Leader: The return of the Irish Question

After nearly two decades of peaceful coexistence between unionists and nationalists, we risk reigniting the sectarian conflicts of the past.

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Richard Nixon, the former US president about whom John Bew writes in the upcoming New Statesman issue, once declared of Latin America: “No one gives a shit about the place.” During last year’s EU referendum, the same appeared true of Northern Ireland. Though Remain supporters, such as the former prime ministers John Major and Tony Blair, warned of the consequences of Brexit for the province, Leavers and much of the media blithely dismissed their concerns (when they acknowledged them at all).

Seventeen months after the referendum, and eight months after Article 50 was triggered, the Brexiteers are no longer so insouciant. Of all the issues that must be resolved before Britain can begin new trade talks with the EU, the Irish Question is proving the most intractable.

The Conservatives’ vow to withdraw the UK from the customs union has created an unavoidable conundrum. Regulatory divergence between Britain and the Republic of Ireland necessitates the creation of a new “hard border” on the island of Ireland or between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Neither option is palatable. After nearly two decades of peaceful coexistence between unionists and nationalists, we risk returning to the sectarian conflicts of the past. The success of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement lay in ending the forced choice between British and Irish identities. People and goods move freely across an island border with 275 crossings (compared to 20 during the Troubles). Even more than the Conservatives’ post-election pact with the Democratic Unionist Party, Brexit threatens this delicate settlement.

The government’s response, however, has been one of bluster and denial. Its August position paper, which proposed using technology to create an “invisible border”, was rightly derided by the EU as “magical thinking”. As similarly Panglossian schemes have been floated (including the use of airships), the Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has grown understandably impatient.

After Theresa May’s repeated insistence that there will be no “hard border” in Ireland or “physical infrastructure”, Mr Varadkar last month demanded a written guarantee. “It’s ten years since people who wanted a referendum started agitating for one,” he observed. “Sometimes it doesn’t seem like they have thought all this through.”

Rather than conceding as much, the Brexiteers and their outriders have resorted to abuse. Hostile briefings have cast Mr Varadkar as a stooge of Sinn Féin and Brussels. The possibility that he is merely defending his nation’s political and economic interests, as any responsible leader would, has eluded many Brexiteers.

Ireland is grappling with a problem created by the UK or, more specifically, the Conservative Party. Although the Leave campaign narrowly won the 2016 referendum, the result did not imply automatic withdrawal from the customs union. Unlike the EU’s single market, which forced Britain to accept the free movement of peoples, this was not an arrangement that voters had a strong objection to.

It is only the Tories’ Brexiteer wing that yearns to pull Britain out of the customs union. Cabinet ministers speak vividly of new agreements with the US and the wider “Anglosphere” that will enrich the UK. “Within two years,” wrote the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, on 14 July 2016, “we can negotiate a free trade area massively larger than the EU.” More magical thinking.

In reality, Britain will not be able to sign any new trade deals until after a planned two-year transition period ends in March 2021. Any gains, as economists have repeatedly shown, will be far outweighed by the losses from restricted European access.

For the sake of ideological fantasies, then, Britain is grievously undermining relations with one of its closest allies. Peace in Northern Ireland, which has had no government since March, is not permanent; it must be assiduously renewed. Far worse than the possibility that the Brexiteers do not know this is another explanation: they do not care. 

This article first appeared in the 30 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world