Hell Hath No Fury Like a Former British Colony Scorned

The U.K.'s biggest hurdle to a successful Brexit is the small country next door.

Boxer Conor McGregor attends an after fight party on August 27, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (David Becker/Getty Images for Wynn Nightlife)
Boxer Conor McGregor attends an after fight party on August 27, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (David Becker/Getty Images for Wynn Nightlife)

Brexit, for its supporters, is all about the United Kingdom reclaiming its place as a buccaneering world leader striking out to forge new links around the globe. It might have been expected that Europe’s former imperial powers with continued global interests of their own, France and Germany, would be the biggest stumbling block as Britain leaves the European Union. But instead it’s unassuming Ireland that is proving the biggest hurdle for Theresa May and her divided government.

A summit scheduled for Dec. 14-15 between Britain and the remaining 27 EU countries is meant to clear the way for final status negotiations. But on Friday, European Council President Donald Tusk confirmed that Dublin will have a veto over Brexit talks if it deems that insufficient progress has been made on the thorny issue of the Irish border.

Physically, the Irish border is conspicuous by its absence. There are no fence posts or customs checks on the winding, 310-mile-long border that separates Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Roads weave in and out from one territory to another with only the occasional speed sign hinting at a change in jurisdiction: the U.K. uses miles, Ireland kilometers.

Politically, however, the Irish border has become more salient than at any time in recent memory. Under the terms of the Brexit negotiations agreed at the start of the summer, the U.K. must solve the border issue before it can move on to discussing its future relationship with the European Union. Dublin has a veto, and has indicated it is prepared to use it if no accommodation can be found that avoids a return to border controls.

That has brought a severe chill to Anglo-Irish relations. At a recent joint press conference featuring Simon Coveney and Boris Johnson, the Irish and British foreign ministers respectively, they disagreed over Brexit. Such public discord between Dublin and London is unprecedented in recent history, particularly since the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement in 1998, which effectively ended the violence in Northern Ireland.

The prospect of a government in Ireland — a long-time British colony — stymying Brexit has inflamed sections of U.K. politics and media. Tabloid newspapers have called on the Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar to “shut his gob”. A pro-Brexit member of parliament Trumpishly declared that Ireland would have to pay for any border. Others have accused Irish politicians of using Brexit as a stalking horse for irredentist ambitions over Northern Ireland, which voted to remain in the EU.

On the southern side of the border, the political calculations are radically different. Economic analyses suggest that, after Britain itself, Ireland will be the country most affected by Brexit. Initial hopes of coaxing finance jobs away from London to Dublin have been replaced by growing fears for the future, most notably around the once restive border.

Dublin’s stance — far from being a rash decision by a political neophyte — is in line with a strategy set out by the Irish government in the wake of the Brexit vote some 18 months ago. Varadkar’s predecessor, Enda Kenny, was a more emollient personality but was equally firm on the border question. So much so that he succeeded in making Ireland one of the three key issues in the first phase of Brexit negotiations.

The European Union had little direct role in ending Northern Ireland’s 30-year conflict. But Europe provided the infrastructure upon which peace was eventually built. The checkpoints that once pockmarked the border were steadily removed after both the U.K. and Ireland joined the then European Economic Community in 1973. After the advent of the European single market in 1993, the old customs huts disappeared completely. The soldiers left soon after.

The absence of a physical border reflects regulatory equivalence on both sides. A farmer in County Fermanagh, in Northern Ireland, must comply by the same rules and regulations as his colleague in County Leitrim, to the west. Indeed, many farm holdings span the border.

The republic’s government wants a written guarantee that there will be no regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic after Brexit. But that is a promise Theresa May is unlikely to make. The British prime minister has committed to leaving both the customs union and the single market.

The long-standing common travel area means people will be able to cross the border freely but goods could be subject to checks. With around 275 roads crossing the border, the scale of the challenge is significant. (By contrast, the EU’s eastern border has barely a dozen crossings.)

One solution mooted is that Northern Ireland remains in the customs union, effectively shifting controls to the Irish Sea. This is anathema to the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party that May’s fragile minority government relies upon for a majority in parliament. DUP MP Sammy Wilson has said that any such attempt to “placate Dublin and the EU” could mean the withdrawal of his party’s support in Westminster, potentially bringing down May’s government.

