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Danger to Peace Deal: The Irish dimension to Brexit is crucial

Editor - The Tablet - Sat, Aug 19th 2017

Danger to Peace Deal: The Irish dimension to Brexit is crucial

Two parallel conversations are going on about Brexit, with little connection between them. One is about the United Kingdom’s future relationship with the remaining 27 nations of the European Union. The other is about relations between the north and the south of Ireland. Neither of these conversations can be concluded without the other. But London insists on proceeding as if there might be two separate solutions.

The new Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has told the British Government more forcefully than his predecessor ever did that Brexit is their problem, not his, and he will not help them solve it. Irish Ministers are standing by their determination not to see a physical border reintroduced between Northern Ireland and the Republic. They insist – with strong support from other EU members – the free movement of people and goods from one to the other must continue. The obvious and perhaps only way to achieve this is for Northern Ireland to remain within the EU customs union and single market. But that could imply treating Northern Ireland as a separate entity from the rest of the United Kingdom, which is passionately opposed by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). And the British Government relies on DUP support in the Westminster Parliament for its survival.

If the Irish chessboard did not already look complicated enough, Northern Ireland itself has no voice in either conversation, because the two major parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly cannot agree on the formation of a new cross-party executive. The greater share of the blame for this lies with Sinn Féin. For reasons described in The Irish Times as “impenetrably obscurantist and unintelligible”, the party has elevated parity of the Irish language with English into a fundamental principle and demanded that the DUP agrees to it, which of course it does not.

So in the absence of a power-sharing executive the interests of Northern Ireland are represented not by its own people but by the Government in Westminster, which is propped up by the DUP. And far from using its seven seats in the House of Commons as a counterweight, Sinn Féin continues to boycott Westminster – again for reasons that are impenetrably obscurantist and unintelligible. If they were to take their seats they could use their votes and voices to advocate the only solution that would keep Britain and Northern Ireland as a single entity – thereby satisfying one of the main priorities of the DUP – namely for the whole United Kingdom to remain inside the customs union and single market. But British negotiators in Brussels, who hardly even seem aware of the Irish dimension, have already rejected that.

Insofar as they think about it at all, they hope to find some smart technical solution involving automatic number-plate recognition for heavy goods vehicles and electronic tagging for their contents. Such a “frictionless” border, if workable at all, would require the close cooperation of the Irish Government. It is clear that that will not be forthcoming.

So the ultimate question is this: is the British Government prepared to sacrifice the Northern Ireland peace settlement on the altar of Brexit? Is it even aware of the danger?

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