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EU's bid to stoke united Ireland tensions proves we're well shot of them

Brussels has zero interest in Northern Ireland - it just uses the border as a stick to beat Westminster with, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Some said Brexit would be a disaster. Others predicted an historic triumph. What few seemed to realise is that it would send everybody, regardless of what side they were on in last year's referendum, stark staring mad. Brexiteers have gone batty with patriotic, flag-waving zeal and Remainers with visions of impending doom outside the... ahem... warm, loving embrace of Brussels.

Europe has gone so doolally that it even seems intent right now on committing economic hari kari just to spite those upstart Brits for daring to leave the club.

In Ireland, the craziness has chiefly manifested itself in a belief that a reunification of the so-called 'national territory' is on the cards. Devolved Assembly? Pah, who needs it? Instead, Sinn Fein and its useful idiots have got a whiff of the prospect of a border poll at which, they're convinced, a majority vote for Remain in Northern Ireland will translate automatically into a vote for a 32-county Irish Republic.

Sounds even more nuts when you put it in black and white like that, but once lunacy takes hold there's no talking sense to those in its grip.

The Scots went stir crazy, too, with Edinburgh's First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, deciding that the time was right for another referendum on Scottish independence, despite a majority of Scots not wanting one. The difference there is that Scotland was - and is - on its own; the SNP is not being urged by foreign siren voices to hop aboard the SS Wishful Thinking and set sail for La La Land.

For Irish nationalists, it was different, as the Irish government started rowing in behind calls for urgent discussions on the shape of a future united Ireland. That culminated last weekend with the EU's astonishing demand that Northern Ireland would not only be on the table during upcoming Brexit talks, but would have to be sorted out before talks could even begin.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny hailed it as "hugely important". Hugely stupid, more like. But, then, that's what happens when collective madness strikes.

It was astonishing to see this particular Taoiseach get his knickers in a twist about a future promise that Northern Ireland would get immediate entry to the European Union in the event of a vote in favour of unity. He's been an elected politician since 1975 and has never before shown any interest in jumping on the nationalist bandwagon and belting out a few choruses of The Four Green Fields. Indeed, he leads a party generally reviled by diehard united Irelanders as 'West Brits'. Has Brexit sent the Taoiseach mad, too?

Even more astonishing is that Kenny instantly followed up the EU announcement by insisting that the time wasn't right for a border poll. So, why pull strings in Brussels to get a clause on a united Ireland's right to instant EU membership included in the Brexit talks framework in the first place, when that was never in doubt, any more than it was when East Germany reunited with its western counterpart?

The real question is why the EU is making such a big deal about Northern Ireland all of a sudden.

In the Republic, where - despite being landed with the lion's share of the bill for the continent-wide banking collapse - support for the EU remains at a surreally high level, this was seen as evidence of Europe's great benevolent concern for Ireland's welfare, as if we're meant to believe Eurocrats can't sleep at night for fretting about Ulster.

It's nothing of the sort. The EU has not dragged Northern Ireland to the top of the agenda in order to help Northern Ireland. It's done so because, as attitudes harden in advance of Brexit negotiations, it needs as many sticks as possible with which to beat the Brits.

And what bigger, or better, stick is there than Britain's messy and complicated relationship with the next-door neighbours?

The EU is, in effect, saying to Britain: "You know that problem with Ireland that you've not managed to sort out for the past 800 years? Well, toddle off and get it fixed in the next few weeks and then we can talk."

That is not the action of people seeking constructive negotiations with a member state which has decided it doesn't want to be a member state anymore. It's the action of someone who wants to deliberately and cynically brew up problems and doesn't care who gets hurt in the process.

If political instability worsens in Northern Ireland, that's our job to fix. If there's any return to violence, it will be the fault of those who carry it out.

But Europe cannot disingenuously absolve itself of responsibility. They know exactly what they're doing by egging on Irish nationalists to focus on future fantasies rather than present realities. Dublin has merely allowed itself to be used to send a harsh message to London.

During the Cold War, the United States and the USSR shied away from fighting one another directly, because they knew that meant mutually assured destruction, so they fought proxy wars in countries like Korea and Vietnam.

In a symbolic way, that's what the EU wants to do now - pick a proxy squabble over Northern Ireland to stymie the UK's hopes of negotiating a successful Brexit, using our Remain vote as a weapon against us. It's not like they don't have form. Spain was encouraged to dig in its heels over Gibraltar, with assurances that the EU would back them up on that one, too.

Gibraltar's disputed sovereignty has no more to do with the European Union than Northern Ireland does, but Brussels still leapt on it as a way of aggravating Downing Street.

This isn't a game. It has consequences. Effectively tossing Northern Ireland's constitutional status back into play 20 years after the Belfast Agreement put it on ice is a breathtakingly irresponsible move by Brussels.

After decades of staying neutral in its dealings with Northern Ireland, Europe has now shown itself prepared to throw fuel on the fire out of sheer mischief and manipulation, stoking tension at a time when tensions are already too high, and it's proving near impossible to repair political divisions and restore devolved government.

If power without responsibility has, indeed, been the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages - as a former Labour Prime Minister once famously declared - then the European Union is behaving like the biggest scrubber of all, whipping up dangerous emotions about a united Ireland, safe in the knowledge that it won't have to clean up the mess if - or, more likely, when - it all goes horribly wrong.

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