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The slow headway for post-Brexit Ireland

March 18, 2009 - Contrails converging on Dublin, Ireland. - Credit: Getty Images/Stocktrek Images

Old bigotries dissolve, but they are quickly replaced by new ones if the vacuum is only filled by economic failure and inequality, by uncertainty compounded by weak leadership.

Ireland has been generating some summer headlines in insular Fleet St, on what some Celts like to think of as the Anglo-Saxon fringe of our shared archipelago. Such attention is a mixed blessing, always has been at least since Norman times. Never more so than over Brexit, the latest in a long line of disservices our largest island has casually inflicted on its neighbour.

As a mostly-Cornish Celt I am regularly irritated by England’s self-centred neglect of its Celtic hinterland – the ‘First Nations’ as Canadians now put it – though Cornwall and Wales are both still in my doghouse for quixotically voting to cut off their own cash pipeline to Brussels. The EU’s crime? To have paid them some solicitous attention and billions in Objective One funding to counter social and economic deprivation. A good turn is rarely forgiven.

In Pembroke and Penwith second home owners – ‘DFLs’, or ‘Down From Londons’ – plus Poldark retirees, add to local economic woes and ghost villages. But last weekend’s Cornish complaints about land-locked German tourists – they flock to the West Country thanks to the romantic novels of Rosamunde Pilcher thinking Devon is part of Cornwall – shows some people are hard to please. Few Germans linger to buy weekend cottages with a sea view.

Cornish rumbling about independence or full devolution status is going to remain just that. But the Republic of Ireland’s independence since 1921 is a fact. As with India and Pakistan – whose savage 70 year divorce politically-aware Brits have been marking this month – the legacy of post-imperial partition has left unhealed scars. During the most successful 30 years of Anglo-Irish cooperation since 1921, the two countries have worked by consensus on border issues. You could call it a case of informally-pooled sovereignty if you wanted to be provocative. But Brexit has reopened partition wounds and threatened to poison the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998. It was already in poor health and is now in A&E – the Stormont Assembly suspended.

Enter stage centre-right the new Fine Gael (FG) Taoiseach of Ireland, Leo Varadkar, the man whose visit to Belfast generated ink in Fleet St and offended Arron Banks, Nigel Farage’s cheque book. Even to type his name is to get ahead of the story. What kind of Irishman is called O’Varadkar? Just 38 years old and the doctor son of an Indian doctor who met his Irish mother, Miriam, a nurse, in the NHS in Slough, this Son of Erin was born in Parnell Square, Dublin – how Irish is that? – and has been a TD since 2007. A fast-tracked minister since Enda Kenny ended Fianna Fail’s (FF) long rule in 2011, he has been his successor since Kenny stepped down in May this year.

Oh yes, I almost forgot, he’s also gay, or ‘openly gay’ as we still say in Fleet St. Varadkar came out on RTE radio one Sunday morning in 2015 when he was health minister. But he is a Catholic gay. He is also more abrasively conservative than Kenny, perhaps more of a Macron (39) than a Justin Trudeau (45).

I happened to cover a bit of the Irish election of 2011 for the Guardian. It was the one when Fianna Fail paid the price for its mishandling of the Irish banking crisis in the wider bank collapse of 2007-09 which exposed reckless folly and poor regulation in most banking systems (no, not you, Canada) in what we might usefully call the Nato block. On the back of a corrupt and reckless speculative boom – mostly in property, wouldn’t you know – Ireland’s was worse than most and badly handled. It included a state guarantee of bank losses, widespread, costly recapitalisation of six banks and savage austerity to pay for it all. The IMF and the European Central Bank’s (ECB) boffins flooded in to administer the disciplinary medicine. After shaking off the Brits and – at last – the Pope, they were now in the clutches of the German austerity priesthood.

