Irish problem shows EU is a peace project

by Quentin Peel | 27.02.2018

From the very start, the idea of European integration was more about peace than prosperity. That was how Winston Churchill conceived Franco-German reconciliation at the heart of Europe in his 1946 Zurich speech. Peace was the inspiration for the six nations that signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957.

Yet the idea never caught on in the UK. Most British politicians and commentators thought the Common Market was just about trade. “Peace” was something France and Germany should worry about, rather than the British on their long un-invaded island.

The struggle for peace in Ireland should have taught them otherwise. The very existence of the EU provided a vital underpinning to the Northern Irish peace process, culminating in the Good Friday Agreement. That was thanks in part to Britain and Ireland sitting together in all the EU institutions, discovering mutual respect and forging frequent alliances over four decades. They learned to talk to each other. Before 1973 it had been a dialogue of the deaf.

The common EU umbrella also reassured Irish nationalists that the division of the island need not be set in stone. The border could become all but invisible. Twenty years ago, after three decades of bloodshed, the gunmen were persuaded to lay down their bombs and bullets. Both sides welcomed a flood of money from Brussels to underpin cross-border trade, economic development, jobs for the young and reconciliation.

Brexit conundrum

Brexit is calling all of that into question. Theresa May insists she can have three things: no hard border in Ireland, no internal border between Northern Ireland and Britain, and the whole UK leaving the EU’s customs union. The EU is calling for regulatory alignment between North and South. Michel Barnier has warned a hard border of some sort will be “unavoidable” if this doesn’t happen. Any land border, even if it only consists of CCTV cameras, will be a symbol of division – and a target.

There is an alternative. If May doesn’t want this to apply nationwide there will need to be customs checks between Britain and Northern Ireland. But May’s DUP allies won’t stand for this, and if she tries it they could pull the rug on her government and send the whole Brexit process into chaos.

Meanwhile power-sharing has collapsed at Stormont, as unionists and nationalists retreat into their sectarian camps. Although Northern Ireland voted Remain by 56 to 44 per cent, the referendum reinforced differences, for almost all republicans were Remainers, while most of the unionist community voted for Brexit.

The carefully crafted balance of power in Belfast has been wrecked: while Theresa May is relying on one side – the DUP – to preserve her majority at Westminster, the other side – Sinn Fein – refuses even to attend the UK parliament. That means that the nationalist voice is unrepresented at Westminster, while without any power-sharing executive in Belfast, the Northern Irish voice is silent in the Brexit negotiations. Meanwhile, regular inter-ministerial meetings between London and Dublin have almost ceased, and the two governments are full of mutual mistrust.

Brexiters don’t care

Yet the Brits on the mainland scarcely seem to have noticed – or to care. Ireland and the peace process were barely mentioned in the referendum in 2016 – by either Leavers or Remainers. Theresa Villiers, arch-Brexiter and then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, merely insisted repeatedly that anyone saying Brexit might undermine the peace process was guilty of “scaremongering of the most irresponsible and dangerous kind”.

Yet it is the Brexiters who are “not only irresponsible, but reckless”, as Irish deputy prime minister Simon Coveney said last week. He was responding to statements by Owen Paterson (another former Northern Ireland Secretary), Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, and Labour Brexiter Kate Hoey, all of whom called into question the Good Friday Agreement. “Talking down the GFA… undermines the foundations of a fragile peace process in Northern Ireland that should never be taken for granted,” Coveney said.

May and her ministers have repeated frequently that they will do nothing to undermine the GFA, and they are adamantly against reimposing any form of “hard” border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. But they have yet to come up with any proposal that allows them both to leave the customs union and preserve an invisible border. And their efforts to restore power-sharing in Belfast have been utterly ineffectual.

It is possible, and certainly desirable, that the preservation of peace in Northern Ireland will prove to be the Achilles heel of the Brexit process. The UK government would have to come to its senses, and realise that it cannot have Brexit and stability in Northern Ireland. That in turn means realising what should have been obvious from the start: that the EU is above all a project for peace, not just a trading relationship.

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    Edited by Luke Lythgoe

    7 Responses to “Irish problem shows EU is a peace project”

    • Duncan Smith has just been on World At One (BBC R4). If I understood him correctly, there is no difficulty with an invisible border in Ireland because IT already exists to allow cross-border trade without physical checks. It is already in use in some British ports which import only from non-EU sources. Only 2% of the Republic’s trade is directly with Northern Ireland anyway. Unfortunately, there was not enough time in the interview slot for him to be quizzed about the movement of people across the border.

      Have these assertions been fact-checked?

    • There must be no discrimanination in favour of people of NI, if there is an open/invisible border with freedom of movement in Ireland, the same must apply to England and continenetal Europe. If that results in bloodshed, so be it – the blood will be on the hands of the lowlife who voted Tory in 2015, nobody else.

    • Economics is important but fundamentally good governance is working with your neighbours not against them. The world is going to change in many ways and I’d rather be part of a larger group dealing with those challenges than a small player doing some “very well alone” effort. And when it comes to taking back control, most of the problems we have in the UK we can deal with inside or outside of the EU so let’s get on with that. Prisons, NHS etc. , welfare. The will of the people is not clear or obvious. Brexit is madness.

    • If Boris and Duncan Smith’s proposal to install an all high-tech Irish border with no physical checks is so easy and straight-forward, why is the Government not implementing one at Dover, or Heathrow? And do away with all those customs and immigration officials.

    • Stopping Brexit is the true solution to our problems but we must respect the will of the 4% majority. We must also respect the will of the much larger majority who voted to be in the European Common Market back in the seventies.
      The way to do both is to leave the European Union but stay in the Common Market as Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party have , at last, advised. It is not good enough and will leave us still as a small fish in a very large pond (probably inhabited by sharks).All Remainers should, as a half measure, support Labour. But our primary aim must be a second referendum when the terms are known.

    • The EU is above all a project for peace indeed. For those wishing to consider this aspect of the BRexit dilemma further I invite them to consult my article ” The EU -a union for Peace ” on the European Movement website where I seek to show how the EU has contributed decisively to creating conditions for a durable peace in Europe.

    • Arnold: unless Jeremy Corbyn commits to at least staying in the Single Market as well as the/a Customs Union we will not be members of the Common Market even.