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‘Time to Reset the Brexit Button’

The Northern Ireland Protocol continues to undermine relations between the EU and the UK. But, says Ray Bassett, a former Irish diplomat, Ireland should take a lead in building bridges between the UK and the EU.
One fallout from Brexit process has been the worsening of relations between Ireland and the United Kingdom. Such discordance is in the interests of neither country. One reason I am standing in the by-election for the Irish Senate is to work towards restoring good Dublin-London links.

The Irish Government and media believed, almost without reservation, that the Brexit referendum outcome could be reversed. This had happened already on several occasions in other member States, when the onward march towards an ever-closer Union was threatened by an unfavourable democratic outcome.

Hence Dublin put all its eggs in the Remainers basket and became the most vociferous and strident critic of Brexit and the Brexiteers. Egged on by their allies in London and a very partisan local media, the Irish Government, on virtually every occasion, adopted a hardline stance on possible concessions to London during the Cameron and May administrations.  It was a gamble and one which failed badly. The EU/Irish attitude no doubt helped to destroy any lingering pro EU sentiment inside the Tory party, ending generations of division in the party and the UK over Europe.  Ireland’s antagonism towards Brexit also caused severe resentment among Brexiteers and destroyed much of the goodwill that had been built up over the last twenty years of excellent British/Irish relations. As somebody who worked on Anglo-Irish issues for many years, that was a very disheartening development.

In turn, it is also true Brexiteers grossly under-estimated the difficulty that a divided Northern Ireland and a problematic land border with the Republic would be to the achieving of a clean Brexit. The lack of any debate on the Irish issues throughout the referendum in the UK was ample testimony to that accusation.

Today both countries are at loggerheads over the Northern Ireland Protocol which is again threatening to derail the whole Brussels/London relationship and undermine the entire Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the UK and the EU. While Brussels has belatedly made a number of concessions, some key sticking points remain, especially over medicines and a supervisory role for the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). The Protocol has led to deep political alienation among the pro Union elements in the North. And the spectre of political violence has emerged from the shadows in the Loyalist community.

There is an urgent need now to put the animosity of the last few years behind us and rebuild the relationship.  The demands of geography and good economic sense should ensure that Ireland refocuses on our most important bilateral relationship with our neighbour and the need to put it back on an even keel.

Throughout the Brexit process I have argued that Ireland should have been a bridge between the EU and the UK, given the country’s deep historic, ethnic and economic ties with Britain and its traditionally pro EU position. This would have required a radical reassessment of priorities and a policy based on Ireland’s own national interest and less concern on the need to please Brussels.  It is not too late to change.  

Ireland should signal to Brussels that we do not agree with any intransigence over the role of the CJEU. We should support the introduction of an independent arbitration process into the Protocol. We see no gain in preventing UK approved medicines being denied to people in NI, nor have we an issue with pets moving from GB to NI. The difficulties thrown up by the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland and the Good Friday agreement requires innovative thinking and approaches.

 Ireland has no interest in seeing political instability in Northern Ireland. Unionism needs some cover to fully re-enter the political institutions and the Irish Government must assist in that process.

The UK Government needs to do its bit and to give Ireland, and in particular Northern Ireland, much more of its attention.  It also needs to understand the need to give assurances that it will adhere to international treaties it signs.  It also needs to be sensitive to the needs and aspirations of both communities in NI, as the Protocol currently is supported by a majority of members elected to the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) and elected MPs, as well as enjoying majority support in the population there, according to opinion polls.

Not only do the bilateral British/Irish institutions, established under the Good Friday Agreement need to be revived as they have fallen into disuse. But at the same time a constructive dialogue between the two countries urgently needs to replace the current round of megaphone diplomacy.
 
Image courtesy of the Houses of the Oireachtas – Tithe an Oireachtais twitter account.

Dr Ray Bassett

Dr Ray Bassett is a former senior diplomat at Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin who served as the country’s Ambassador to Canada, Jamaica and the Bahamas between 2010 and 2016. He is the author of Ireland and the EU Post Brexit (2020) and his Politeia publications include The Irish Border, Brexit and the EU: The Route to Frictionless Trade, (2019, co-published with New Direction) and Brexit – Options for the Irish Border, (2018).

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