Readers of this blog will know that I have been a voice in the wilderness when it comes to querying the wisdom of the Irish government’s ‘backstop’ strategy to avoid a hard border on the island following the UK’s exit from the EU. As far as I can tell, I am one of just one of four public or semi-public voices who have consistently raised these doubts: the others being the economist and Irish Independent columnist Dan O’Brien, the former Irish Times political editor Stephen Collins and the London-based Irish law professor, Ronan McCrea.
The rest of the ‘chattering classes’ (politicians, journalists and academics) have enthusiastically donned the green jersey and supported Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney’s backstop policy to the hilt as Britain has hurtled towards the Brexit cliff edge, dragging Ireland in its wake. I have found the near-unanimity of this support quite astonishing in this normally argumentative country. I wonder how much of it is down to our traditional gut antagonism to Britain (or rather England). I asked a senior Eurocrat recently why the 26 other EU nations had lined up so solidly with us on the issue of the Irish border, something which is of little concern or interest to most of them. “Dislike of the British”, she said.
The problem, of course, is this: a strategy which was supposed to prevent a hard border could end up bringing about just that dreaded outcome on 31 October. That would represent a colossal political failure by our government.[It is a measure of how out of touch with reality many Irish people are that Irish Times commentators are still suggesting that the failing backstop policy could be an asset for Fine Gael in any forthcoming election!]
I believe it is probably too late to prevent such an outcome at this very advanced stage – 10 weeks away from the deadline – and with the mendacious mock-Churchillian charlatan, Boris Johnson, and his grim crew of ultra-hard Brexiteers in charge in London. His government has binned the backstop in toto, and to find any way back now would surely involve the EU and Ireland in an impossibly humiliating climbdown.
We may well be nostalgic for the early months of this year when the hapless but honest Theresa May was trying her best to persuade Brussels and Dublin to adapt the backstop slightly (perhaps by incorporating a time limit) to help her get her Withdrawal Agreement through the House of Commons. She was a poor negotiator (“What negotiator in their right mind would say in the middle of a tough negotiation that a ‘no deal’ was off the table?” one very senior Irish trade unionist asked me incredulously last spring), but she was slowly reducing the majority against her deal as the months went by between January and March.
And what did Brussels and Dublin do to help her? Precious little, except to reject the time limit idea (which could have been for as long as seven-nine years) with the dismissive single line:”a backstop with a time limit is not a backstop.”
Make no mistake about it: we in Ireland are facing into the abyss at the end of October. The dire economic consequences have been spelt out by people more knowledgeable than me, so I am going to focus on the political impact in the place I know best: Northern Ireland. As that wise journalist Dearbhail McDonald wrote in the Guardian earlier this month¹, Johnson and his new breed of ‘Brexit Ultras’ could “deliberately pursue a no-deal EU exit at the expense of a volatile Irish peace.” Two-thirds of Conservative Party members in opinion polls now say they would rather sacrifice the union with Scotland and Northern Ireland than abandon Brexit.
McDonald wrote that in the North Brexit has meant that Irish unity, which was “once an entirely fringe aspiration for nationalists, and a dreaded fear for unionists – each side comforted by the thought that the conversation about unification was decades away” – has “become an urgent debate for all” (although I would correct her by stressing that while Sinn Feiners are living in a cloud cuckoo land of a Border Poll leading to unity within a few short years, most unionists are in total denial, preferring not even to think about their ultimate nightmare).
McDonald went on: “Contrary to anti-Irish tropes that the backstop is a Trojan horse in order to secure a united Ireland, the truth is that both communities in Northern Ireland – as well as citizens across the island of Ireland – are fearful of what a botched, rushed conversation about unification might yield. That fear is that the birth of a united Ireland would be accompanied by violence and upheaval.”
“Unification without the support of unionists, whose traditions and identity must be protected as part of any shared future, cannot be pursued as a zero-sum game. Otherwise we risk repeating history: the Troubles in reverse. Northern Ireland could not, in its current perilous state, survive either a hard Brexit or a united Ireland. Its communities are suspended in an in-between space, in which they have enjoyed 21 years without violence, but have not yet progressed to a positive peace or meaningful integration – a process that takes time and effort to heal wounds.” Here she was echoing Seamus Mallon’s central thesis in his recent book, A Shared Home Place, and was echoed in her turn by Fintan O’Toole in this week’s Irish Times (“The lesson both from Brexit and from the traumas of partition and civil war is: avoid botched exits”).²
McDonald concluded: “What many people in the UK [and I would add, the Republic of Ireland] forget or are indifferent to is the fact that, for all the successes of the Good Friday Agreement – a vital edifice that allows us to identify as British, Irish or both – peace is not fully won.” That message was reinforced by a dissident IRA bomb aimed at the PSNI on the Fermanagh border earlier this week, the fifth time this year such groups have tried to murder members of the police. The Irish News’ well-informed security correspondent, Allison Morris, said that, unlike the opening “big bang” of the Troubles, the August 1969 ‘Battle of the Bogside’, there was now “a very real danger of several smaller events leading to a larger security crisis” after 31st October.
