Northern Ireland discord poisons broader Brexit talks

by Bruce Clark | 23.10.2017

For the last quarter-century, Northern Ireland’s peace has rested on a simple, common-sense principle. People who disagree radically about the ultimate future of their home territory can cooperate pragmatically for that territory’s short-term good. Just when Northern Ireland needs such cooperation most, exactly the opposite spirit is prevailing. Nine months after the collapse of power-sharing, Northern Ireland’s two main parties are approaching Brexit’s dilemmas in a mood of furious zero-sum competition, which is making it harder for all the other people involved, in London, Dublin and Brussels, to get along.

Consider, first, the Democratic Unionists (DUP). Their inclinations are zealously pro-Brexit, almost regardless of the consequences. Ian Paisley junior, son of the party’s founder, has described Brexit as a “revolution” in which people must keep faith. One feature of revolutions is that people get hurt, but to the revolutionary, this is a price worth paying.

In recent days, right-wing Tories and DUP parliamentarians have been making common cause to denounce Philip Hammond for faint-heartedness in fighting Britain’s corner in the Brexit talks. They chided the chancellor for his apparent unwillingness to toy with the nuclear option of a no-deal exit. Given the disastrous consequences of that scenario for Northern Ireland, you might wonder why the DUP is adopting such a stance. But then, revolutions are never risk-free, they would retort.

This ideological zeal is not just a local curiosity. The DUP’s political deal to prop up the Conservative government gives them a leverage which is far out of proportion to their numbers.

By the lights of common logic, the biggest worry for any party in Northern Ireland should be the prospect of barriers to trade with the Irish republic. But that is not the DUP’s greatest dread. It is far more worried about customs checks being imposed between the whole island of Ireland and Great Britain.

Throwing a customs and security ring around the whole island of Ireland might be tempting for the EU, which is determined to protect its “legal order”, and for post-Brexit Britain, with its stated aim of controlling its own borders. But the DUP will not tolerate such an outcome; if it came to a choice it would prefer a hardening of the land border (something their Irish-republican neighbours would see as an act of war) over any weakening of Northern Irish links with Britain. And the DUP seems confident of imposing that line on London.

Sinn Fein limits Varadkar’s freedom

On the nationalist side of Irish politics, a similar pattern of local rancour oozing outwards is discernible if you look hard enough. On the surface, the leftist republicans of Sinn Fein and the centre-right government in Dublin, headed by Leo Varadkar, are at opposite poles. But Sinn Fein’s stances limit the room for manoeuvre of any Irish government.

If Varadkar were to collude with a Brexit arrangement that seemed to harden Ireland’s internal partition, he would lay himself open to Irish-nationalist attack. This effect is visible already. His predecessor as taoiseach (prime minister), Enda Kenny, was quietly willing to let his civil servants discuss the technical details of a hardened inter-Irish border with British counterparts. Varadkar has reversed that position, saying that Brexit is a problem made in Britain and Britain must find solutions.

Sinn Fein’s general response to Brexit is the mirror image of the DUP line. For the Irish republicans, the avoidance of any hardening of the land border is the overwhelming priority. They go on to argue that giving Northern Ireland a special status, somewhat detached from Great Britain, is the best way to serve that purpose. No wonder the prospects for any restoration of power-sharing in Belfast look so dim.

In the weeks to come, expect Sinn Fein’s pressure on Dublin to intensify. The chances are that in the absence of any local consensus, Britain will re-impose a form of direct rule on Northern Ireland. The Irish Republic will duly protest that if any outsiders are to impose their will on the region, it should be London and Dublin jointly, not London alone. But how loudly will it complain? Unless the protest is thundering, Sinn Fein will accuse Varadkar of being weak-willed in defence of Ireland.  

At a time when London, Brussels and Dublin are supposed to be talking intelligently about how to mitigate the effects of Brexit on western Europe’s most troubled region, none of this is much help.

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    Edited by Hugo Dixon

    One Response to “Northern Ireland discord poisons broader Brexit talks”

    • Time has come for the government to accept we need to stay in the Customs Union. Without that there is no solution to the Irish border problem which will be acceptable to the EU, yet along Britain and Ireland.