On the Border

That little Ireland can cause a hold up in the Brexit talks should put to bed the “too wee” arguments in Scotland argues Phil Mac Giolla Bhain. One of the problems the British government can’t get their heads around is how a small EU state like the Republic of Ireland has a voice at Brussels? As the Brexit negotiations come to a crisis, ignorance is no longer bliss. 

I was introduced to the realities of the Border when the “cattle boat” from the Broomielaw to Dublin was taken off line.

Then the ten year old me learned about places like Stranraer and Larne.

The last time I recall that militarised demarcation line entering my consciousness was in the summer of 1994.

We crossed the Border from Fermanagh into Sligo and a very large member of An Garda Síochána looked at my green passport. When he saw my name as Gaeilge it prompted a question in the first language of the state:

“Cá bhfuil sibh ag dul?” he asked me.

“Táimid ag dul go Contae Mhaigh Eo.”

We were indeed going to my father’s county in the west for a family holiday. Such a linguistic interaction on the other side of the line would have been dangerously out of place, especially with the locally recruited security forces. As we drove towards the West we all felt a relief to be in our own place and not in the Six Counties.

While we were in Mayo Ireland beat Italy at soccer in New York and a pro-British death squad did their stuff at Loughinisland.

Two years later we had settled back home in Ireland.

For herself and me, both with an Irish born parent and Irish grandparents on the other side of the house this little island was always home.

We’ve reared our brood here in this Border County.

These days I think nothing of driving to Derry for NUJ meetings or to pillage the local shopping centres as post-Brexit Sterling tumbles against the Euro.

Over that twenty one years the Partition line has slowly dissolved and the European Union has played a positive role in minimising that geo-political disfigurement on the island.

Now we could be faced with some of it coming back again.

I last wrote for Bella on this subject in February 2016 before the Brexit vote.

It might warrant another read now.

A lot of my fears expressed in that piece appear worryingly prescient.

The Irish story over the centuries has been about events in Europe and Britain having unforeseen yet profoundly long lasting consequences here in Ireland.

Reformation, counter-reformation, French revolution and the First World War.

They all had a uniquely Irish impact on people here.

Now the UK has decided to do walking away from the European Union.

My green passport is no more, it was a beautiful document with a gold inlay.

Although my merlot coloured travel document today isn’t nearly as aesthetically pleasing I view the EU livery as an emblem of peaceful cooperation.

The Peace Process on this island probably couldn’t have occurred without the Maastricht Treaty.

In creating a more harmonised union across the continent of Europe the stage was set for two member states of the EU, assisted by the Clinton Administration, to explore a dénouement to the war situation on this island.

Back then I was privy to the thinking of some senior Republicans as they entered the talks that would produce the Good Friday Agreement.

They were calculating, prescient men.

Some of them had spent a large chunk of their youth in British prisons.

This had given them with the ability to sketch out a long game, but at no point did I hear anyone gaming out Britain leaving the European Union.

However, we are nearly at that juncture.

I have, in recent weeks, spoken to some old comrades from that time.

We shared a joke about how events can blindside all of us.

Some things, though, do not change.

The modern Irish revolutionary tradition, which emerged in the 19th century was based on the following rationale:

England will only attend to Ireland when the Irish become a problem for them.

When the people of Ireland were docile then they could literally starve to death and it didn’t really register with the Westminster tribe.

Now the Bullingdon boys are startled that the Micks could actually create a roadblock to Brexit on the Lifford to Stabane road.

Poppy Boy

We now have the situation where even a Taoiseach who recently wore a Poppy in Dáil Éireann cannot agree with the Grand Old Dame Britannia on what to do with her Irish frontier.

The son of an Indian immigrant and educated at an exclusive private school that has a Church of Ireland ethos, Varadkar isn’t exactly a Provo from central casting.

Indeed he might be the most pro-British Taoiseach in the history of the State.

When such a person can cause Border problems for the ruling elite on the Thames then we are truly in uncharted waters.

