Irish Government is playing a dangerous game on Brexit and Northern Ireland

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By Eamon Delaney in The Times.ie

The Irish Government is playing a robust but dangerous game on Brexit and Northern Ireland. It wants UK cooperation in dealing with the issue of a new Border, post Brexit, while simultaneously telling the Brits we will have nothing to do with it !

Ireland will not participate in any British plans to solve the post-Brexit border issue, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said bluntly, and it is up to the UK to put forward solutions for the handling of the issue. Vardakar was supporting proposals from his Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney that the border could be moved to the Irish Sea, a proposal which, as first reported in this newspaper, has caused consternation in London and been dismissed by Ulster Unionists.

‘It’s the United Kingdom that has decided to leave and if they want to put forward smart solutions, technological solutions for borders of the future then that’s up to them’ said Varadkar firmly.

‘We’re not going to be doing that work for them because we don’t think there should be an economic border at all, so we will not help in designing one’ he added bluntly.

Lest this be construed as a selfish Irish position, Varadkar said that while it is not in our interests to have such an economic border, its also ‘not in the interests of Northern Ireland or the United Kingdom’, and going that route could have a ‘severe economic impact’ for them.

This is surely an exaggeration but Varadkar feels the need to say it, as there are many in the UK, and among Ulster Unionism, who would blithely pay the price of a bad economic impact, just to get their ‘sovereignty’ back. In the case of Ulster Unionists, sadly, many even welcome the chance to increase division between the two parts of the island. How did we not see that coming?

So Varadkar’s tough talk makes some sense, but what back-up does he have and where is the wider political support? Fianna Fail reacted with completely mixed messages. Timmy Dooley TD said that Varadkar ‘needed a crash course in diplomacy’ while their Brexit spokesman, Stephen Donnelly, actually backed the Taoiseach, saying that his party had already been calling for this solution.

It seems that the desire to do ‘tribal politics’ within FF still trumps getting a consistent line on a major national issue. But this is Northern Ireland, guys, and we’re making demands on a restive and sore UK : we cannot mess about here.

The strange thing is that the Varadkar’s demands are more reminiscent of old Fianna Fail messaging on the North and those declarations by Charles Hauhey and before him Eamon De Valera. But, as with those pious diktats on Irish unity, if you don’t get your way, what are you going to do then? If a border goes up, what will the Republic do – dismantle it?

And surely we have a duty to our European partners to work closely with the British on creating smooth a border for what will, after all, be the new frontier of the EU? This the least they would expect during this difficult process. (Incidentally, I came through the border of Croatia – and the EU – recently and it was very smooth.)

But instead ‘the territorial integrity of the island of Ireland’ mantra has reasserted its (mildly) nationalist head.

Thus, last weekend, the Government Chief Whip Joe McHugh TD, said that ‘any semblance of a border would endanger the peace process’ and would not be tolerated. But by you, and whose army, Joe?

Granted, McHugh’s Donegal constituency adjoins the border, but as such he would know that we had an active border during the Troubles when there was a full campaign of violence, and the roof didn’t cave in when it came to cross border trade. Okay, it was a hindrance but people still moved across the border, in their thousands, every day. Students like me went up to Newry for cheap beer. Milk lorries went to and fro. So why can’t this continue, in a more peaceful era?

As the DUP have, we already have different currencies and tax systems. Its not as if a united Ireland is being divided !

Of course, the difference now is that Great Britain has left the EU, but that frankly is their business and there’s nothing we can do about it. And the UK cannot not take Northern Ireland with them out of the EU, much as we wished they could.

Indeed, Brexit has really brought home, embarrassingly, the limits of our sovereignty. We remain overwhelmingly connected to Britain in terms of economics, trade and culture and their Brexit departure has cruelly exposed this. In the year after the 1916 centenary, this is a sobering realisation. The jocular taunt by Unionists of ‘well, why don’t you consider rejoining the UK?’ contains a reasonable perspective. Leaving the EU was also once unthinkable, but if Brussels took away our 12.5% corporate tax rate, would it be so unthinkable?

Yes, the invisible border is a very welcome product of the Good Friday Agreement, but is it a core principle and condition? Not really, and even if it was, the British would rightly say ‘things have changed – and dramatically – with Brexit’. And given the immense challenges it is creating, in the UK and Europe, the smoothness of the Border and relations with the Republic are not a high priority.

Of course, this is wrong and unfair but we should have protested more about this when the Brexit campaign was underway. The Irish Government should also have stayed more engaged on the broader issue of Northern Ireland, for the last few years, and put pressure on the British Government to do the same. But it didn’t.

Now we are coming in cold and heavy handed, and without anything like the clout we used to have. There is no-one with the commitment of Tony Blair involved here or the United States putting on pressure. (This is another significant change from the recent US election.)

We were very lucky in the past, to have this international involvement. Otherwise, it’s as I remember from my time as a young diplomat in the Department of Foreign Affairs: in a globe of conflicts, the world does not care about Northern Ireland and we, the Republic of Ireland, only has so much leverage we can use with a still large and often unreasonable UK.

So while it is good to see the energetic and robust response of our newbie Government to the UK’s dithering on Brexit, and the border, we should tread very carefully. Otherwise, a pissed-off UK will just lash up a hard border, with the EU, on our island, and there won’t be anything that we can do about it. Except make speeches.