The devolved power-sharing administration in Northern Ireland between the DUP and Sinn Fein collapsed in January. There is no prospect of reinstatement, in part because of Brexit. The DUP insists that Northern Ireland wants to leave the customs union — even though it voted to remain in the EU — while Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, wants special economic status for Northern Ireland. Many fear that lasting damage could be done to peace.

Some British newspaper columnists and politicians have suggested that the U.K. would not enforce any border in Ireland: no tariffs would be charged, no customs checked. This — its advocates argue — would place the onus on the Irish Republic and, it would be hoped, the political blame on the EU. But such a strategy is not grounded in reality.

If a post-Brexit Britain does not charge tariffs on imports from the EU it would be guilty of a serious breach of World Trade Organization rules, opening possibility for WTO sanctions. (Ironically many Brexiteers argue that WTO terms will be an easy like-for-like replacement for the EU’s single market. A free trade arrangement between the U.K. and the EU would circumvent these stipulations but such a deal would take years to negotiate, if it could be done at all.

Many leading Brexit voices, including Trade Minister Liam Fox, would like to end harmonization with EU regulations as soon as possible to ease prospective deals with the United States and others. “Without this we will have only partial freedom to negotiate with other countries,” says the Legatum Institute, a free market think tank influential with many in British government circles.

If standards diverge between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, some form of customs will almost certainly be necessary. Without controls, goods could be imported into Belfast, taken over the border with tariffs, and then sent straight into the EU single market. Smuggling — a border scourge to this day — would likely to be given renewed vigor.

Britain has maintained that customs technology would keep the border “frictionless,” but earlier this week, the House of Commons committee for exiting the EU said that the government’s proposals to resolve the border using technology are untested. Many experts agree.

The Irish government now finds itself in a unique position of power over its old colonial master. With movement evident on the other two outstanding issues — EU citizens’ rights in the U.K. and the size of Britain’s “divorce bill” for leaving — whether the Brexit negotiations progress to phase two could come down to the view of Leo Varadkar and his party colleagues.

Britain has played a weak hand poorly. Rather than seeking to compromise with Irish demands — which would have left open the possibility of blaming Dublin for intransigence — London has struck a belligerent tone, which has angered both political and public opinion in Ireland. Almost a century after independence, many in Ireland felt that equality had been reached with its near neighbor. That confidence has been shaken.

The U.K. approach has also limited the Irish government’s scope for maneuver. Varadkar himself controls a weak minority Fine Gael government, reliant on tacit support from its old adversary, the Fianna Fail party. This fragile administration almost collapsed last week following a scandal over a police whistleblower.

After weeks of hostile British media and political rhetoric, Varadkar would be politically exposed if he accepts a deal that compromises the one unifying theme in Irish politics: opposition to any hardening of the border. Fresh elections are expected in the spring in any case, and both Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein would look to exploit any concession to the U.K. on the border.

There has been talk of that oldest of Irish political solutions, the fudge. Euphemistic language helped solve some of the thorniest problems in the Northern Ireland peace process. Some in Dublin suggest that a form of words could be found to allow negotiations to move onto phase two. Ireland’s foreign minister has said a deal is “doable.” Privately, some in the DUP accept that Brexit will look different in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the United Kingdom.

But a fudge might now solve the border problem for long. Writing in the Irish Times, political commentator Noel Whelan warns that “Any such fudging on the Irish dimension to Brexit at this stage, however, would be counter-productive. It would only delay, for mere months, the political, diplomatic and economic reckoning of what have hitherto been irreconcilable positions.”

The Irish Republic’s government faces its most difficult decision in a generation, if not more. If Brexit talks collapse, a hard border will necessarily follow, damaging both Irish economic interests and a hard-won peace. But Ireland’s position of maximum leverage is now. Once talks move on to phase two, Ireland no longer has a veto.

Twenty years ago, the Good Friday agreement quieted the border between Britain and Ireland. In a referendum, Ireland renounced its historic claims on the North. Since then there has been little talk of the North in the Irish Republic, and little desire for a united Ireland anytime soon.

Brexit, whether politicians in London appreciate it or not, has put the border back into Irish politics. For now, the green fields of Fermanagh and Leitrim are quiet. Whether they stay that way will depend on whether politicians hundreds of miles away can find a lasting solution to what appears an intractable problem.

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