Ireland may save Britain from Brexit

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.

3 thoughts on “Ireland may save Britain from Brexit”

  1. Hello Crispin

    I have just read your fine article on the Irish border and the effect on the UK’s Brexit “planning”. I entirely support your conclusions that the Irish Republic backed by the EU is right to oppose any possibility of a hard border, given that it would destroy the Good Friday Peace Accord and generate armed conflict for further generations. This is a bit of a long read but i hope it might be of interest.

    I have a very personal view on this issue as well, having, like you, been stopped with a gun in my face while trying to cross this border from Derry into Donegal in August 1974 . I had my wife and 3 year old son with me in an old Bedford campervan. We had UK passports as ID and were eventually waved through but what happened immediately prior to that was more disturbing as I will explain.

    Briefly, my great-grandfather Hugh CE Childers was Chancellor of the Exchequer in Gladstone’s Liberal government in the 1880s. He was a very strong supporter of Irish Home Rule but this opportunity was destroyed by Joseph Chamberlain and the Ulster Protestant lobby, an action that split the Liberal Party. The Asquith government’s failure to secure a settlement faced with a Tory insurrection and WW1 after 1914 followed a similar pattern. After the Easter Rebellion and the insurrection in Ireland in 1919, the whole situation changed.

    Enter Robert Erskine Childers (a second cousin had we lived in the same period), who was British born but had grown up in Ireland and who, as a journalist and writer, had become a Home Ruler and then a strong supporter of full independence. After the end of the war, he became an active Sinn Feiner, an Irish Dail member and at one point the Sinn Fein Minister for Propaganda. He was the secretary to the delegation led by Michael Collins that went to London to negotiate a treaty in 1921. It was a disaster which led to the partition of the island in 1922. It also split the Sinn Fein party and led to a terrible civil war.

    Erskine was arrested with a pistol in his possession given to him ironically by Michael Collins. He was tried and sentenced to death by a military court martial set up by the Free State government in November 1922. Before this this sentence was carried out, a Habeas Corpus writ for his release from detention was issued by Ireland’s highest court but could not be executed because the prisoner was deliberately hidden from the legal authorities. The execution is now characterised as an act of judicial murder.

    The prison authorities allowed a visit by Erskine’s son, also called Erskine, to his cell on the night before his execution. The father made his son promise never to bear any grudge against those who had signed his death warrant and to seek them out and shake them by the hand in order to end the bitterness of the civil war in Ireland. Erskine junior followed his father’s last will and testament to the letter and later entered politics as a Fianna Fail deputy who was pledged to end the bitterness and make peace within the country and with Britain. Erskine Hamilton Childers became the elected President of Ireland in 1973. We were very privileged to meet him at the presidential residence in August 1974.

    I had the opportunity to tell him the following story:
    We had crossed over to Larne from Scotland and tried to drive to Donegal through Derry city. We became completely lost and ended up in the Bogside where it was clear we were in the midst of an active urban guerilla conflict. Burnt out houses, British military patrols and very hostile locals. It was terrifying but we found our way out safely only to be stopped and searched three times before crossing the border into Donegal. Our presence had clearly been reported by the military.

    The President gave a very interesting account of political action to end this crisis and made the observation that members of our family had tried for the best part of 100 years to end this nightmare by negotiation, then direct opposition then negotiation again. All ended in failure until 1998.

    The Good Friday peace accord was the only way to end centuries of bitterness and antagonism. The thought that the hard border could put an end to this process is more than I can bear. Brexit is a kind of waking nightmare for someone like myself, UK born but an Australian citizen who has lived and worked in Europe.

    Thus my recollections as a 72 year old man who read all this tragic family history as a child then visited Ireland and saw the horror of the conflict at first hand. It has made the most profound impression on me and convinced me that if Brexit is going to sacrifice this moment of peace by re-militarising the Irish Border, it will be a profound tragedy.

  2. Overall a good article, thanks, Crispin.
    However (yep, but…) , surely it would be better to reflect the reality that the dispute is between Irish Nationalists and Unionists who live in 6 counties of the 9 counties of Ulster (which incidentally gave rise to the Curragh Mutiny which Unionists prefer to ignore or call the ‘Curragh Incident’ – possibly the most significant mutiny in the history of the army that is supposed to obey Westminster without demur). Your remark that those residents of the 6 counties who feel Irish are mostly Catholic reveals that the argument is political (which means it can be solved), not religious (much less likely to be solved). You ight also care to check the number of Irish Presidents who have been Protestant, but Irish in outlook, not Unionist.
    You rightly highlight the Good Friday Agreement (aka Belfast Agreement). I would like journalists et al. to make it clear that this resulted in the Irish constitution being changed to accommodate the Unionist position, a very major step for any Nationalist, but agreed to in good faith in return for the open border. May’s supporters should not be allowed to get away with pretending all the angst is on the side of the Conservative and Unionist Party to give their mob the full name they are rather shy about or that the Agreement is just a minor matter. Imagine if the Australian Constitution were changed to accommodate some Chinese enclave and their Chinese Government, and then the Chinese felt they could ignore this petty agreement.

  3. “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.” Make Hadrian’s Wall Great Again 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *