Belfast Telegraph

Robin Wilson: Frost on the border - why Brexit has put strain on UK and Irish relationship

There has been a distinct cooling in the political climate between London and Dublin. Robin Wilson examines why Brexit has led to a strained relationship between the UK and the Republic of Ireland

Former Prime Ministers Sir John Major and Tony Blair in Derry in 2016
Former Prime Ministers Sir John Major and Tony Blair in Derry in 2016
New PM Boris Johnson and Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith arriving at Stormont House, Belfast, for talks earlier this week

By Robin Wilson

They were a little greyer. But there was no diminution in their passion for the issue. Tony Blair, Labour Prime Minister when the Good Friday Agreement was arrived at in 1998, and John Major, his predecessor during what became known as the peace process, came to Derry just weeks ahead of the Brexit referendum in June 2016 with a clear message: don't upend the fragile political equilibrium by removing the European context on which it rests.

Blair and Major were of a generation of British politicians socialised by news stories of death and destruction in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s.

Twenty-one years on from the Belfast Agreement, the ruling Westminster politicians have little experience of - and, apparently, even less interest in - the affairs of the region.

Certainly, when the then Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron announced following the 2015 Westminster election - which ended his dependence on the Europhile Liberal Democrats - that there would be a referendum on UK membership of the European Union, seeking to resolve the intestinal battle in his own party over the issue, the damaging impacts on Northern Ireland so evident to Blair and Major were not on his radar. Yet the unravelling was quick and brutal. The referendum vote was hugely polarising in the region - albeit, between the big political tribes, the growing group of agnostic cosmopolitans who saw Naomi Long elected in May for Alliance to the European Parliament tipped the balance for Remain.

The rickety Stormont Executive, its membership reduced by the emergence of opposition following the 2016 Assembly election to the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein, was riven by a raft of issues - from the Irish language to marriage equality - nagging at its own loveless partnership. The Brexit imbroglio added to the sectarian strain and it collapsed within months.

The first-past-the-post general election called in June 2017 by Cameron's successor Theresa May in the vain hope of winning a mandate for her Brexit strategy wiped out the Northern Ireland parties at Westminster bar the DUP and SF - and left May dependent on the former while the latter stayed determinedly absent.

The former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Brooke, who began political talks in the region in the early 1990s, was no longer at Westminster to remind May that he had set the scene in 1990 by declaring the impartiality of the British Government - Britain had no "selfish strategic or economic interest" at stake, he said - in brokering an accommodation. Dining privately with the DUP on Tuesday evening, the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson clearly has not got that message either.

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These and subsequent inter-party talks, eventually leading to the 1998 Agreement, took place in the context of close relationships between the British and Irish Governments established by the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. That accord was unthinkable without the common framework of membership of the then European Community since 1973 by the two states.

Officials in London and Dublin had developed a close rapport through European engagements - such that even the dyspeptic, Eurosceptic Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was willing to sign the 1985 Hillsborough accord. Indeed, the relationship survived major tensions, including over extradition of paramilitary offenders from the Republic and the no-jury courts where such suspects were tried in the north.

Through all this the European Union looked on benignly. Though Northern Ireland wasn't actually poor enough to qualify for 'objective one' status, it was allowed to benefit from an associated doubling of support from the regional development and social funds in 1993. And after the 1994 paramilitary ceasefires a unique EU Peace fund - now in its fourth iteration - was established for the 12 counties, including the adjacent border region of the Republic.

The then president of the European Commission, the French socialist Jacques Delors, came to Northern Ireland in 1992 and on his jet back to Brussels intimated to me his desire for a rapprochement between the two parts of the island. At that time, the border was still peppered with checkpoints and observation towers but these were to be dismantled in the succeeding years, with the Belfast Agreement opening a new era of north-south co-operation (although the interparliamentary body and north-south civic forum it mooted never emerged).

That co-operation is now so extensive it covers 142 areas, according to an official mapping exercise in September 2017, which the UK Government declined to release even to the Brexit select committee at Westminster until its hand was forced by a Freedom of Information request. This shows the inextricable intertwining of the Belfast Agreement, the associated north-south rapprochement and the maintenance of a soft - hitherto intra-EU - border in Ireland.

Hence the provision in the withdrawal agreement with the UK Government that December to sustain the achievements of the Good Friday Agreement in Ireland and to provide for a backstop that these would be preserved, whatever final arrangements between the UK and the EU emerged after Brexit.

Regardless of Johnson's bluster about disposing of the backstop, the EU27 will not budge and a no-deal exit on October 31 will lead to instant chaos and future job losses: a Civil Service report anticipates 40,000 in the north, while a further 100,000 have been forecast to go south of the border. Business is up in arms that the DUP could treat in such a cavalier way the prospect of major disruption to the north-south supply chains and trading relationships which the former senior civil servant the late George Quigley conceived as the "island economy".

Johnson's diversionary move, after a no-deal Brexit lurch over the cliff, was to be a major UK-US trade agreement with his political soulmate on the populist far-right Donald Trump. But the Democrat leader in the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi has made clear no such deal will pass Congress unless it protects the legacy of the 1998 Agreement.

It's possible that the unreconstructed authoritarian-left position on Europe (as on Ireland) of the current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn could yet so divide the Opposition as to allow a no-deal Brexit to materialise, even though there is no majority for it in Parliament or among the public. But, equally, Ireland could prove to be the final ditch in which the cavalier dream of the Brexiteers dies.

In which case, those two grey-haired politicians, Major and Blair, could have reason to look at each other and smile: "We told you so."

  • Robin Wilson is general editor of Social Europe.

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