There appears to be a binary choice between a hard border or Northern Ireland remaining within the Single Market and the Customs Union.

The former subverts the Belfast Agreement and the latter compromises the integrity of the United Kingdom.

I think the fact that Leo Varadkar’s Chief Whip is Donegal TD Joe McHugh might be one of those small details that can ultimately have significant implications.

I’ve known Joe since he was an unfancied candidate for the County Council here.

His political career has spanned the Good Friday Agreement and he has been involved in several EU funded cross Border initiatives.

That little Ireland can cause a hold up in the Brexit talks should put to bed the “too wee” arguments in Scotland.

This current Border impasse demonstrates that a small EU state like the Republic of Ireland has a voice at Brussels and that it is one that is being heard.

If Brexit is portrayed as a fascinating parlour game for the chattering classes, here on the debatable land in the North West of Ireland it is prosaically real.

The European Union played a key role in bringing the Northern conflict to a close.

Brexit has the capacity to subvert the slow progress we have made in the last two decades.

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Comments (22)

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  1. Jim says:

    This (and its associated earlier article) are very good.

    I only have one point of contention. Is the author confident that Ireland couldn’t be sacrificed by the E.U.? The real politik of German and French economic wellbeing may well mean that Ireland could be a simple pawn to be played and discarded with little consequence.

    Ireland, and Scotland for that matter, would be well advised to have a lang spoon ready. The devil, in this case, isn’t necessarily just resident in Downing Street.

    1. Phil Mac Giolla Bháin says:

      I think that the UK negotiating team have been startled at the extent to which the border issue on this island is a major agenda item for the EU side.
      Our Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has carried out excellent work on this matter.
      If Ireland were to be “discarded” in your analysis it could subvert the territorial integrity of the EU.

      1. MBC says:

        I think there is a lot of anger in the EU at the U.K. for leaving the EU and then for leaving the EU messily without coming (so far) to any agreement on the exit deal. This would try the patience of a saint.

        Far from sacrificing Ireland, the impression I have is that the EU will fight tooth and nail for Ireland just to kick the U.K. and secondly because Ireland is part of the territorial integrity of the EU, so attack one, attack all.

        The British are in for a rude awakening.

    2. lawrenceab says:

      I also worry about this. It will require Ireland to be steadfast and not allow herself to be shafted as happened when Merkel reneged on sotto voce promises that the EU would re-finance Ireland after forcing Dublin to bail out its banks (to the advantage of French and German creditors).

  2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    All good stuff, but, I keep recalling the words of my old school mate recently retired from his post as a senior EU diplomat, with regard to HM Government, “They don’t give a fuck about Ireland.”

    Sadly, I think that is true. They don’t give a fuck about Scotland, Wales, Gibraltar and most of the population of England. The clique who promoted Brexit have executed a coup d’etat and are interested only in shovelling the assets that spill out into their offshore accounts and the rest of us can live a rights-free serfdom or starve.

    1. Richard Easson says:

      They are ,however mostly Friends of Israel.

  3. w.b.robertson says:

    Ireland`s influence in the mighty EU? when the people voted the wrong way a few years back they were soon ordered by Brussels to carry out a re-run! And they did.

    1. Phil Mac Giolla Bháin says:

      In the interests of accuracy, it is usually only us in Donegal who vote the “wrong” way…

      1. Crubag says:

        The Republic has quite the track-record of turning down EU initiatives – both the Lisbon and the Nice Treaties – though the Republic is relatively unusual in requiring a vote on Treaty amendments.

        As a smaller country, and one with a neutral tradition, it is understandable that there would be concern at the moves to the EU having its own global voice, or the shift to majority voting. The political party that objected most to these moves was Sinn Fein, which prized both union within the island of Ireland and independence from foreign powers.

