Brexit and Ireland – the return of the Irish Question

Joseph Healy writes: For most of the 19th century and up until 1920s the Irish Question (or Problem) dominated British politics. It was temporarily solved in 1921 with the partition of Ireland and the granting of limited independence to the Irish Free State, later the Republic. Strange then that the Brexiteers, many of whom pride themselves on their knowledge of British and Imperial history and on their close association with the DUP, never even acknowledged Ireland during the referendum campaign of 2016. However, this arrogance and ignorance about Ireland has proved to be their undoing. The issue of how to resolve the Irish border, the only land border of the UK with an EU member state has proved to be insoluble. Many of the most hardline Brexiteers would, of course, like the DUP, be quite prepared to jettison the Good Friday Agreement and see a hard border with Ireland. They also made the strategic error of assuming that the leading EU states (France and Germany) would override any objections or concerns from Ireland in their enthusiasm a la Boris Johnson, to have champagne and German cars exported to the UK. The Irish government and diplomatic service were well prepared and started a diplomatic campaign in the EU immediately following the 2016 referendum result. The outcome has been that the EU has stood firmly beside Ireland and the UK has found itself isolated.

Furthermore, the deadly embrace of the DUP, who are obsessed with ensuring that any system pertaining to the UK is the same in Northern Ireland (apart from gay marriage and abortion) ensured that the get-out clause of Northern Ireland remaining in the single market and customs union, while the rest of the UK sailed off into Brexit Nirvana, could not apply. This meant that May had to go for the so-called Irish Backstop ensuring that no system could be in place in Ireland which affected the free movement of goods and people across the Irish land border. This has snookered her Brexit plan and meant that she now has to seek some other form of agreement which will probably include remaining in the Customs Union. Ironically the DUP have opposed the Backstop all the way ensuring that May cannot get her plan through parliament while the EU and the Irish government have insisted that no Backstop no deal.

In the interim, Anglo-Irish relations have reached a new nadir with people in Ireland angry and disgusted at the Tory Brexiteer attitude that Irish concerns are irrelevant and should be swept aside. The threat of the return of violence in Northern Ireland and indeed to the rest of the UK has taken tangible form with the murder of a young journalist in Derry and the recent bomb packages found in London and elsewhere. Meanwhile the Brexiteer insouciance continues, echoed by their English Lexiteer friends whose vision of an English Bolshevik Republic clearly does not contain space for Irish concerns. Well might they have taken note of Gladstone’s comment on Ireland: “Ireland, Ireland! that cloud in the west, that coming storm.”


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