In the early 1990s, after more than 20 years of carnage, one truth began to be accepted on both sides of the Irish Sea. It was that if the people of Northern Ireland were to be given a chance of a decent future, the British and Irish governments had to present at all times a united front. Whatever tensions there might be behind the scenes, it must be clear that the long, slow process of ending the conflict would always be a joint enterprise. There were unwritten but well-understood rules: no solo runs, no grandstanding, no surprises, no playing to any tribal gallery.
Right up to 2016, I was pretty sure that this compact was permanent. It was rooted in a profound sense of mutual interest. But it had also been institutionalised in diplomacy, in the civil service, in a nexus of trust and mutual regard. It felt like the end, not just of the Troubles, but of centuries of condescension and bitterness. Things had changed – for the better and for good.
Watching the debates during the referendum campaign, though, two things were as obvious as they were depressing. One was that Northern Ireland barely mattered. The other was that, if forced to acknowledge it, the Brexiteers could barely be bothered to disguise how irritating they found its existence and the way it complicated their grand project. It was no surprise, therefore, that their victory also led to the abandonment of that hard-won understanding of the need for care and for consensus between London and Dublin. Back came the solo runs, the grandstanding, the surprises, the playing to the tribal gallery of the DUP. Back came the belief that it is OK to use Northern Ireland for proxy wars against the EU, as if the place has not had enough of the real kind of war.
I don’t know whether there is a way back from this grim alteration. Fighting over the Northern Ireland protocol feels just too convenient as a distraction from the deeper effects of Brexit. It lets the Brexiters flex those macho muscles in a way that seems, to them, harmless. There was a time when most of the British political world knew that muscle-flexing over Northern Ireland is never harmless.
Fintan O’Toole is a columnist at the Irish Times and author of “Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain” (Apollo)