Brussels Plays the Irish Card: The Withdrawal Treaty, not Brexit, poses the real danger to the stability of Ireland
Friday 23rd November 2018: The prime minister’s proposed EU withdrawal treaty has gone down in parliament like a lead balloon. The 585-page legal document, to be signed off by her and the EU at the weekend, binds Britain into the EU customs union and law, under the European Court of Justice, potentially for ever without a say in making the law. Britain, under international law, will be bound to follow the laws made by a foreign power. The pretext is the spurious demand that it keeps the Irish border soft. For that, the treaty proposes a ‘backstop’ or Northern Ireland protocol, rather than the technological solutions canvassed for today’s modern borders the world over, backed up by international law and smart tech and canvassed earlier as an EU option for this corner of its western empire.
It seems clear that the border is a Godsend to the EU in its attempt to stop a real Brexit, or indeed reverse it, a false hypothesis, not a real possibility.
The border resulted from The Government of Ireland Act 1920, reflecting the fashion of the post- world war one era for carving up Europe into new states, as old empires were swept away. In Ireland the plan was to give North and South their own separate governments under ‘Home Rule’. Northern Ireland was established, but the rest of the country settled in to its own rebellion against Britain, leading to the truce with the UK in 1921, a Treaty and The Irish Free State, followed in turn by the 1948 Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland’s intermittent but brutal ‘troubles’ involved many struggles for many ends: for the IRA, tacitly supported by Sinn Fein its political arm, a united Ireland and an end to British rule; for unionist groups, keeping the union and the status quo; for many moderate nationalists, civil rights. In the decades of violence to which repressive measures responded, Irish and UK governments aimed to draw a line under the troubles. The 1998 Belfast agreement recognized the status quo (‘Good Friday Agreement’) the formal declaration of peace under current arrangements, unless and until voted otherwise, to which London and Dublin were signatories. Sinn Fein subsequently announced the end of armed struggle and Gerry Adams moved his party to Dublin to fight for a United Ireland through the ballot box.
No one today seriously envisages a re-emergence of former difficulties. But as now seems possible, Dublin and Brussels seek to ignore the status quo and turn the border into a flashpoint to serve their anti-Brexit ends, with UK co-operation, potentially for ever, under an international treaty.
In Dublin the two main parties, Fine Gael in a minority government with 50 seats in Ireland’s Dail under Leo Varadkar as Taoiseach, and the rival Fianna Fail with 44 seats, are losing votes to Sinn Fein, with 23 seats and now the third party. All three parties are card carrying Europhile, all three willing participants in the EU ploy to keep the UK in a customs union. But beyond that they share a characteristic common with many a political leader – the willingness to duck and weave, and if necessary deceive. The aim is power, to win new votes and retain old ones. As Europhiles they loathe Brexit and play the EU’s disreputable game to champion customs unity for the island, against a technological solution. As Irish political operators, they have no hesitation in stoking political and economic fears easily roused in a country, where ‘[the people].. have a long history for grievance’.
The prime minister may be unaware that in playing the EU game, she is in danger of setting unionist against nationalist, creating division in Northern Ireland, and dividing north against south. Like Ireland’s political leaders, she is doing so to the order of the EU, to achieve its overriding demand, consistently upheld throughout the Brexit talks. Neither Michel Barnier nor Donald Tusk on behalf of the council of ministers have made any secret of their true economic aim – the playing field must be levelled, and the UK’s system prevented from reaping the advantage of a true Brexit in the market place of the world.
*Dr Sheila Lawlor is Director of Politeia and her background is as a 20th century British political historian. Her academic publications include Churchill and the Politics of War and for Politeia she is the author of Deal, No Deal? The Battle for Britain’s Democracy and Ruling the Ruler: Parliament, the People and Britain’s Political Identity.