It was awful. Yet in 2011 I was surprised and relieved to find Dublin still a pretty lively city when I arrived at Dublin’s smart, refurbished airport and ventured on its smart, space-age (heavily-subsidised) new tram system into its heaving bars: all a far cry from the grubby, introverted Georgian city I first visited in 1965. There may not have been much gas in the tank – 15% unemployment by 2012 and an 85 billion euros bailout – but the battered Celtic Tiger was still purring.

The Kenny government continued with austerity, age-old emigration restarted, but – unlike Greece – the fundamentals of the Republic’s high-skills, low-tax economy, the fruit of its EU membership since 1973, had allowed it to bounce back. By December 2013 Ireland had exited its version of the troika financial bailout and resumed its place in the modern European mainstream: high rise steel and glass, gay marriage, a spankingly refurbished national art gallery, insane property prices again so that in 2017 commercial space is now 40% dearer than in Frankfurt, rented flats costlier than London. I was back last September on a post-Brexit holiday and Dublin felt back on keel. Galway Bay was pretty nice in the sunshine too. Those Iron Age forts on the ocean cliff edge, aren’t they something?

Since then not enough progress has been made in sorting out the consequences of Brexit for both 26 and six counties which occupy the partitioned island. That was the message the Taoiseach was sending to both Belfast and London when he made his first official trip to ‘the North’. Enda Kenny, one of David Cameron’s few friends at EU summits, had been patient. His ministers were signalling a willingness to avoid restoration of the widely-hated hard land border with Ulster, 310 meandering miles (500km) long with 30,000 people crossing daily and 3 billion euros worth of trade doing so each year.

They showed it by openness to a transfer of border functions in the EU’s only land border with the UK to Irish ports and airports, as London was then suggesting. Britain and Ireland are close to becoming the only two countries not inside the Schengen passport-free area (even the Efta Four are inside), though the Schengen arrangement, always optimistic in my book, is fraying under pressure of mass migration and Islamist terror plots.

It was part of Whitehall’s declared determination to keep open its own historic 1920s common travel area – the British Isles mini-Schengen Agreement – which survived even the Troubles and related terrorist movement, though even today’s visitors are wise to carry their passports while not strictly required to do so. No one wants Calais-style migrant camps springing up at Dundalk (or indeed Calais). After all, the hors d’oeuvre negotiating menu – ‘sufficient progress’ on individual citizen rights, Brexit’s cash settlement and the Irish border question – were the EU 27’s three stipulated pre-conditions for opening talks on future trade terms, transitional or permanent. The border is the one which could be called a matter of life and death, 3,500 since 1970.

I keep reading in the Brexit press that ‘not enough progress’ is indeed being made because EU negotiators are too rigid, too restricted by their official brief to cut deals. But we don’t really believe that, do we? Nor does the Institute of Directors, complaining again this week. Most people understand – just about – why the Cameron government did not plan ahead for negotiations to implement a Brexit verdict on June 23, 2016. Imagine the outrage if the plan had leaked, as it would. Tony Blair had the same problem planning – or not planning – for the hypothetical occupation of an Iraq he said he wasn’t yet committed to invading.

But we are now in our 14th post-referendum month and ministers, having wasted time on a disastrous election, are still unclear among themselves on the fundamentals of the agreement they seek. While the UK is ‘a bit absent from the formal negotiation’ (copyright Sir Simon Fraser ex-FCO chief) the cabinet’s pragmatists seem to be winning, inch by inch. When Sunday’s Telegraph floated a £36 billion – 40 billion euros, in funny money – Brexit bill that Theresa May’s team might be prepared to pay that looked like a further belated concession to realism. But the following day the paper’s daily sister led the page one outrage from the Brexit Martyrs Choir. No 10 dismissed what looked like an obvious trial balloon from UK number crunchers as ‘inaccurate speculation’. That’s lobby-speak for saying it’s broadly true, but needs to be fudged away in the ‘transition’ phase to 2019-21/22. UK ministers are still mainly negotiating with each other, not with Brussels, on the terms of Brexit.