        The unpredictable effect of asking people what they think (as in France or the Netherlands), and the risk of a single country holding up things by refusing to amend a Treaty, is why there has been a move to Enhanced Cooperation to get things. Hence some of the deepening moves like Schengen or the euro aren’t EU-wide, but only the core countries.

        Future deepening might include harmonising corporate tax rates, which the Republic probably wouldn’t like, but given the new EU structures might find hard to resist. Neutrality is also being chipped away at through Enhanced Cooperation, though here the focus is terrorism.

  4. Willie says:

    Yes Phil, the Brexiteering Bullington Boys disregarded the Irish Question as they did so much else.

    What exactly they will do as the out of control car careers onward with no settled destination in mind, I do not know.

    Maybe they will redraw their border casting adrift their hapless DUP partners. There is no other way they can close their borders. But then they imprison their Scottish subjects..

    Britainnia needs a fight. That is the top and bottom of it. They want to take on the Germans, the French and all of the other EU countries and win. They also delusionally expect the World to recognise them for the imperial economic and mitary power that they think they are.

    I think events will however surprise them. Their empire has gone a different the world is a different place.

    Heading for a fall, the UK is finished.

  5. Gordon bradley says:

    Er. That’s the daily mail version. And wrong of course. The Irish refused to vote for the Lisbon treaty because they objected to some of its provisions. The EU took it away, changed it to suit the Irish, brought it back whereupon the Irish happily voted in favour of it. We call that democracy.
    It’s not what you read in your daily heil though is it ?

    1. Crubag says:

      Except the Treaty wasn’t changed, that would have meant all the other states signing-up to a new document – rather assurances were given, and accepted. The assurances reflected Irish concerns at the time, right to life, tax, and neutrality.

  6. Richard Easson says:

    Of course Northern Ireland were not asked to leave in the European Referendum.
    After partition The Parliamentary Titles Act was passed in 1927 which made the legal title what it still is on our passports: The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The question on the referendum paper only mentioned the UK which is not the legal, proper and full name, so Northern Ireland was not mentioned. Do you remember when the Electoral Commission changed the question on the Scottish Referendum paper to avoid confusion and provide clarity and lack of bias?

  7. MBC says:

    Is there any appetite for reunification in the Republic? It would solve a lot of problems.

  8. William Davidson says:

    A new version of the Good Friday Agreement seems to have emerged in the wake of the U.K.’s decision to leave the E.U.. This version, as expressed in this article, makes the claim that “the E.U. played a key role in bringing the northern conflict to a close,” while providing little evidence to back this up. Aside from a spell at Uni in Glasgow, I lived in N.I. through the “conflict” and the negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement and the E.U. did not play a key role in the negotiations or the drafting of the Agreement. There was a two strand negotiation between the British and Irish governments, led by Tony Blair and Bertie Aherne on the one hand, and an internal negotiation between the N.I. parties, chaired by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell on the other. As far as I’m aware the E.U. played no part, either as an institution, or through the participation of an official, in these negotiations.
    The onus in now on the E.U. to secure a good deal for its continuing member, the Irish Republic, bearing in mind that most of the latter’s trade is with Britain, not with N.I. or the rest of the E.U.. So we shouldn’t have too long to wait to see if the Republic’s strong voice is heard in Brussels.

