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15 February 2023

Why Ireland still haunts the Tories

The Conservative Party is too ignorant about the country to make Brexit work.

By Finn McRedmond

It has been three years since the Northern Ireland protocol was first agreed – but the internecine warfare over it in the Conservative Party continues. In the past week there have been secret Brexit summits, whisperings of fresh deals, and the Eurosceptic European Research Group (ERG) of MPs (remember them) threatening Rishi Sunak that his solution to the impasse will weaken Brexit and soften Britain’s stance on the European Court of Justice’s role in Northern Ireland.

All of a sudden 2023 feels like 2018. Once again, the tricky constitutional status of Northern Ireland sits at the centre of the debate.

Britain’s endemic indifference to Ireland’s politics might be maddening but it is no longer surprising. In the six-and-a-bit years since the Brexit referendum, Ireland has changed the trajectory of British politics several times. But rarely has a matter so urgent eluded the attention of so many.

Even now – despite the years of turmoil unleashed in parliament over Northern Ireland’s border, and the fact that a devolved region of the United Kingdom has been without a government for three of the past five years – lessons have not been learned. Sinn Féin’s emergence as a legitimate force both north and south of the Irish border confounds Westminster. The party’s threat to the Union is overstated, while its real danger is misunderstood.

After the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 and an uneasy peace was achieved, Ireland fell down the priority list for Britain. But Brexit returned it to the role of Britain’s irritating cousin. Of course, the locus of the debate in the run-up to the referendum was immigration, sovereignty and EU red tape. But there were warnings about how it would work in Ireland – mostly offered by the Irish media and the architects of the Good Friday Agreement, including Tony Blair. Their message was simple: Ireland would not just be a problem in the process of disentangling the United Kingdom from the European Union. It would become the problem. The predictions were right.

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Theresa May’s Irish backstop plan collapsed her government. The protocol was hastily agreed and immediately shown to be a hopeless solution to an intractable problem. May’s downfall created the conditions for a Boris Johnson premiership. Surely this, if anything, must force the realisation that Britain’s insouciant approach to its closest neighbour isn’t working anymore – whether that be Priti Patel threatening Ireland with food shortages, or the then Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley explaining in 2018 that she did not understand its politics.

ERG types faced down May’s Brexit deal time and time again – it was too soft, not a real Brexit; pussy-footing over Ireland was unacceptable. In fact, only a plaster-ripping, thoroughly masculine vision of the project would suffice (who can forget Steve Baker suggesting he could bulldoze parliament into the river over the backstop?). And when the boring May-style technocrats don’t cut it? It was time for a new man: Johnson.

It is precisely that faction that is comfortable brushing Ireland aside as a small nation, hopelessly in lockstep with the orthodoxies of the EU. The sneering dismissal has proved foolish. The true costliness of the mistake is swept under the rug by the embarrassed hard-liners who have still not managed to make their project work. These ideological flashpoints in the Conservative Party have dimmed since the Brexit years, but the afterglow can still be felt.

It should hardly shock us that British politics was oblivious to the rise of Sinn Féin – just as it was oblivious to the centrality of the Irish border to Brexit. For a nation anxiously wringing its hands over the survival of the Union, it is rather odd to see the British government’s chronic blindness to the existence of an irredentist party operating within its borders.

When Sinn Féin won the popular vote in the Republic of Ireland’s 2020 general election, nerves in London were shot. A similar jolt of anxiety swept through when polls predicted they would capture the first minister post in Stormont in 2022. Now that Michelle O’Neill is trying to form an executive – predictably held back by Unionists upset over the protocol – hair-tugging frustration abounds. But of course, all of this was screamingly obvious to anyone who cared to pay attention.

We can put the poor predictive abilities of Westminster aside because this problem runs deeper. Missing the rise of Sinn Féin may be one thing. That the party’s true nature is completely misunderstood is another, much bigger, thing. Since becoming the most popular party on the island, Britain has come to the erroneous belief that this means it will lead governments north and south of the border. And that that, in turn, will bring a united Ireland ever closer – within a decade, perhaps. 

Neither of these things are true. The historic coalition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael looks strong enough, and the arithmetic isn’t stacking in Sinn Féin’s favour; there is a looming sense that the centre will actually hold. And though Sinn Féin’s raison d’etre may be Irish unity, the popular desire for that doesn’t exist. In December only 26 per cent of people in Northern Ireland expressed a desire for unity. Sixty-six per cent in the Republic support the idea – but that support is woolly. It would likely collapse when voters were faced with the sacrifices that unity would require: a different flag, different anthem, Commonwealth membership.

Brexit had a paradoxical impact. In one sense it made clear the economic logic of a united Ireland – the border was the problem after all. But at the same time it also provided severe warnings about how messy and disruptive radical constitutional change can be. It is a remarkable irony that Brexit might have saved the Union, for now. Proof that even an uneasy status quo might trump the upheaval of the unknown.

But Sinn Féin should worry Westminster. Not because the party poses an existential threat to the Union – it doesn’t – but because proper democracies shouldn’t normalise political parties with historical associations to domestic terrorism.

All of this points to something else too: Westminster is poorly equipped to understand the world beyond its nose. The three years of bother over the Northern Ireland protocol and the collapse of power-sharing are just a small part of that bigger picture. That means problems for Britain that extend far beyond Sinn Féin.

Read more:

What is the Northern Ireland protocol?

Northern Ireland protocol shows how Brexit is still destroying the Tory party

Boris Johnson could still scupper Sunak’s Northern Ireland deal

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