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Irish tensions stoked by Brexit border ‘deal’

The Irish border 'deal' could be just the 'beginning of a very rocky road'. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images - Credit: Bloomberg via Getty Images

The border issue may have been fudged for now, but when it comes to Ireland, much else has become abundantly clear, says DEIRDRE HEENAN.

Theresa May is enjoying a rare moment in the sunshine. Last week, when it seemed that she couldn’t find a way to break the logjam in negotiations, many were predicting that this was her Waterloo. But she delivered a breakthrough deal that paved the way for future trade talks. So what, if anything, have learnt from these initial interactions?

Firstly, successful negotiations are built on planning, evidence and research. As the Irish border was identified as an issue of primacy by the EU, it therefore seemed safe to assume it would be the subject of exhaustive research and evaluation. Apparently not. In the last week, it became clear that not only did British politicians and diplomats not have solutions to this self-imposed conundrum, they simply didn’t understand the problem.

Of course, not every British politician can be expected to have a detailed understanding of the nuances of Irish politics. But it would however be reasonable to assume that senior figures in the Tory party would be fairly au fait with the issues and complexities.

Step forward two former Northern Ireland Secretaries, Owen Paterson and Theresa Villiers, who both casually dismissed concerns as over-stated and inflated. Paterson has consistently suggested that technology could allay concerns. When asked to provide some detail how this would work, it was evident that he hadn’t the faintest idea.

On a similar theme, Villiers airily noted that the problem could be solved with ‘goodwill and technology’. Not to be outdone, Iain Duncan Smith suggested the reason Irish Taoiseach was playing ‘hardball’ was because the presidential election was coming up and his party Finn Gael is under pressure from Sinn Fein, thereby illustrating a staggering lack of knowledge.

The Irish presidential role is largely ceremonial and an election at least 12 months away. He then went on to suggest that this ‘Irish stuff’ had only recently become an issue and Brexit was being used as cover for other political ambitions and agendas – despite the fact that politicians, journalists and academics have endlessly reiterated the need to address the specifics of the border.

Secondly, building relationships is an essential part of successful planning. This involves listening to and respecting the views of others, understanding aims and shared objectives. Diplomats and politicians need the right mix of tact, finesse and negotiating skills. Here, frustration at being unable to simply move to trade talks was directly largely at Ireland. The focus of much of this anger and frustration was the newly-appointed Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

There was outrage he was putting Ireland’s interests ahead of the UK’s. Imagine! Some in the DUP couldn’t resist weighing in, referring to Irish politicians as chancers and cowboys. Former DUP leader Peter Robinson gave his tuppence worth, suggesting Dublin ‘needed to wind its neck in’. In the days following the agreed EU-UK text, the DUP’s Ian Paisley Jnr boasted, ‘we’ve done over Varadkar’. In a matter of weeks, the Brexit debate had become toxic, reignited old prejudices and poisoned an increasingly positive and pragmatic relationship between the DUP and Dublin.

Finally, successful negotiations should be underpinned by a recognition and appreciation of cultural differences. Brexit is not just about politics, trade and economy but also embraces ideas of belonging, emotions and identity. The PM’s DUP miscalculation illustrated her lack of understanding of her partners.

The DUP have described maintaining the Union as their guiding star and would inevitably baulk at anything that would prevent them leaving the EU on the same terms as the UK. The surprise is that anyone would be surprised by this reaction. May’s public humiliation was completely avoidable. Appreciating cultural differences is not just about understanding other perspectives, but being able to predict with certainty how others will react.

The agreement between the EU and the UK is a fudge. The border question has not been resolved, merely kicked down the road, and Anglo-Irish relations and North-South have been damaged. Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, the devolved government has collapsed and contrary to popular belief Arlene Foster is not the First Minister. Nationalists in the North have been completely sidelined and there is growing resentment about how they and the Dublin government are being treated.

Political circumstances mean the Irish government is in a proxy representative role for nationalists in the North. The UK government is partisan and neglecting its duty to represent the interests of all of its citizens. The DUP can claim a pyrrhic victory, but the reality remains. If you have different customs policies in two different countries you need a border. Technology may help to address some issues but a political problem requires a political solution.

Supporting Brexit may make them feel more British and help affirm their identity, but it can’t change the fact that they reside on the island of Ireland. This debacle has simply confirmed for many that the Tory government simply don’t understand the political dynamics of Ireland.

We are, and always will be, a place apart. This is not the end, only the beginning of a very rocky road.

• Deirdre Heenan is professor of social policy at Ulster University

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