So with Macron-esque impatience the young Taoiseach decided to stir things up. Irish officials have apparently done a lot of modelling on how a ‘frictionless border’ might work. ‘Can you see it?’ Michel Barnier was asked on a visit.’ No. ‘That’s the idea, we want to keep it that way.’ Trade facilitation inspection sites away from the border; electronic tagging and random searches to prevent those chlorinated US chickens being smuggled south (a French farmers’ worry); some version of the Swedish border with Norway which satisfies German concern to protect the integrity of the Union’s outer fence.

The winding lanes of this once-heavily-militarised border with its 300 crossing points is hardly a stranger to either smuggling – of petrol, goods or animals – or to sophisticated intelligence gathering. It should be fixable. Everyone expresses goodwill, but it remains a work in progress. The UK government is expected to publish its own border thoughts, one of its latest ‘position papers’, as early as next week.

Remember, as the English tend not to do, that the UK may be less important to the EU economy than it fancies. But it looms very large in the Irish economy, its biggest export market (13.9%) after Belgium. As for Northern Ireland – especially its agricultural exports – here the Republic looms even larger: 25% of the North’s exports go South, 2% of the Republic’s head North. Yet Belfast presents a further paradox, one liable to raise a medically minded Taoiseach’s blood pressure. It is that the introverted politics of Stormont are at an even greater impasse than Westminster’s.

Arlene Foster’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), still the largest party at Stormont (by one seat) may no longer be quite the reactionary behemoth that its critics love to mock and a dark past they deplore. I have defended the DUP’s expedient ‘confidence and supply’ pact to prop up Theresa May’s minority government in return for brown envelopes full of pound notes. It is hardly Westminster’s first such footsie, though it does undermine the UK government’s 1998 commitment to be ‘even handed’ in its dealings with the two communities under the Belfast Agreement.

But, for all her public severity and her hopeless handling of the botched renewable energy scheme which helped end the power sharing executive with Sinn Fein, Foster is a modernising DUP figure. The term is relative but she is not wrapped up in the old bigotries of born-again Presbyterian and Orange parade sectarianism, any more than young Sinn Feiners have cordite on their clothes. Not only is Foster an Anglican by faith (ex-Ulster Unionist too), she is apparently on friendly terms with the Republic’s openly gay and Catholic Taoiseach.

Unimaginable even a decade ago, Varadkar is the Irish PM who went to Belfast to attend a Gay Pride rally and to predict that gay marriage (enshrined by referendum in the Republic’s constitution since 2015) would inevitably reach Lough Neagh too – and quite soon. If Ian Paisley is spinning in his grave so is Eamon de Valera, the Republic’s culturally conservative Grand Ayatollah for 50 years. North and South are both changing and converging. Brexit could lead to ‘accidental’ reunification – as a report from the Irish parliament proposed last week – unless it ‘accidentally’ drives them apart again.

Old bigotries dissolve, but they are quickly replaced by new ones if the vacuum is only filled by economic failure and inequality, by uncertainty compounded by weak leadership. If the torrid plight of western democracies have taught us anything since the Fall of the Berlin Wall it is that. So Varadkar proclaimed himself merely expanding on Kenny’s policy while telling London and Belfast to get much more specific in its declared hope to keep the border open.

Since neither had moved much beyond pious declarations he sketched some himself. ‘If they cannot come up with some solutions then maybe then they might talk about mine,’ explained the man for whom the Troubles are ancient history – he wasn’t born when they kicked off in 1969. Nothing very original in what he said, more so the fact that he said it at all:

– an EU-UK trade deal like that enjoyed with Turkey which has customs union access for industrial goods (mostly textiles), but not for industrial ones and (of course) limited freedom of movement;

– an Efta-style arrangement like those of Norway or (different in important ways) Switzerland, both of which include assorted payments, regulatory conformity and much greater freedom of movement;

– or a transitional arrangement while the long term is sorted out.

