For the first time in more than 300 years, England has not been able to bully Ireland to get its own way. This week, the old divide-and-rule tactics of the British Empire fell flat because Ireland is no longer on its own. It has 26 rock-solid friends in the European Union who have vowed not to drop the Irish backstop in any arrangement with Britain to leave the European Union.
The question of the Irish border was hardly mentioned in the 2016 referendum which voted 52-48 for Britain to leave, but now it looks as if could well result in Britain remaining.
The trouble for Britain has been that Prime Minister Theresa May used the typical tactic of empire: promise contradictory things to different people and only deliver to the ruling class.
In 2016, May told the rah-rahs at the Conservative Party annual conference that her Brexit plan had red lines which she would not cross: no customs union and no single market so Britain would take back control of immigration and its borders.
It would mean that Britain could forge its own trade deals with countries outside the EU; that Britain would not contribute to the EU budget and would not come under the jurisdiction of the European court system and EU regulations. Rah-rah, they cried.
But these red lines, which incidentally were never part of the referendum, were completely inconsistent with Britain’s obligations under the Irish 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
That agreement requires a single market. The single European market which began in 1993 meant that goods and people could cross freely over borders between European countries in the same way that people and goods move between, say, Victoria and NSW.
Under the Good Friday Agreement, the watch-towers and checkpoints along the 500km border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic disappeared. Anyone born in Northern Ireland could get an Irish passport and be treated as an Irish citizen (many did) and vice versa (virtually no-one did).
The border was the symbolic and actual battleground between the Catholic and Protestant communities. The violence, sparked by repression of and discrimination against Catholics, killed 3500 people in the three decades before the Good Friday Agreement.
Without the hard border, however, people who lived in the north and felt Irish, mainly Catholics, had much less to fight about. People and goods could cross the border freely and they could be citizens.
But now, Brexit threatens to reimpose the hard border. If May’s red lines remain intact, how can Britain take back control of its borders if anyone can wander with whatever goods they want into Britain over the 500km Irish border?
May’s “solution” in 2017 was: “Nobody wants to return to the borders of the past so we will make it a priority to deliver a practical solution as soon as we can.”
Yeah? Surely that means never, because logically how can you take back control of your borders without having controls and checkpoints at that border – the “borders of the past” which were the source of so much violence and grief.
The EU’s response has been that there will be no exit deal with Britain if it could result in a hard land border in Ireland.
But the British Parliament has said Britain cannot leave the EU without a reasonable exit arrangement.
A majority will not tolerate what is called a “hard” Brexit because the disruption would be inconvenient and costly as the EU would impose inspections on trucks coming from Britain and tariffs on the goods in them. Ironically, most of the burden would fall on the very people who voted to leave.
So there is the impasse. The British Parliament will not tolerate a hard Brexit and the EU will not tolerate a soft Brexit without an indefinite Irish backstop which necessitates a single market.
If neither gives way (very likely) there are only two other possibilities: Britain stays in the EU or Northern Ireland leaves Britain and becomes part of the Irish Republic and hence the EU. Of course, the Scots, a majority of whom voted to stay in the EU, might be thinking the same thing: leave Britain and become part of the EU.
The contrast between European and British behaviour over all this has been instructive. Europe, while being conciliatory to the leaving Britain, is unanimously and loyally standing by its member: the Irish underdog. The Conservative British Government, on the other hand, has been willing to sacrifice peace in Northern Ireland and the Catholic community there to appease the far-right, populist, nationalist Brexiters in its own party and to cling to government at all costs.
Hard-right Brexiter Jason Rees-Mogg’s threat to disrupt the EU from within if Britain’s stay is extended (as it has till October 31) is another example of contrasting poor behaviour.
The real agenda has been laid out by the hard-right who say that, when Britain leaves, company taxes must be cut and regulation removed to attract corporations to Britain – hurting the very people who were duped into voting for Brexit.
Nor has Labour seized the moment to extricate Britain from the harrowing mess it was duped into voting for in 2016.
And it was duped. Now that many of those voters see the resulting mess and unintended consequences (like the threat to peace in Ireland) they may want to reconsider. Britain should take the advice of the president of the European Council Donald Tusk and not waste the extension time because it opened the further opportunity for Britain to “revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit altogether”.
Footnote: In 1983, while working on secondment with The Belfast Telegraph, I returned to Belfast late at night after a few pleasant days driving around the Irish Republic – a big contrast with reporting violence in the north. I was stopped at the border by armed guards – a bearded man in his early 30s giving rise to instant suspicion. I and the car were searched at gunpoint. Surely, Brexit is simply not worth a return to that border and the pre-1998 violence it epitomises.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age on 13 April 2019.