For some reason, Ireland always brings out the worst in British people—never more so than in the current Brexit debacle, in which the mother of all parliaments has become the mother of all cockups.
However this ends (after a week of tragi-comic parliamentary performances nobody really knows), Ireland is likely to end up with serious collateral damage. The United Kingdom is Ireland’s second largest export market after the U.S., and Brexit would end the free flow of trade between the two.
Irish agriculture would really be screwed. Half of Ireland’s beef and a quarter of its dairy products go to Britain. Brexit could lead to tariffs as high as 70 percent.
But the most contentious issue has turned out to be the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. This is loaded with more actual and symbolic gravity than either of those countries wants to see play out.
The actual physical stakes are high enough—whether to keep the border open and free of customs and immigration controls as it is while Britain and Ireland are still both in the European Union or whether it resumes being a “hard” border as it was before E.U. membership.
The symbolism is a lot more scary and potentially divisive: a return to the violent years of “The Troubles” in which more than 3,000 people were killed between 1969 and 1998, when the Good Friday Agreement finally cemented peace between the warring Protestant and Catholic populations of Northern Ireland.
When Theresa May’s Tory government suddenly realized that their whole Brexit plan could be torpedoed by the issue of the Northern Ireland border they came up with a tortuous formula for keeping it open.
As always with a certain class of Englishman, when groping for a term to describe a political idea the Tories reached to the vocabulary of cricket, a game that includes such bewildering positions on the field as silly-mid-on and silly-mid-off.
In this case they chose to name their idea the backstop, a position of last resort to catch a ball that has powered past both the batsman and the wicket keeper. Given its desperate application in this case it would have been better to invent a new term, silly bugger off.
The charlatans who promoted Brexit sold it as the dawn of a new age of prosperous independence from the rest of Europe—whereas it was specifically membership of the E.U. and its huge market that brought Britain four decades of prosperity. Their fantasy is that Europe’s bounty can be replaced by a new partnership with America—never mind that Ireland will suffer.
The idiocy of that idea was devastatingly dissected in a speech in the House of Lords by Lord Puttnam—David Puttnam, the Oscar-winning film producer—who has had a home in Ireland for 30 years.
He pointed out that as a producer he had deep experience of making deals in America and said, “No matter how you may personally feel to an American business counterpart, when you sit across the negotiating table all the notions of a ‘special relationship’ go out of the window and new rules apply.”
Then he warned that around 40 million Americans have Irish roots, including many influential American politicians. There were, he said, 16 senators with an Irish heritage who, with an election in 2020, would not be inclined to be seen supporting Britain by “heaping misery on the Irish economy.”
And, speaking of Brexit’s most slippery proponent Puttnam said, “There’ll be no point in sending Boris Johnson off to attend a St. Patrick’s Day parade wearing a green leprechaun hat.”
Another canard put out by May’s government was that there would be a magical technological remedy like a combination of an EZ Pass and electronic security scanner that could remove the hard border. They called it “alternative arrangements,” though it was never explained in any detail.
Another sharp-eyed member of the House of Lords, Lord Bassam, relentlessly pressed ministers to reveal what work had been done to ready the “alternative arrangements” for use.
First he was told “the government will not be giving any details at this stage.”
Unrelenting, Lord Bassam pressed for word of contracts being signed to produce the technology. There were no contracts.
“There is nothing there” said his lordship, “and there never has been and the government of Theresa May have known it all along.”
Indeed, there is nothing there. Nothing at all. After two years of negotiation with the E.U. and attempting to run out the clock to the March 29 deadline May is like a conjuror with no rabbit to pull out of the hat.
Irish history amply shows that the Brits have never shown much sympathy for or understanding Ireland. In the 19th century, when the island was administered like an annoying colony, Queen Victoria’s government sent the worst administrators there—it was considered a career backwater.
More than one million people died in the potato famine that raged between 1846 and 1849. A British administrator lamented, “There is scarcely a woman of the peasant class in the West of Ireland whose culinary art exceeds the boiling of a potato.”
After Irish independence, British rule was confined to Northern Ireland, but the province continued to be used by prime ministers as a place to send either party hacks or rivals who would be destroyed by the experience.