Since he gently reminded his audience that Ireland has a vote (veto?) on the EU 27’s September verdict on ‘sufficient progress’, DUP reaction, inevitably led by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (where did that knighthood come from?), was negative, though Varadkar’s private talks in Belfast were said to be constructive. The awkward fact is that the DUP – accused of laundering mysterious pro-Brexit campaign funds for use in England during the referendum – has made itself a minority in the region on Brexit. Overall it voted 56% to Remain, but 85% of Catholics – Nationalists and self-declared ‘Irish’ – are estimated to have done so, only 40% of Protestants, self-styled ‘British’. As elsewhere, age and education were also determinants. In other words, the DUP core vote was for Brexit, prioritising identity over economics – as in poorer parts of the mainland. In fairness, Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech in January – the strategy rejected by voters on June 8 – did much the same. Northern Irish Remainers were shocked, as were Scots (Welsh and English too).

Varadkar says he wants the UK to remain in both the single market and customs union, the position of most UK parties, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, Sinn Fein and the non-Corbynista wing of the Labour party. He wants to avoid all but a notional form of border on land or mid-Irish Sea. But the DUP wants the UK to leave both – a Hard Brexit on free movement too – while also demanding a ‘frictionless’ land border that proves no impediment to its southbound exports. This is pure Boris Johnson: having its cake and eating it for Ulster high tea. What an irony. At the very moment when the DUP has political leverage in Downing St on a crucial issue – rare enough in itself – it chooses to shoot itself in the foot with a discarded UVF revolver.

That’s not all. Sinn Fein was quick off the blocks to demand another border referendum if the Davis-Barnier talks re-divide Ireland. Varadkar is suspected by some as seeing Brexit as the opportunity to clinch what de Valera and Gerry Adams failed to achieve. After all, a child of double partition, in Ireland and India, must be tempted.

Last week’s parliamentary report from Dail Eireann about the need to prepare for that eventuality received support from ethnic Irish Labour MPs at Westminster, as it would have done from Kevin McNamara, the former Hull MP who died this week, a staunch nationalist. And, of course, in pubs along the border, ex-gunmen and their young apprentices, no longer held in check by the charismatic presence of Martin McGuinness, are biding their time – as usual. So are their criminal cousins in the smuggling trades.

Could the Republic, still emerging from a major recession, cope with integrating the subsidy-dependent North? In 2017 it is a hypothetical question, but brings into focus Belfast’s vulnerability. Edward Burke, an academic specialist, points out that 35% of the North’s exports are agricultural and could attract a trade-weighted EU tariff of 22.5%; that 87% of its farmers income comes from the EU (53% in rUK); that EU grants make up 9% of its public-sector dominated economy. That is why analysts like Burke are urging May to accept that Northern Ireland can remain in the UK – if it still wants to do so as the Catholic population grows – only if she (and Barnier) accept that it must sustain and develop special ties with the South.

That might involve Northern Ireland staying within certain EU programmes, even the common agricultural policy (CAP) and the EU keeping up its financial support for the peace process, both sides creating a Norwegian-style customs process. Amazing how the N-word keeps cropping up, isn’t it? Failing all else in a ‘no deal’ world, the island of Ireland might set up its own trade deal that would allow each side’s agricultural product to sell freely – but only in Ireland.

If that sounds odd, try to relax, there have always been anomalies in the ancient Anglo-Irish relationship, good and bad. After all, Irish citizens can vote in UK elections (and vice versa) and the world does not collapse. So we should cross our fingers and hope the negotiators can defuse the dangerous polarisation that was evident in both Northern Ireland’s elections – Stormont and Westminster – this year.

But, as the Irish rustic is supposed to have told the German tourist seeking the best route to Cornwall’s famous Blarney Stone, ‘Well, I wouldn’t start from here.’

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