Irish ideologies making May’s Brexit impossible

by Bruce Clark | 05.12.2017

Yesterday’s all-but Brexit deal was a delicate house of cards, vulnerable to many gusts. In the end it was toppled by one freezing blast from Europe’s periphery.

There was no regret, heaviness of heart or sensitivity to the concerns of others in the way the Democratic Unionist Party – representing about 300,000 voters in Northern Ireland – blew the cards down.

A continent watched with dismay. As of the morning of December 4, there was confidence in London, Brussels and Dublin that a bargain over the Irish border would unlock the next phase of Brexit. Hours later, Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, was “disappointed and surprised” at the collapse. Jean-Claude Juncker, Theresa May’s European interlocutor, seemed sorry for her.

Meanwhile the bosses of the DUP, assembled in Belfast’s Stormont Castle which once epitomised Unionist power, seemed cock-a-hoop at the sabotage they had pulled off. Their leader Arlene Foster declared: “We will not accept any form of regulatory divergence which separates Northern Ireland economically or politically from the rest of the United Kingdom. The economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom will not be compromised in any way.”

She was responding to leaked language in the draft deal which had stressed regulatory co-ordination within Ireland, rather than across the UK – although David Davis, the Brexit secretary, in Parliament today spoke about the whole of the UK being subject to “regulatory alignment”.

The text in yesterday’s draft deal apparently read: “In the absence of agreed solutions, the UK will ensure that there is continued regulatory alignment from those rules of internal market and customs union which, now or in the future, support north-south cooperation and protection of the Good Friday agreement.” The odd syntax was a sign of rapid but initially constructive horse-trading.

What lies behind these contortions is the accord struck on Good Friday 1998, which is the basis for peace in Northern Ireland: this foresees ever-deepening economic relationships across the island, facilitated by UK and Irish membership of the European Union.

Last summer bureaucrats in London, Dublin and Brussels identified more than 140 spheres of north-south cooperation which would be affected by Brexit. Given that hitherto, common EU membership and the GFA have been pulling in the same direction, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact effects of each factor.

But there are several sectors where the north-south consultations foreseen by the GFA have helped: a single market in electricity operates across Ireland; common veterinary standards help to manage risks like bovine epidemics; common pharmaceutical norms help doctors to deal with patients on both sides of the border. Any reversal of these gains would be crazy.

In the real world, management of the various boundaries within the British Isles is more of a grey area than today’s ideological battle-cries would suggest. Even now, Ireland’s internal border is not perfectly seamless for traders, given that different currencies and tax regimes have to be negotiated. And even now, the Irish Sea is a more rigorously policed boundary for anyone transporting livestock than the inter-Irish frontier is. Geography dictates that.  

And the fact is that the “constitutional integrity” of the UK has already been compromised by the GFA, which gives the Irish republic a say in Northern Irish affairs. It could be argued that Northern Ireland’s radical otherness was established in 1990 when a Conservative minister, Peter Brooke, said Britain had no “selfish, strategic or economic interest” in the region. He would not have said that of Yorkshire.

And where it suits them, the DUP is happy with the otherness of Northern Ireland: it has worked to keep liberal British laws on same-sex marriage and abortion out of the province.

Where there are grey areas, honestly acknowledged, there is room for constructive bargaining. At one stage in preparations for the GFA, someone remarked that harmonising veterinary certificates across Ireland was so boring that nobody would go to war over it. And therein lay the genius of the agreement; it replaced nationalist slogans with technocratic details.

Exactly the opposite is happening now. Ominously, Sinn Fein is accusing Britain and the DUP of creating the greatest threat to the GFA in its history. Meanwhile, having hoisted the banner of old-time Empire loyalism, the DUP cannot easily pull it down without becoming vulnerable to jibes from others in the unionist camp. Varadkar has shown restraint, but that may not be enough to cool the island’s hotter heads.

The chances are that things, in Ireland at least, will get worse before they get better. And they will not get better in time to mitigate sensibly the consequences of Brexit.

This article has been updated shortly after publication to include David Davis’ comments in Parliament.

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    Edited by Luke Lythgoe

    3 Responses to “Irish ideologies making May’s Brexit impossible”

    • Great article as usual. Very informative. Can I suggest you stop using the term british isles. It is well out of date and offensive to a lot of Irish people. Thanks.

    • Sinn Fein. When will they start to contribute their bit by just doing the decent thing in the present circumstances and take their place in parliament? Whatever happens, they virtually equal the DUP in their amount of seats for MP’s.

    • I write as someone who views Brexit as economic, industrial, political and diplomatic suicide. Indeed, I believe the longer the negotiations go on, the clearer this will become.
      We cannot, therefore, allow the DUP tail, wag the English mainland dog —we need to get the DUP off the back of both the UK and the EU. Now, I don’t know if the 10 DUP votes are needed to approve, whatever Teresa May needs to push the negotiations forward this week. If they are needed, I suggest that Labour, the Lib-dems and the Greens should lend Mrs May ten votes. to negate the DUP stranglehold on our EU relations.