The Ireland Question is not just about Ireland, but a selective view of Britain

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, November 29th 2017

Brexit has become a constitutional and political clusterfuck – a rolling embarrassment for Britain in a show that is set to run officially at least until 11pm on 29 March 2019, and in all probability for years after.

It is a crash between a right-wing Fantasyland version of Britain (witness Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and Jacob Rees-Mogg) and at the margins, a left-wing British exceptionalist story led by Corbyn which hopes, by keeping quiet, to pick up the pieces, all based on ignorance of history and the hard realities of politics and diplomacy.

Nowhere is the Brexit debacle more clearly evident than in relation to Northern Ireland and Ireland, and the boundary between them that emerges after the UK leaves the EU. This has huge consequences, as the three areas the EU prioritised for initial agreement with the UK are the border, the rights of EU citizens and the monies the UK will pay to leave. This will all come to a head at the EU summit on 14-15 December, with the UK Government’s pursuit of a hard Brexit – leaving the single market and customs union – meaning that the current porous border is under threat. A hard Brexit could lead to a hard border.

UK ignorance of Northern Ireland is embedded in British politics and culture. This is despite the profile and pains of Northern Ireland’s thirty-year civil war, known as ‘the troubles’, which spilled over onto the mainland; and the long and difficult attempts by UK Governments to barter some kind of settlement between unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland.

The Good Friday Agreement came into force after referendums in Northern Ireland and Ireland in 1998. Both the UK and Irish governments accepted the right of Northern Ireland citizens to declare themselves as either British or Irish and the right of people to hold dual citizenship; it allowed the North’s status to be guaranteed by the UK and Ireland and via the ‘consent principle’ (by which no change could happen to the North’s constitutional status without majority support), it reassured both unionists and nationalists and created a series of North-South institutions which shared and pooled sovereignty in the North between the UK and Irish Governments. This was flexible, imaginative and far-sighted politics on behalf of London and Dublin. It has stood the test of time, brought untold benefits to the North (as well as to the UK and Ireland), and is being put at risk by Brexit.

If that were not enough, UK ignorance of Northern Ireland is combined with blatant witlessness and condescension about Ireland. Irish history is barely known in the UK, even in senior British political circles. The facts of British brutal rule, colonialism and repression that did so much to create the Irish movement for independence, are barely known or acknowledged.

Take the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 – the delay of which caused the Irish potato famine, starvation and thousands of deaths, as well as mass migration. None of this is really remembered, even when there is a parallel with Brexit – the debate then being about free trade versus protectionism, bitterly dividing the Tories, and throwing them out of office for thirty years.

Fast forward to now – and Ireland, which has bounced back from the crash more effectively, and with more energy than the UK has, is constantly subjected to ignorant comments. A few choice examples demonstrate this. For example Jeremy Warner, associate editor of the Daily Telegraph said on Monday: ‘The point is that the Irish border is about so much more than economics and trade. It’s hundreds years of history; Ireland has poisoned UK politics and brought down governments for centuries, and many well do so again.’

And Kate Hoey – Labour MP for Vauxhall, leading Brexiteer, born in Northern Ireland – said on the Today programme on Monday about a hard border: ‘If this ends with a no deal we won’t be putting up the border, they’ll [the Irish Government] have to pay for it because it doesn’t need to happen.’ Shame about the Trump Mexican wall overtones.

Gerard Batten, UKIP Brexit spokesperson, commented: ‘UK threatened by Ireland. A tiny country that relies on UK for its existence’, continuing that Ireland is ‘the weakest kid in the playground sucking up to the EU bullies’ and ‘a subservient client state to the EU.’

The current British political class seem to have next to no understanding that, in the period since both the UK and Ireland joined the then EEC on 1st January 1973, Ireland has been the UK’s most close ally, advocate and interpreter in EU corridors of power. The last twenty years of UK-Irish relations, of which the Good Friday Agreement is but one part, have also been the most harmonious between the two states since Irish independence in 1922. The backdrop of both countries being in the EU has been a part of this. All of these benefits are now under threat and cannot just blithely be assumed to continue unharmed into the future as the most nonchalant Brexiteers claim.

