Call it poetic justice, or plain old natural justice. For centuries, Ireland has always been on the receiving end of Britain’s collateral damage from its imperial intrigues. Now, however, Ireland could have the last laugh as Britain wades further into a quagmire of trouble over the Brexit debacle to leave the European Union.
Irish sentiments on both sides of the border within that small island country are clamoring for special status which would de facto create an island-of-Ireland unity. A country which would in effect be independent from British rule and moving closer towards the long-held aspiration of Irish nationalists and republicans for a united Ireland, distinct from the rest of Britain.
As Britain stumbles towards its eventual departure from the EU scheduled for March 2019, the historic break raises special problems for Ireland. Northern Ireland, which is under British jurisdiction, will be obliged to follow the Brexit path of quitting the EU, while the Republic of Ireland will of course remain an EU member. That potentially creates the unique scenario of an EU border being imposed on the island, separating the Northern and Southern territories.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of indicators showing that most people on the island of Ireland, North and South, want the continuation of a “soft border” arrangement which has existed since the signing of a landmark peace deal in 1998 to end decades of conflict. This makes sense from an economic and cultural point of view since the ease of transport and travel is a vital daily convenience. This has become ever-more the case in recent years to the point where there are no visible signs of two different jurisdictions. For example, a motorway now links the northern city of Belfast to Dublin and Cork, in the far south, in a seamless corridor. Elsewhere in rural areas, people criss-cross easily like birds on the wing as if there is no border. In effect, Ireland has become closer to being one country, as would seem to be the natural order of things on an island with centuries of a distinct and common Celtic culture.
However, if the British government’s negotiations with the EU continue on their present rocky path, there are real fears that a so-called “hard Brexit” will bring about a return of the hard border in Ireland which existed before and during the recent conflict up until 1998, when the Good Friday Peace Accord was signed.
Hardline Brexiteers within Theresa May’s Conservative government cabinet are pushing for an abrupt break with the European Union. Ministers like Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, and the international trade secretary, Liam Fox, want to quit the EU altogether and pursue a vision of Britain as a global trading buccaneer nation.
Other British ministers, and many British citizens, as well the opposition Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn, and business leaders, would prefer a “soft Brexit” where Britain still remains part of the European single market and customs union. It would have to pay a fee for such membership and accept Brussels’ rules on EU citizens’ rights in an arrangement similar to that existing for Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.
A “soft Brexit” would leave the situation in Ireland much as it is today, where movement of goods and people is seamless without regulatory controls.
The trouble is that achieving a soft Brexit is far from certain. There are numerous signs that the EU and its chief negotiator on the matter Michel Barnier are becoming increasingly exasperated with London over its bumbling and incoherent stance.
British premier Theresa May faces a tough summit next month at the European Council in Brussels, at which the other 27 member states are to decide whether negotiations can proceed to substantive talks on the final trade deal with the EU.
May’s government is expected to show progress in commitment on three issues: a divorce bill with the EU; the guarantee of EU citizens’ rights in a post-Brexit Britain; and guarantees to uphold the soft border situation in Ireland.
The London government has so far dithered on all three issues. On the divorce bill, Theresa May last week, after months of wrangling, finally doubled the British offer of paying Brussels £40 billion (€45 billion). This is still way short of what the EU is demanding at around €60 billion. But the financial outlay has infuriated the hardline Brexiteers in her cabinet like Johnson who at one time arrogantly said the EU can “go whistle” – meaning, accept no payment at all.
On the Irish question, the British government has also shown an arrogant complacency. Last weekend, international trade minister Liam Fox asserted that London would give no commitment to the nature of the border in Ireland until a final deal with the EU was signed.
“We cannot come to a final answer on the Irish question until we get an idea of the end state [with the EU],” Fox told British media.
The London government is being supported by a small hardline pro-British Unionist party within Northern Ireland, the rather misnamed Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). It says that Northern Ireland must go the same way as the rest of the United Kingdom in its Brexit arrangement. That is, if the Brexit is a hard one resulting in strict external borders, then Northern Ireland should erect a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, according to the pro-British DUP.
But such an outcome is infuriating majority public opinion in both North and South Ireland. It should be noted that when Britain held its Brexit referendum in June 2016, the electorate in Northern Ireland voted clearly in favor of remaining with the European Union. Given the rupture to social and economic relations that the return of a hard border would create in Ireland, it is a safe assumption that a strong majority of people across the entire island would be firmly opposed to such an arrangement.
There is a deep resonance here with how the British political establishment in London has always ignored and indeed violated democratic mandates on the island of Ireland.
In a general election back in 1918, when the entire country was at that time under British colonial rule, the vast majority of the electorate – over 70 per cent – voted for the pro-independence Sinn Fein party. The response to that democratic Irish mandate by London was to artificially partition the country in order to create a British-run Northern state where formerly minority Unionist parties would thereby become the majority, thus providing London with a “mandate” to retain its jurisdictional presence in Ireland.
Likewise today, the British government is ignoring the majority wish across the whole of Ireland for the de facto non-existing border to be maintained. London seems though to be using the eventual border status within Ireland like a bargaining chip in its negotiations with the EU.
However, such British attitude is likely to rile the rest of Europe. The EU has so far shown solidarity with Ireland and the maintenance of the invisible border that has existed for the past two decades. No doubt the EU is mindful that the resurrection of a hard border could reignite conflict in Ireland. Irish republicans agreed to the peace deal in 1998 largely because it held out the promise of a gradual, eventual reunification of Ireland. The British government is now threatening to undermine that peace deal.
Brussels also backs a soft border in Ireland because it does not want to cause harmful economic repercussions for the Republic of Ireland, a member of the EU. For London to harm a EU member in this way is seen as unacceptable by Brussels.
Here’s where the history of British meddling in Ireland and the denial of natural democratic rights of the Irish nation comes back to haunt.
The government of the Irish Republic, in Dublin, is stepping up a tougher line on the Brexit negotiations. The Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar says that his country will veto any moves towards a final trade deal between the EU and Britain at next month’s summit in Brussels – unless London gives a written guarantee that it will make a special case for Ireland by maintaining a soft border regardless of the Brexit outcome.
If London refuses to comply with the Irish demand, then it faces a even more tortuous process in negotiating Brexit and on less favorable terms. That will, in turn, pile on even more problems for Britain’s ailing economy which is already floundering over Brexit anxieties.
In many ways therefore, the fate of post-Brexit Britain is now in the hands of the Irish. After centuries of being collateral damage for British political rulers, that makes for a certain poetic justice.
But, more importantly, what the whole debacle demonstrates more than ever is that Irish independence and territorial unity is an ineluctable case of natural justice. It is only British intransigence and intrigue that has impeded the natural democratic rights of Ireland and the Irish people. That kind of baleful British interference in Irish national interests is no longer acceptable, no longer tolerable.
No longer an imperial power, in fact a shambolic decrepit Little England, the case for a united independent Ireland is again clearer than ever.