The Brexit riddle Britain forgot
When pondering the long and often troublesome relationship between Britain and Ireland in the early 20th century, someone once said that Britain’s problem was that it always looked at Ireland “through the wrong end of a telescope”.
Given the events of the past few weeks and months, the charge against many British politicians must be considerably worse since then: these days, they don’t bother to look or think about Ireland all.
But we’re thinking about it now. Because it is Ireland, not money, which threatens to destabilise the Prime Minister’s negotiations.
Ireland has the power of veto over Britain moving onto the next stage of trade negotiations, which it has said it will use if it is not satisfied that the Brexit settlement won’t make the border in Northern Ireland less porous.
We now have less than 10 days to sort the problem before December’s EU summit.
Many in Westminster’s media and political class have seemed surprised at Ireland’s perceived truculence.
They shouldn’t have been, if they’d been paying attention to what the Irish government has been saying for months, it’s clear the writing has long been on the wall.
The typical British response to the situation in Ireland has been perfunctory and, at times, bordering on insouciant: usually going along the lines of “where there’s a will there’s a way”.
“Ireland will sort itself out.”
The competing narratives of this question apparently extend up to and including the leaders of both countries themselves.
So much so that, at an EU summit in Gothenburg last week, Theresa May is reputed to have told Leo Varadkar that “we are close” on a deal – to which the Taoiseach responded that this was “fantasy”.
Indeed he told me in an interview later that day that the two sides were “nowhere near close”.
This situation we find ourselves in now stretches back to the referendum.
During the campaign, aside from a few game attempts by former prime ministers (and architects of the Good Friday Agreement both) John Major and Tony Blair to discuss it, Ireland – and the issues pertaining to the border which Brexit would inevitably involve – barely got a look in on the mainland.
Given that Brexit might imperil the hard won political stability of one of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom, that is extraordinary.
That curious and ahistorical attitude stretched up to the then Northern Ireland Secretary, Theresa Villiers herself.
Thus the Irish and British public were treated to the bizarre spectacle of a British Northern Ireland Secretary publicly advocating and campaigning for a political outcome which, whatever its overall rights and wrongs, would almost certainly lead to a destabilisation of the political situation and stability in the region for which she was responsible.
The situation since has not been much better.
There is perhaps no finer example of the Anglo-shrug of all matters Irish than the much vaunted 4,000 word article by the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson on Brexit, which he wrote before the Conservative party conference.
4,000 words of his usual glittering penmanship. Not one word about Ireland.
How are we to explain that? Especially from politicians of the Conservative and Unionist party, of all things?
In some ways it involves the passing of time. The darkness and damage of the Troubles, to many of us on the mainland at least, seem remote and distant.
The Good Friday Agreement has been almost too successful: it has allowed us to put Northern Ireland’s troubles in a box marked “history”.
It has thus apparently given way to a deep complacency amongst a generation of politicians who assume things will be fine in the end.
Some, perhaps more troublingly, are aware of the risk but ultimately care about Brexit more than Ireland – and are therefore willing to roll the Irish dice to get it.
In some ways, in terms of our ignorance of matters Irish, t’was ever thus.
Britain has generally ignored its smaller neighbour until its problems proved so great that it had little choice but to confront them.
But there’s a difference this time: for the first time, with its veto, Ireland has serious power over her larger neighbour.
They have the power to unlock something we desperately want – but the Irish key looks nearly impossible to obtain.
The Irish government has been clear that they will not accept any situation where the border is any harder than it is at the moment.
To that end they have suggested that the best option (as reiterated today by Irish EU Commissioner Phil Hogan) is for the UK to stay in the customs union and preferably the single market too.
But the British government has also been clear since the PM made her Lancaster House speech in January: we are leaving both. To resile from that would not be tolerated by her backbenches or indeed, many in her cabinet.
Ireland has therefore suggested some sort of special status for Northern Ireland. Perhaps the province could stay in the customs union and single market.
That, however, has been rejected by the DUP for the obvious reason that Northern Ireland would become more closely bound to the Republic and the rest of the EU and slowly drift away from Britain (by far the country’s biggest export market).
The truth is much of the Brexiteer argument on Ireland was always rather woolly.
For a start many of those who currently say that the Irish situation will be fine in the end do so in the same breath as saying that a No Deal outcome is possible – and some even say that it is desirable.