  9. Jamsie says:

    A strangely prescient thought came into my head today.
    There I was driving in the sunshine down Baillieston Main Street heading for home when it came to me.
    It almost seemed like an epiphany was about to completely change the world.
    Moreover the effect of it was going to right all wrongs, the time had come and we were finally through Brexit with the EU firmly placed in our past.
    Then another thought entered my head which was also prescient.
    The SNP got trounced in the Holyrood elections in 2021 with people departing in droves due their total failure in government and because they feel for the ploy which they were pushed into – raising taxes and making Scotland the most expensive place to reside in the UK. As a result of this the economy continued to crash.
    By this time the prescience was so great it was like the angels were singing.
    And it was foretold that the SNP recklessly in a last throw of the dice called another referendum on independence and lost, kicking the subject into oblivion for eternity.
    Ah fantasy.
    Like this article and its author – it is alive and well.
    It is the EU who have delayed talks on the border not the UK.
    Dublin would like the UK to remain in in the customs union as the best solution for Northern Ireland.
    The EU position is that it believes that a special deal post Brexit will have to be made paving the way for special status for the province after the UK has left.
    Their position is also that the British proposal for a customs waiver on the border was a
    non-starter as it meant that the EU would need to change or suspend the application of EU law whereby goods coming from the UK into Ireland a member state would need to be checked.
    Far from Ireland influencing the eventual decision it is clear they will do what they are told.
    Now I don’t know whether Brexit will prove to be good for the economy of the UK or not and I do not believe anyone does.
    But I do believe that the politicians have a duty to deliver.
    Everyone knows (even wee Nicola) the so called mandate of 2016 is fallacious and so the second referendum will never happen. It would be suicide for her career.
    Everyone also knows that Ireland will not stop Brexit and will not even have a say in the deal.
    It may well get a say in the relaxation of EU law after Brexit to reach a deal with the UK on the border but even that is doubtful.
    Fantasy and obsession are not identifiers of objective opinion and I have to say Bella must be scraping the barrel for quality content with people like this being asked to contribute.

  10. William Davison says:

    A new version of the Good Friday Agreement seems to have emerged in the wake of the U.K.’s decision to leave the E.U.. This version, as expressed in this article, makes the claim that “The E.U. played a key role in bringing the northern conflict to a close”, while providing little evidence to back up the claim. In fact, the E.U. played no role in the negotiations leading up to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, or in the drafting of its provisions. Aside from a spell at Uni in Glasgow, I lived in N.I. through the “conflict” and the period of the G.F.A. negotiations. These negotiations involved a two-strand process between the British and Irish governments, led by Tony Blair and Bertie Aherne, on the one hand and an internal process involving the northern parties, chaired by former U.S. senator George Mitchell on the other. The E.U. was not involved either as an institution, or through the participation of an individual official.
    The onus in now on the E.U. to negotiate a good deal for its continuing member, the Irish Republic, bearing in mind that most of the latter’s trade is with Britain, not with N.I. or the rest of the E.U.. We won’t have to wait long to see how loudly the Republic’s voice resonates in the corridors of Brussels.
    P.S. On a minor geographical point : there is no direct border between Fermanagh and Sligo.

  11. florian albert says:

    ‘We crossed the Border from Fermanagh into Sligo.’

    There is no border between these two counties. I suspect you crossed into ‘lovely Leitrim.’

    On a more serious note, some people – particularly Irish republicans – are drawing the wrong lessons from the present dispute between the UK and the EU over the Irish border.
    Eurocrats are using this as a stick to beat the British in the Brexit negotiations. Fair enough, politics is a rough old game.
    Long term, the EU cares little for the Irish. In fact, many of the most enthusiastic Europhiles view Ireland’s policy of low corporation tax as a betrayal and believe that – on this issue – the Irish must be made to fall in line. If the Irish think this will not happen, they should talk to some Greeks or Catalans.

  12. ben madigan says:

    Phil wrote”There appears to be a binary choice between a hard border or Northern Ireland remaining within the Single Market and the Customs Union.
    The former subverts the Belfast Agreement and the latter compromises the integrity of the United Kingdom”.

    According to the Guardian Westminster has got round this little obstacle by voting to not include the principles of the belfast Agreement/GFA in the Brexit Withdrawal Bill https://eurofree3.wordpress.com/2017/11/15/warning-ireland/

  13. Catriona Grigg says:

    Perhaps the fact that An Taoiseach is the son of an Indian immigrant is an important part of his makeup. We shouldn’t forget the havoc the British caused in India. Not just partition but also the way they destroyed the Indian economy. Maybe Leo Varadkar understands the Westminster government’s thinking better than we give him credit for.

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