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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.

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.

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.

John Bew is Professor of History and Foreign Policy at King’s College London and is leading a project looking at Britain’s place in the world for Policy Exchange. He is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of Citizen Clem, an Orwell Prize-winning biography of Clement Attlee. 

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

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People are not prepared to see innovation at any price - we need to take care of our digital health

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

As individuals, we have never been better connected. As a society, we are being driven further apart.

Doteveryone’s People Power and Technology report, released this week, found that half of the 2,500 British people we surveyed said the internet had made life a lot better for people like them - but only 12 per cent saw a very positive impact on society.

These findings won’t be news to most people living in Brexit Britain - or to anyone who’s been involved in a spat on Twitter. The fact that we’re constantly connected to our smartphones has not necessarily improved our communities or our understanding of one other, and the trails of data we’re leaving behind are not turning into closer social bonds.

Many of the positives we experience are for ourselves as individuals.

Lots of consumer tech puts simple self-sufficiency first - one-click to buy, swipe right to date - giving us a feeling of cosy isolation and making one little phone an everywhere. This powerful individualism is a feature of all of the big platforms - and even social networks like Facebook and Twitter, that are meant bring us together, do so in the context of personalised recommendations and algorithmically ordered timelines.

We are all the centre of our own digital worlds. So it is no surprise that when we do look up from our phones, we feel concerned about the impact on society. Our research findings articulate the dilemma we face: do we do the thing that is easiest for us, or the one that is better for society?

For instance, 78 per cent of people see the Internet as helping us to communicate better, but 68 per cent also feel it makes us less likely to speak to each other face-to-face. 69per cent think the internet helps businesses to sell their products and services, while 53 per cent think it forces local shops to compete against larger companies online.

It’s often hard to see the causality in these trade-offs. At what point does my online shopping tip my high street into decline? When do I notice that I’ve joined another WhatsApp group but haven’t said hello to my neighbour?

When given clear choices, the public was clear in its response.  

We asked how they would feel if an online retailer offered free one-day delivery for lower income families, but this resulted in local shops closing down - 69 per cent found this unacceptable. Or if their bank invested more in combating fraud and cyber crime, but closed their local branch - 61 per cent said it was unacceptable. Or if their council made savings by putting services online and cut council tax as a result, but some people would find it hard to access these services - 56 per cent found it unacceptable.

It seems people are not prepared to see innovation at any price - and not at the expense of their local communities. The poorest find these trade offs least acceptable.

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

A clearer regulatory environment would support positive, responsible change that supports our society, not just the ambition of a few corporations.

Some clarity about our relationship with web services would be a good start. 60 per cent of people Doteveryone spoke to believed there should be an independent body they can turn to when things go wrong online; 89 per cent would like terms and conditions to be clearer, and 47% feel they have no choice but to sign up to services, even when they have concerns.

Technology regulation is complicated and fragmentary. Ofcom and the under-resourced Information Commissioner’s Office, provide some answers,but they are not sufficient to regulate the myriad effects of social media, let alone the changes that new technologies like self-driving cars will bring. There needs to be a revolution in government, but at present as consumers and citizens we can’t advocate for that. We need a body that represents us, listens to our concern and gives us a voice.

And the British public also needs to feel empowered, so we can all make better choices - adults and children alike need different kinds of understanding and capability to navigate the digital world. It is not about being able to code: it is about being able to cope.

Public Health England exists to protect and improve the nation’s health and well-being, and reduce health inequalities. Perhaps we need a digital equivalent, to protect and improve our digital health and well-being, and reduce digital inequalities.

As a society, we should not have to continually respond and adapt to the demands of the big corporations: we should also make demands of them - and we need confidence, a voice, and representation to begin to do that.

Rachel Coldicutt is chief executive of Doteveryone.