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6 December 2017

The border question can be solved, but only once Britain understands what the Irish want

Brexit presents a host of potential problems that Ireland never asked for and could really do without.

By John Bew

One of a number of reasons why I voted Remain in the EU referendum was concern for the uneasy equilibrium that has existed in Northern Irish politics since the 1998 Belfast Agreement. Some of those fears have been realised, played out in the ongoing impasse over the Irish border.

This is proving to be the trickiest issue in the first phase of Brexit talks. It cannot, in point of fact, be truly settled until the final post-Brexit trading arrangements between the UK and the EU are set in place. Yet, as complex as the border is, it is neither an existential threat to the Irish peace process nor inherently insurmountable. Much of the bloviating – encouraged by a culture of excessive leaking, familiar to those of us who lived through the peace process – has been detached from consideration of the hard facts and state interests involved.

From the Irish government’s perspective, Brexit presents a whole host of potential problems that Ireland never asked for and could really do without. Over the past few months, it has played hardball on the border with a tenacity that has surprised many in London. Since his appointment in June this year, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has been firmly aligned with the negotiating position of the EU27 in the Brexit talks.

He was apparently rewarded for this by the European Council President, Donald Tusk, who on a recent visit to Dublin promised the Taoiseach a veto on any arrangement proposed by the British. “A veto is something that you use when you’re isolated,” was Varadkar’s reply. “We have 26 countries behind us. We have European solidarity.”

The Irish react with genuine horror to the suggestion that they have anything but the purest of motives compared to the boorish, blundering and bumptious Brexiteers. They are certainly not, contra the claims of the DUP, playing the game of Irish unity. But the balance of forces in Irish domestic politics is not unimportant.

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Varadkar is experiencing mounting difficulties in his Fine Gael-led coalition government that are arguably as serious as those currently facing Theresa May. They include an internal party rival in the form of an ambitious foreign minister, Simon Coveney, perched on his shoulder.

Another factor is the challenge to the coalition from Sinn Fein, who have accused the Taoiseach of backsliding. Should any deal fall below their (unreachable) standards, they will demand that their government uses its EU veto. This, in part, explains why the Irish government were so eager to spin a pretty mundane text of agreement with the British as a symbolic victory of principle. And so the wild horses of the DUP – only loosely tethered by Theresa May – took fright and bolted out of the stable. They stand in the field looking frisky and alarmed but they haven’t yet run for the hills.

Beyond this, it is not in the Irish national interest to keep pushing an anti-British line into the second phase of negotiations. Already, a number of savvy centrist Dublin political commentators, such as Dan O’Brien of the Sunday Independent, are worried that their government has taken a gamble. It has even been suggested that Ireland has allowed itself to be “weaponised” by EU negotiators. Some fear that if Britain crashes out of the EU without a deal then the Irish agri-food sector – dependent on British consumer markets – will be severely damaged, with dramatic job losses.

Longer term, there are also concerns that Ireland will not be able to resist, ad infinitum, pressure from the European Commission (inspired by Emmanuel Macron) to drop the sweetheart tax deals with multi-nationals that have been at the heart of recent Irish economic policy. And for all the talk of European solidarity, it was the British who offered much more generous terms than the rest of the EU during the external bailout of the Irish economy in 2010.

The border negotiations seem to have broken down over a form of words. This was the distance reported between “no regulatory divergence on the island of Ireland”, as leaked to the Irish press, and the “continued regulatory alignment” in limited sectors governed by the Good Friday Agreement. Something went badly wrong in the choreography. But this should not disguise the fact that there has been a significant degree of convergence between the two sides over the course of the talks.

The Irish originally set out by suggesting that Northern Ireland should remain within the single market and customs union, implying a border “in the sea” between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The proposed deal stops far short of that. It also remains the case that nobody, including the DUP, wants to see a hard border on the island of Ireland. In the course of talks, a number of creative technical solutions have been proposed with the intention of making whatever border there is as frictionless as possible. Still, the precise details will depend on the nature of the UK’s long-term trading relationship with Europe. Even today, it is worth noting, the existing border is hardly flawless, with two different currencies, ongoing problems with fuel smuggling and a high terror threat.

This is no masterclass in negotiating from the British. Just as the deal appeared to crystalise, poor management of the DUP saw the government fumble the ball. Beyond that, however, the Irish do not want to sacrifice themselves on the altar of European solidarity, with negotiations poised to move on to matters that touch on their existential economic interests.

The show will most likely get back on the road once the huffing and puffing dies down, and pragmatism over the economics reasserts itself. Even Ian Paisley once conceded that while his people were British, their cows were still Irish.

This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special