We can no longer deny the fact that British attitudes to the island of Ireland will affect negotiationsby / November 27, 2017 / Leave a comment
How does one solve a problem like Northern Ireland? It’s a complex question—but one which the UK will soon have to summon up an answer to. So far, suggestions include an electronic border, a goods check at ports in to both the Republic of Ireland and the North, and—from republicans—the incorporation of the latter in to the former.
On the Today program, Brexiteer Kate Hoey insisted that no physical border would be necessary on the island, adding that, were such a thing to exist, Dublin would “have to pay for it.”
While Hoey didn’t quite go full “we’ll build a wall and make Leo Varadkar pay for it,” her follow-up remark asking why the Irish government doesn’t “actually become more positive about this and start looking at solutions with their closest neighbour” will have raised eyebrows in Dublin. (To say nothing of her suggestion that the Republic will likely follow Britain out of the EU.)
It is easy, from London, to underestimate the place of feeling in the negotiations. But although Hoey can claim that the UK is a “friend of the Republic of Ireland”—adding that “the relations have never been as good”—the sentiment is not necessarily reciprocated over the Irish Sea, where many feel that Britain must now lie in the bed they made in June 2016.
While the Spectator can point out the difficulties of Varadkar’s position in practice, his office can continue to claim they have been given little choice but to adopt it. One does not need to be a big fan of the Taoiseach to recognise that not only is the Republic of Ireland entitled to push back against problems which they had nothing to do with creating, but there is also growing resentment at their treatment by British politicians and press.
A recent Irish Times headline summarised this well when it declared, “Ignorance of Irish history means Brexit talks will not end well.” (That the article was penned by an immigrant to the country only gives it extra heft.)
Before the EU referendum, there seemed to be relatively little discussion about the difficulty of the UK potentially sharing a land border with an EU country—despite a good number of commentators, contrary to recent belief, doing their utmost to draw attention to the issue.
Of course, it is possible to chalk this up to the sort of wishful thinking that marked, and continues to mark, both sides of the campaign. But it is also indicative of a wider trend that has nothing to do with the specifics of Brexit.
The fact is, the majority of people in Britain do not know a huge amount about the political situation in either the Republic or in Northern Ireland. While the latter point is alarming—it is, after all, part of the UK—it is not particularly surprising: for the most part, Northern Irish history is not taught in British schools, and with the worst years of the Troubles now beyond the memory of many young people there is little demand for Brits to familiarise themselves with the details.
Of course, this fact is infuriating for the people who live there. Take, for instance, the outcry from British feminists following Donald Trump’s comments during the 2016 US election campaign about “punishing” women who seek abortion services.
This understandable response caused equally understandable outrage in Northern Ireland, where the 1967 Abortion Act (which prevents women being prosecuted) is not in place—and where the law remains, broadly, identical to what Trump was proposing.
That the work of Stella Creasy and others in Westminster has subsequently brought this fact to wider attention does not erase the memory of some British women’s ignorance.
As with feminism, so with politics more generally. Now that the Irish border is a daily topic of conversation among politicos—with, it must be said, not an insubstantial amount of bluffing involved—it is hard to remember that, not so long ago, Brexit minister David Davis referred to the Republic as “Southern Ireland” and talked about “internal borders” being constructed post-Brexit.
Even after that, journalists mostly failed to swot up: after the surprise election result in June forced Theresa May’s Tories into a shaky agreement with Arlene Foster, more than one journalist was seen asking Twitter where they could locate the DUP’s election manifesto.
One can forgive them for not knowing the ins-and-outs, but their willingness to broadcast the fact is indicative of a general expectation that political journalists in London need not understand politics in Northern Ireland.
Meanwhile, I’ve lost count of the number of Northern Irish colleagues who spent most of the year plaintively reminding their British counterparts that the North still didn’t have a government.
Whatever one feels about the obligations of this or that journalist to familiarise themselves with each UK nation (and the country with which we share a land border), it is not particularly difficult to see how this apparent lack of concern about the island of Ireland reads.
Dublin, and many of the politicians in Stormont, resent the lack of interest or care, which feeds in to the belief that Britain expects everything to magically come good without any significant difficulty or fallout. And with the threat of an election now hanging over the Dáil, patience is wearing thin.