensible way through Brexit that protects Ireland.”
It will further require recognition from Whitehall that technology is not the solution to the problem and that Northern Ireland will be given a special regulatory status, a scenario hinted at by Fox.
In Brussels, however, there is a feeling that the British government has been underestimating the member states’ solidarity with the Republic on the issue.
Asked whether the Irish government would be allowed to hold up the widening of talks on to trade, one EU ambassador responded: “We trust in the Irish and the commission on this. There is complete unity.”
Warnings about the prospect of an Irish veto on progressing to trade talks at the December summit continued over the weekend. Ireland’s EU commissioner, Phil Hogan, told the Observer that the country would “continue to play tough to the end” over its threat to veto trade talks without border guarantees.
Irish MEP Mairead McGuinness, a member of Varadkar’s Fine Gael party, said she was “troubled” by Fox’s comments. “I hope that the UK is not holding the Irish situation to ransom in these negotiations. It is far too serious and far too critical,” she said.
John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, said he was concerned by Fox’s comments and they could put talks ahead of the summit in jeopardy.
“The one thing that we don’t want to do is jeopardise any movement quickly, because we need movement to enable us to get into the proper trade negotiations,” he told ITV’s Peston on Sunday. “So I’m hoping that isn’t a Downing Street-sanctioned statement that’s he’s made.”
Barry Gardiner, the shadow international trade secretary, had earlier told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that Labour had not ruled out staying in the single market and forging a new customs union with the EU.
The Democratic Unionist leader, Arlene Foster, warned that any attempt to redraw the border into the Irish Sea would be opposed to her party, which holds the balance of power at Westminster.
Speaking after her party’s annual conference this weekend, Foster accused Hogan of engaging in “megaphone diplomacy” over his remarks. She said that any move to give Northern Ireland ‘special status’ and for the region to stay in the customs union would be against the principle of consent enshrined in the 1998 Good Friday agreement………………………..
The DUP leader said this would lead to a redrawing of the border. “Every business I speak to does not want a border down the middle of the Irish Sea. The UK is our biggest market,” Foster said.
The DUP maintains a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement with the minority Conservative government.
A similar arrangement exists in Dublin, where the largest opposition party, Fianna Fáil, has for the last 18 months supported the minority Fine Gael government in confidence motions in the Dail and as well as key legislation such as the budget earlier this autumn.
That Dublin version of “confidence and supply” is breaking down over a row about a minister, a police whistleblower and a leaked email. Fine Gael insists the deputy prime minister, Frances Fitzgerald, will not be forced out of office over an email from 2015 that revealed the Garda Síochána had a strategy in place to smear a Garda officer who alleged corruption and malpractice in the force.
Fitzgerald told the Dublin Sunday Independent on Sunday that she had no plans to bow to “summary justice” over demands from Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin that she should resign.
While Varadkar continues to talk with the Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, this weekend and early into next week, there is no sign yet of the political crisis in Dublin abating.
If they reach the end of the week without an agreement and if Fianna Fáil tables a planned no confidence motion in the government, the coalition in Dublin could collapse, resulting in a Christmas general election.
This would also mean Varadkar would go to the crucial EU summit on Brexit in mid-December not knowing if when he returned to Dublin he would be the country’s prime minister for much longer.