Twelve months ago few people were aware that the issue of the Irish border could be a major obstacle to a Brexit deal. At a Labour conference fringe meeting, neither speakers Keir Starmer and Clive Lewis mentioned it.
But in the stage 1 negotiations with the EU Theresa May was obliged to concede that no deal could be allowed to compromise the relationship between the two parts of the island. Within days David Davis was reneging on this agreement.
In Ireland today the border is barely visible and in Belfast, a British city, many shops take euros. Car park machines in Enniskillin in Northern Ireland have dual coin slots for pounds and Euro.
This is so different from 20 years ago when this was the most militarised frontier in Europe, though that didn’t stop a lucrative smuggling industry in cattle and cars not to mention guns and bombs. Minor roads that were difficult to police were cratered by the army to prevent traffic using them.
The Good Friday Agreement, Tony Blair’s finest achievement, is a flawed agreement that enshrines the sectarian divide but brought peace and prosperity to Northern Ireland at least until 2008. Property prices in Belfast soared faster than they did in London.
Roll on and the border has practically gone and so has Blair. The Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP two of the key parties to the GFA have been displaced by Sinn Fein and the Paisleyite DUP. The SDLP is affiliated to Labour though a pro-life catholic party and the UUP was the Unionist in Conservative and Unionist Party.
Sinn Fein supported the deal, having negotiated on behalf of the Provisonal IRA and achieved large scale prisoner releases, guarantees for members on the run that they could return home without fear of prosecution and much more. In return The IRA declared the war was over and decommissioned their massive arsenal (most of it anyway).
The DUP is effectively in coalition with the Tories and holds a veto on any EU deal that Theresa May chooses to sign. Any deal that fails to meet the stage 1 agreement of last December, effectively keeping Northern Ireland in the Single Market will smash the Good Friday Agreement. For the DUP it is an absolute red line that Northern Ireland’s position after Brexit is no different from the rest of the UK. So would they be happy if the whole of the UK stayed in the Single Market? Mmmm not really.
The DUP fought the GFA tooth and nail, they have no loyalty to it and blocked the setting up of the Northern Ireland Assembly for seven years before eventually going into power with Sinn Fein.
But, that said, most people in Northern Ireland would breathe a sigh of relief if Brexit collapsed.
British Tories are woefully ignorant of Irish politics and geography. David Davis thought the border was an ‘internal border’. But it has dawned on a few including Jacob Rees Mogg that the GFA (registered with the UN as an International Treaty) really is an obstacle to Brexit. So for Mogg and Johnson et al the GFA has to go. And the DUP holding the balance of power are largely in agreement.
Except that a certain Real Politique comes into this. A hard border in Ireland may not lead to further armed conflict, fingers crossed. But it will massively add to the momentum towards a United Ireland and a recent speech by the ex leader of the DUP, Peter Robinson, suggests they are fully aware of that.
Also, that one and a half billion that may promised the DUP is still resting in the government’s accounts and can’t be released until the NI assembly sits to set a budget and that isn’t happening.
And the DUP is no more homogeneous than the labour or Conservative parties. Ian Paisley, their hardest brexiteer, is now an Independent (having been caught yet again putting his pocket before his country) and most of the others know that a hard border would hurt their support base.
So Arlene Foster (being advised by her friend Kate Hoey) understands that the days of being a protestant party for protestant people are limited. That cow has been milked. Her attendance at Martin Maginnis’ funeral was very significant. Her attendance at a gaelic football match in the Republic more so. She is losing friends through these actions but these are small steps and she will run out of time before she runs out of road.
Article submitted by Roger O’Doherty. Do you have something to submit? Send us an email: firstname.lastname@example.org