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Wednesday, 22 May 2024
Ireland – north and south - fret about Boris’s Brexit deal
Ireland – north and south - fret about Boris’s Brexit deal


Boris Johnson’s long-awaited Brexit agreement was finally reached by changing the rules for the highly sensitive issue of the future relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union.

But the British prime minister’s triumphant appearance at an EU summit in Brussels on October 17 was not, as he had hoped, followed by success in persuading MPs to vote for his “great deal.” Two days later, on what had been billed optimistically as “Super Saturday” at Westminster, they again failed to support his agreement and forced him to ask the EU for an extension beyond the October 31 deadline. The Brexit crisis continues.

Johnson has been in 10 Downing Street for three months since taking over from Theresa May. For three turbulent years she failed to deliver Brexit following the referendum in June 2016. For both Conservative leaders the Irish question has proved to be an impassable obstacle.

In the referendum, 56% of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. Nonetheless, the province will leave if the rest of the UK does. Ireland, of course, will continue to be a member of the club, as it has been since joining, along with the UK, in 1973. This means that for the first time the EU will have an external border on the island of Ireland.

For 30 bloody years of sectarian violence between Catholic Irish nationalists and pro-British Protestants, in which 3,500 people died, the 310 mile border was heavily fortified. People and goods crossing it during what were known euphemistically as “The Troubles” were subject to customs and identity checks as British army helicopters whirled overhead.

In recent times the border has all but faded away. Security measures were phased out following the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998 and the EU’s single market and customs union have banished the need for inspections of imports and exports.

Ireland is the EU member that will be most affected by Brexit. Its economy is highly integrated with the UK. Around 80% of the goods it exports are transported to or through the UK. Ireland sources 41% of its food and 55% of its fuel from the UK mainland. Ireland and Northern Ireland share a single electricity market. The Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, understandably refuses to accept the return of a “hard border.”

May ruled out the idea of Northern Ireland remaining in the EU customs union as this would mean an internal customs border within the UK. That produced the idea of a ”backstop” - the option of keeping the north aligned to Europe and inside the customs union if no other solution to the border dispute could be found.

Johnson’s decision– characteristically reversing his previous position - was to draw a line down the Irish Sea to carry out regulatory checks. That has infuriated the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, whose MPs helped defeat his deal on what should have been “Super Saturday.”

Irish nationalists see an open border as a crucial part of the Good Friday deal, recognising the fact that families trade and move across it, often several times a day. The border marked the sovereignty of different countries but they were treated for practical purposes as if they were the same. English nationalists by contrast, view leaving it untouched as a betrayal of their core doctrine of “seizing back control from Brussels” as it would limit the prospects of UK trade deals with new countries.

Tony Blair, the Labour prime minister who oversaw the 1998 agreement, wrote recently that at its heart lay the following principle: “Northern Ireland would remain part of the UK for as long as a majority in the north wanted it, but in return the nationalist aspirations and identity of those who wanted a united Ireland would be recognized and given effect.” He warned that to proceed with Johnson’s deal risked undermining it.

It is part of the toxicity of Brexit that those who favour it stand accused of behaving in an arrogant and imperious way towards Britain’s former colony. Varadkar has been demonized in Brexit-supporting media. “A powerful element within British political life refuses to accept that the blind pursuit of British interests can have deeply damaging consequences for those beyond its borders,” wrote one Irish historian.

The irony is that since the referendum the number of British citizens applying for Irish passports has risen to record levels. (Anybody in the world born to an Irish citizen is entitled to an Irish passport while those with grandparents born in Ireland also qualify). Becoming Irish is one way for Remainer Britons to stay connected to their European identity – and rights.

Whatever happens next – and it is as hard as ever to predict - the Irish question seems certain to remain a central element of this unfinished and bitterly divisive story.