UK politicians and media feel free to comment on Irish politics and politicians, such as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, in ways unhelpful and lacking subtlety. There seems to no awareness that such comments are read in Irish circles and factored into their responses. The Spectator’s Political Editor James Forsyth wrote at the end of last week, without a hint of irony, that: ‘If British politicians talked about a majority of the Irish electorate the way Varadkar does about Brexiteers, they would rightly be chastised.’ It does make you wonder where a Westminster watcher like Forsyth has been since the Brexit vote.

What drives this delusion and derision towards all things Irish? One major factor is the powerful myopia at the heart of the UK. The British political establishment barely understands the complexities, composition and character of the UK. This has been there throughout most, if not all, of the UK’s history, but in the here and now this misunderstanding has become a chasmic gap and one that is vitally important to how Brexit pans out.

The British story that has come to the fore since leave won the EU referendum is a Ladybird version of British history. It sees the UK as the historical good guys (which doesn’t exactly square with empire) – with Brexit offering a liberation from the shackles and constraints of Brussels and a return to a modern form of buccaneering, all-conquering capitalism dominating the waves through free trade, charm and soft power.

This is a country with a fuzzy sense of its own history, identities and borders. It is a country that never fully became European, aided by an island mentality and the experience of two World Wars. No wonder, as Fintan O’Toole has written, the view from Whitehall is that ‘Ireland is an eccentric little offshoot of Britain that must shut its gob and stop asking awkward questions.’

This set of combustible factors is combined with problem contemporary politics. It is a bit rich for British politicians to rail against the current Irish and German governments, calling them weak and divided, saying that recent election results have weakened them and their room for negotiation, and that new elections may be imminent. Are they really talking about the Irish and Germans or, are they without knowing it, talking about the current wounded, limp and lifeless UK Tory administration as it staggers on?

The Democratic Unionists can cold shoulder power-sharing with Sinn Fein because they are power-sharing with Theresa May’s Conservatives, and doing rather well out of it. The recent DUP conference saw Tory chief whip Julian Smith address the gathering, while Deputy Prime Minister Damian Green spoke at a related DUP fundraiser. It wasn’t surprising that Green was also party to attempts in the summer, once the Tory-DUP deal was signed, to get the DUP a special adviser (first paid for by the taxpayer, then from Tory funds) with such plans being blocked by civil servants.

The British Government approach to Brexit has so far been to overplay their own hand and misunderstand the EU, EU 27 and Ireland. This should not fill any of us with optimism for the period until 29 March 2019 and afterwards.

The Irish Government’s stance on the border reflects public opinion, but more critically, a collective Irish sense of history and identity. They didn’t bring about this situation. It isn’t their mess to clean up. That means they don’t have to bend themselves into contortions and trash their principles to come up with a solution. There doesn’t need to be an Irish veto on 14-15 December or a future EU summit, because the entire EU 27 stand united and in solidarity, saying no to a hard border. It is up to the UK Government to bring forward solutions whereas so far it has produced one flimsy paper touting such things as electronic tracking.

Only a tiny minority of UK public opinion wants a hard Brexit – 11% on the latest Kantar poll. 55% think the UK Government is making a hash of Brexit; 21% think it is doing a good job. 64% don’t think the UK Government has a coherent position – and they are right. Despite this, the unease of British public opinion isn’t properly expressed because of the ambiguity of Labour’s position on Brexit.

Brexit is the single biggest constitutional and political crisis the UK Government has faced since the end of the Second World War, and it is entirely an act of self-immolation. It is also the greatest crisis the Irish Government has faced since the 1920s, but one where the Irish have through the EU not just the moral high ground, but political leverage and power. We have to hope they get it right, and are better at this than the Brexit vandals running the UK Government. On this the Irish speak not just with the backing of the rest of the EU, but millions of British citizens who cannot believe the car crash unfolding. We deserve better than this from our politicians of all persuasions, and we have to make sure that we do not let them away with this.