Just recently Karen Bradley, the minister for Northern Ireland, said that killings by British troops during The Troubles “were not crimes.” She followed that with three stumbling versions of an apology ending with, “It was deeply insensitive to many of those who lost loved ones.”
At the height of the violence of The Troubles, Margaret Thatcher complained that her troops found it hard to police the border because its “kinks and wriggles” made it easy for the Irish Republican Army to ambush her troops.
She proposed re-drawing the border as a straight line. That would have involved moving a large number of the border population. “After all, there was a big movement of population in Ireland wasn’t there?” she said to a Tory colleague.
She was talking about the iron-fisted conquest of the island by Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century, when about 30 percent of the population was wiped out.
Sorting out the kinks and wriggles never happened, but the IRA came close to blowing up Thatcher in 1984 when they planted a bomb in a Brighton hotel where she was staying during a Tory party conference. Five people were killed but Thatcher was unscathed.
Since the Good Friday Agreement the whole of Ireland has come a long way, thanks as much to large infusions of infrastructure investment from the E.U. as to the transformed political climate. The Irish economy is the fastest growing in Europe—last year GDP grew by 7.8 percent.
Irish millennials will barely remember how far their culture has come in a relatively short time. For example, when I visited Dublin in 1991, traveling from a multi-cultural London, I was struck by how white the city was, more so than most European capitals.
I mentioned this to a policeman guarding the Irish Parliament building. “Oh, that kind of thing would never wash here,” he said with a confidence that was not so much racist as insular.
Fast forward to 2017 and Ireland elects Leo Varadkar as Taoiseach (prime minister), the son of an Indian father and Irish mother who is also openly gay and an advocate of same-sex marriage.
The hammerhold of the Catholic Church on Irish culture and politics has gone, partly as a result of the broadening of ideas and experience that came with E.U. membership, partly in response to the Irish church’s involvement in the international pedophile scandals, and partly because of a generational change that has rendered belief in any blind faith intolerable.
The most consequential result of this change was the end of an anti-abortion law dating from 1861 that for decades had forced thousands of young Irish women to cross the sea to seek abortions in Britain. In effect from this year, a new law now allows abortions within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy or later in cases where health is at risk.
There was strong belief in Ireland and the U.K. that a state visit to Dublin by Queen Elizabeth in 2011, the first since independence by a reigning monarch, was the final sign of a lasting reconciliation between the two nations.
It was a particularly bold move for the Queen because her second cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, had been blown up by an IRA bomb in 1979.
In 2015, there was further proof of how far things had changed when Prince Charles, to whom Mountbatten had been a mentor, returned to the small Irish fishing village of Mullaghmore, where Mountbatten had died and, during the same trip, shook hands with the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.
In 1979 Adams said of the bombing, “What the IRA did to him is what Mountbatten had been doing all his life to other people.”
The role of Adams and the IRA leader Martin McGuinness in the Good Friday Agreement was decisive in the settlement—both of them having been brought into the talks by President Clinton and further persuaded by Clinton’s masterful negotiator Senator George Mitchell.
All that progress is now at risk because, ironically, as Ireland became European in outlook and ambitions the U.K. has withdrawn into a narrow-minded Little England cult. Ireland’s “tiger economy” could be thrown into reverse. A secret British government report that was leaked predicted an immediate post-Brexit plunge of 7 percent in Ireland’s economy.
There is one upside. London’s financial district is the Wall Street of Europe. It creates about 6 percent of British GDP. But international banks are bailing. They need to be in the E.U. for frictionless trading and Dublin is attracting them as an alternative. It’s English-speaking, with plenty of talent and a strong cultural vibe.
As for America offering a life-raft for Britain’s economy, Puttnam’s prediction of a steely response from the Trump administration has turned out to be true. As an opening gambit the U.S. presented a demand for the U.K. to remove “unwarranted barriers” such as “sanitary and physiosanitary” standards for farm products. Meaning, among other things, chicken treated with chlorine, which is banned in Europe.
It could be said that after two centuries of screwing the Irish the Brits are screwing themselves even more than they are the Irish. The Irish will rebound. The Brits not so much.