Ireland has always been the Achilles heel of Brexit because of three words: Good Friday Agreement.
But as Theresa May has become more vague about the end state of Brexit, while being forced into ever tighter legal commitments for the immediate post-Brexit phase from next March, it has become the Achilles foot.
The Good Friday Agreement is an international treaty committing the British government to power-sharing devolution in Northern Ireland, and giving the Irish government a stake in guaranteeing that cross-border rules will not hinder either power-sharing or the free flow of people and goods.
The power-sharing executive is currently suspended in highly toxic fashion. The DUP majority ‘loyalist’ party in the province now holds the balance of power in the hung Parliament in Westminster and is propping up May who has to do its bidding, while the ‘nationalists’ have no representation whatever in Westminster – because Sinn Fein won’t take their seats – and therefore, presently, in the governance of Northern Ireland.
For May to push this unstable situation into crisis by the threat of a hard border would be unconscionable. And she is not the arbiter: any Brexit deal has to be acceptable to the Republic of Ireland, which will not tolerate any divergence in customs or regulatory arrangements necessitating border controls, physical or electronic.
The EU is standing firmly behind Dublin, partly out of member solidarity but also genuine fear of the repercussions, and its responsibility for them, were the ‘troubles’ to return in the North. Leo Varadkar thus secured the December commitment from the UK, given very reluctantly, that there would be ‘full regulatory alignment’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
This was enshrined in last week’s agreement on the legal basis for the implementation stage of 21 months from the end of next March, including a backstop provision for European law and oversight to continue next March if full regulatory alignment was threatened.
The problem for May is now stark. If there can’t be regulatory divergence in the interim period because it breaches the Good Friday Agreement and her own commitments last December, how can it happen thereafter? The answer is it can’t unless there is to be a border in the Irish Sea – breaking up the single market of the United Kingdom – or there is indeed to be a border in Ireland itself.
The Brexiteers know all this. It is why they fought hard not to give the December commitment. It is why Boris Johnson, in defiance of his public statements, has been minuting May privately about the need to contemplate a hard border – but don’t worry, ‘only’ 5% of goods will need to be searched and trucks stopped.
It is also, astonishingly and dangerously, why the extreme Brexit right has started calling for the end of the Good Friday Agreement. Jacob Rees-Mogg has even called for neo-colonialism. Ireland, he said last week, should leave the customs union and the single market because Britain is doing so, and it should jolly well align with us and stop complaining. As if the last century – or maybe the last five centuries – hadn’t happened.
So the Irish Achilles heel is going gangrenous and spreading up the leg.
But the extraordinary thing, I learned from a day in Dublin last week talking to foreign minister Simon Coveney and others, is that today’s generation of Irish politicians is probably the most pro-British ever. Everyone I met told me about their English relatives, how much they love London, and how great the last 25 years has been for the island of Ireland since the peace process was started by Sir John Major.
And while I was there two big announcements were made in Dublin. First, a law was passed enabling a referendum on abortion in the summer. And shortly afterwards, the Pope is visiting.
So Ireland looks set to carry out its own ‘full regulatory alignment’ with Britain on social policy, having already legalised equal marriage. And who knows, the Pope may have a thing or two to say about Brexit. Deeply coded of course, unlike those six words which apparently make hard Brexit impossible – ‘Good Friday Agreement’ and ‘full regulatory alignment’.