Chaos mounts in Ireland over Brexit

PUBLISHED: 07:00 02 December 2017

Prime Minister Theresa May greets Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Downing Street in London. Picture: PA

Prime Minister Theresa May greets Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Downing Street in London. Picture: PA

PA Wire/PA Images

British attacks on the Republic’s stance are wide of the mark and underscore why Ireland, one of the UK’s few potential allies in the exit negotiations, will stay on team EU, writes JASON WALSH.

Ireland’s minority Government dodged the bullet of a snap election just two weeks before Brexit negotiations on the border have to be completed.

But Ireland is still in a state of chaos about Britain’s EU withdrawal.

The timing couldn’t have been worse: just a fortnight before negotations conclude, the country was hurtling toward an unexpected general election, following pressure on the Deputy Prime Minster about her handling of a police whistleblowing scandal.

As the clock struck eleven disaster was averted: on Tuesday afternoon Frances Fitzgerald stood down as Tánaiste (Deputy PM), allowing Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar to avoid a confidence vote that would likely have toppled his Government.

Despite the last-minute reprieve, however, all is not well in the country.

Brexit negotiations have turned sour, with Ireland desperate to avoid a hard border. Post-Brexit, the Republic of Ireland’s border with Northern Ireland is set to become the only land frontier between the UK and EU, causing enormous economic fallout on both sides and, in the worst scenarios, potentially demolishing decades of frictionless travel between the UK and Ireland.

Both sides point the finger at the other, and the country that could have been Britain’s closest ally in ensuring a smooth Brexit has been forced to look out for its own interests instead.

Fulminating British commentators have suggested the governing Fine Gael party is under pressure at the polls from republican party Sinn Féin, which is, as they never fail to remind us, the political wing of the IRA.

Unfortunately, this view illustrates precisely the problem with British views on Ireland: a total ignorance of Irish politics.

Irish concern about the border is, we are told, variously, a stealth plan to pull Northern Ireland out of the UK and unify Ireland, the craven Irish doing the EU’s dirty work, and a complete non-issue that has been blown out all proportion.

None of these claims is accurate.

True, all Irish political parties other than unionists and the small, liberal Alliance party in Northern Ireland are formally committed to Irish unification, but that doesn’t mean any of them intend to do anything about it. Meanwhile, while in poll after poll we see that the people of the Republic would still quite like the UK to ‘Brexit’ from Ireland entirely the people are in no rush to see the country reunified: no-one is talking about pushing unionists into the sea.

In a recent interview with the BBC, Varadkar said he did not think a simple majority was enough of a mandate for reunification — this despite the fact that the provisions of the Belfast Agreement say it is. Clearly Varadkar is not a man on the run from Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams.

The spectre of a floating voter unable to decide between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin is just that: a phantasm. Fine Gael is a conservative party that is perfectly happy with the status quo, whereas Sinn Féin is not only a left-wing party, but is committed to a united Ireland sooner rather than later.

When it comes to doing the EU’s dirty work — or as the unionist-inclined and Northern Irish-born Labour MP Kate Hoey put it “keep[ing] the rest of the EU satisfied” — this ignores the fact that Ireland, friend of the UK as it may be, is nonetheless a sovereign state and EU member. Treating it as though it were an errant British province awaiting unification with ‘mother England’ is staggeringly ignorant and the quickest possible to get Irish backs up.

Hurting Britain is not in Ireland’s interests, but nor is allowing itself to hurt by Britain’s inability to think about even that part of Ireland it continues to rule. Even if one were to agree with the dubious claim by the late Margaret Thatcher that “Northern Ireland is as British as Finchley”, Britain has shown little interest in the place since its foundation in 1921, not only cutting it off from the newly independent Ireland, but also excluding it from British parliamentary politics.

Brexit disturbs the Irish because the UK leaving the EU gives the lie to the idea that the Irish border no longer matters, and while no-one in Ireland thinks that Brexit was intended to harm it, it has rubbed salt into old wounds, with Blimpish Brits seemingly falling over themselves to misunderstand everything about the place, even down to the name of the country.

Irish people don’t love the EU (until we all saw last year’s scenes of tearful Remainers it was not clear that anyone loved the EU) but they do like it, and have consistently told pollsters that there is no appetite for leaving. How could there be? As a small and sparsely populated country, the EU was instrumental to the country’s economic development, both in terms of structural funding and, more recently, access to the single market.

Moreover, a seat at the EU table enhances Ireland’s international standing.

In a way, the Irish wish to remain in the EU for precisely the same reason Britain’s Brexiteers want to leave: many feel that quitting the EU would diminish the country’s sovereignty, leaving it to the tender mercies of its former colonial master across the sea.

Irish rejections of the Nice and Lisbon treaties were driven by a conservative desire to keep the EU as it was; they were not the first steps in the radical move of breaking away.

Indeed, even Irish anger at the unfair terms of EU’s ‘bailout’ of its economy, which copper-fastened the then-Government’s socialisation of

private banking debt, was not followed

by a rise in British-style

euroscepticism.

To ask Ireland to side with Britain against the EU on the question of the border is to ask it to act against its interests — and as the 19th Century British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston reminded us, countries don’t have friends, merely interests.

Jason Walsh is an Irish journalist based in Paris.

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