Just after the referendum last year, I tweeted some cranky thoughts about Brexit, seeking to express my fears about its possible effects on Northern Ireland, and my anger over how little this issue had been mentioned during any of the debates. I was struck by two things: how many people replied saying the ramifications for Britain’s only EU land-border had never occurred to them, and the number of Brexit supporters, none of whom were from Northern Ireland, dismissing my thoughts as preposterous scaremongering.
This view was, of course, Brexit orthodoxy. “Of all the scare stories propagated by EU supporters” argued Leave luminary Daniel Hannan in late 2015, “The idea that the UK and Ireland would impose borders after 94 years is the silliest.”
A year and a half later, Brexit’s ramifications for Northern Ireland have finally become nightly news, and the prospect of a hard border doesn’t seem quite as preposterous as it once did. Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar brought the issue back to the fore when he expressed concern and frustration over how Theresa May’s team are dealing – or failing to deal – with it.
“It’s 18 months since the referendum,” he said, with a bite uncharacteristic of a man so thrilled by his first visit to Downing Street, he gushed to the press about how much it reminded him of Love Actually. “Sometimes it doesn’t seem like they have thought all this through.”
For this observation, the leader of Britain’s closest ally was decried as an “Brexit buffoon” and told to “shut his gob” by The Sun. Then came a tidal wave of assenting voices from the right-wing commentariat, none of which saw fit to challenge Varadkar’s point. While insisting there will be no hard border, the UK has flatly refused to compromise on any of the measures, such as customs or immigration, that would make anything but a hard border possible. In response to this, Labour’s Kate Hoey – who fancies herself left-wing since she’s passionate about border controls AND saving elephants – says that if there is a hard border, “Dublin will pay for it”.
Such Trumpian nonsense would be laughable were the stakes not so high. The only reachable pub where I grew up was across the border; our nearest shop was too. Having to present documents to armed men just so we can commute to work, visit next-door neighbours, or access the amenities we have used our entire lives, would not only be wildly impractical, but a cruel thing to demand of law-abiding citizens. Moreover, as I’ve specified here before, a militarised checkpoint would massively erode the self-determination of all those who identify as Irish, contravening the Good Friday Agreement and imperiling the peace process.
The severity of the situation may best be demonstrated by the Taoiseach having said anything at all, since Varadkar is not in the habit of talking back to the woman now occupying Hugh Grant’s famous desk. This argument doesn’t wash with Andrew Lilico, the executive director of Europe Economics, who claimed “the Irish government [is] seeking to edge Northern Ireland away from the UK with a view to eventual reunification”, an analysis so unmoored from the political reality that it’s equivalent to calling Theresa May a communist.
Even if he wasn’t already dealing with the resignation of his party’s deputy, Frances Fitzgerald, in the most calamitous week of his premiership, Varadkar is unlikely to have his eyes set on pursuing reunification. Despite being popular among some voters, it would likely prove eye-poppingly expensive, socially ruinous, and politically disastrous for any Dublin government. A good deal more expensive, even, than militarising the entire 300-mile stretch of border that a hard brexit would entail.
Elsewhere, Iain Duncan Smith showed his own ludicrous ignorance of Irish politics by telling Channel 4 News that Varadkar’s hard line was motivated by “a presidential election coming up”. In fact, the presidential election, such as the one due next year, selects Ireland’s head of state and does not, affect the position of An Taoiseach, nor the nation’s cabinet.
Undigested nonsense like this from Duncan Smith, Lilico, Hoey or Hannan is a sad, but unsurprising indictment of the intellectual direction in which Brexit Britain is headed. In the end, however, it’s not deluded fanatics tweeting from the sidelines that present the biggest threat. The intransigent cynics at the heart of May’s cabinet know full well their actions risk redrawing the map of Ireland. Unless they’re willing to compromise, we’re heading into dangerously uncharted territory.