A panel of Irish and British historians and political scientists at the West Cork History Festival 10 days ago, while they were deeply divided over Brexit, largely agreed with McDonald’s analysis. They were asked by an audience member if they thought a hard Brexit would bring Irish unity any closer. The distinguished Cambridge University historian of Europe, Brendan Simms (a Dubliner), who is strongly pro-Brexit, said it would result in “a prolonged confrontation between the UK and the EU, with the Irish government on the EU side, leading to deeper divides between Britain and Ireland, North and South.” The UCC political scientist Mary Murphy, who has written extensively about the North and Brexit, said it would “risk upsetting the already destabilised communities in Northern Ireland. Its combination of economic turmoil and political instability would open up a very difficult and challenging conversation about unity that would have been inconceivable even five years ago. It would be very hard to keep a lid on what might transpire in such a situation…the delicate peace there could be fundamentally shattered in the months ahead.”
For me, the Irish government has made two fundamental mistakes in its unyielding insistence on the backstop (and nothing but the backstop) – whether it was for Northern Ireland or the UK as a whole. Firstly, there was its refusal to compromise one iota during the early part of this year when the House of Commons was slowly moving toward a grudging acceptance of an agreement that would have been a ‘win-win’ for both parts of Ireland.
Secondly, it failed to keep open vital lines of communication with the DUP, lines which earlier taoisigh like Bertie Ahern had sweated blood to build. The DUP are difficult at the best of times, especially when it comes to dealing with anybody Irish. However, in the rush to demonise them it is often forgotten that the hard-line unionist party welcomed the arrival of Leo Varadkar as Taoiseach, seeing him as a pragmatic politician unburdened by republican baggage (and invited Simon Coveney to become the first ever Southern politician to address a DUP conference meeting).
They too have their pragmatists: for example, Jeffrey Donaldson, a self-declared supporter of greater North-South cooperation. The government should have understood unionist sensitivities about what looked like a proposed new border down the Irish Sea and gone out of its way to assure Donaldson and his like that a few extra east-west customs and regulatory checks were a small price to pay for an agreement many economists said represented the best of all possible worlds for the North’s small exposed economy, and that Brussels and Dublin were fully committed to the UK’s constitutional integrity. That case went by default in the war of words unleashed by Sammy Wilson and his ideological bedfellows on the far right of the Tory party.
I see Professor McCrea is now suggesting even at this very late hour that a compromise solution to the backstop impasse could be found by postponing the Irish border issue to the second phase of negotiations on an EU-UK trade deal instead of insisting that it must be agreed as part of the first phase Article 50 negotiations.³
This would extend the transition period during which the border would remain unchanged, and, because of the complexities of negotiating such a trade deal, would see this transition lasting five years at least. That would push any possible ‘crash-out’ by the UK into the mid-2020s, which would surely be far better than seeing it happen at the end of October. The humiliating loss of face by the EU (and therefore the Irish) side might be too much for our political leaders to bear, and probably British politics is currently too poisonous for a Johnson-led government to accept such a compromise after his ferocious ‘do or die’ rhetoric about leaving on 31st October. But for all our sakes – Irish and British – wouldn’t that be a small price to pay for avoiding the catastrophe of a hard border and the almost certain return to violence in the North as a consequence?
PS: I will be taking part in the third Glencree Peace Walk along the Wicklow Way on Sunday 22nd September to raise much-needed funds for the work of the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconcilation to help build peace in the North, peace which is more in peril now than at any time during the past 21 years. If any generously-inclined reader of this blog would like to sponsor me with a small donation, please go to http://www.altruism.ie/fundraising_page/andy-pollak-fundraising-page-for-glencree-centre-for-peace-and-reconciliation, and follow the simple instructions. Many thanks.
¹ ‘Irish peace is too precious to be squandered by the Brexit ultras’, The Guardian, 2 August
² ‘We need to start talking about how we share the island’, The Irish Times, 20 August
³ ‘A few red faces over the backstop might save us in the long run’, Sunday Business Post, 11 August