When he touched down in Dublin almost two weeks ago, Boris Johnston immediately irked the mood of the Irish delegation when that morning at a press conference in Dublin Department of Foreign Affairs office he stated that the British wanted to go to phase two of the Brexit negotiations without solving the problem of the Irish border post Brexit.
His excuse was lengthy and in his usual flip flop manner. “I think logically now is the time to proceed with stage two of the negotiations, get those issues really teased out. Develop a vision for how it is going to work, not just the Northern Irish border, Dover, Calais, everywhere where the UK has a border with the EU and sort it out that way. I share Simon’s view that we need to get on with this, but our view is you can only crack the problem in the context of a wider understanding of how the new customs union arrangements are going to work across the board”.
UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson with Irish counterpart Simon Coveney
Inserting the Irish border question into a lager context was fooling nobody and, in particular, Irish counterpart Simon Coveney who was not about to be usurped by this blatant change of tactic by the British. Coveney immediately responded by stating that “the EU taskforce has said that there are parameters around which we need to find solutions, and the details of that will be in phase two, I am sure. But those parameters need to be a lot clearer before we can move on to phase two.” Suffice to say that the overall meeting wasn’t much a of success and the British left Ireland with a firm message that the gloves are off should Ireland exercise its veto and stop any movement to phase two.
The heat is on
Here we are almost two weeks later and the heat is being turned up by the British government on daily basis. Yet yesterday Helen Entree, Irish Minister of State for European Affairs, said during an interview with Britain’s Channel 4 news that “any return to a hard border… on the island of Ireland would impact on that peace.” She went on to say that “the Irish border is linked to a ‘very fragile peace agreement’ that could be jeopardised by a physical border.”
What seems to be happening is that a sense of panic is setting in amongst the British government who, despite the last eighteen months of meetings and speeches, still have no idea how to solve the problem of the border on the island of Ireland. What’s worse still is that they have Northern Ireland’s DUP propping up their stay in Downing Street and insisting that the concept of Northern Ireland receiving special status and remaining in the customs union at the least must be rejects at all costs.
But whatever they may try to do to intimidate or bully Ireland into not using its veto, they have a very different adversary in Ireland today. This is a nation that is no longer afraid of the big brother across the Irish sea. It has spent the last thirty years establishing itself across the world as a truly unique and very independent state. It also no longer requires the approval of Westminster when it comes to economy, trade, or defence. Ireland is an intrinsic member of the EU and its people fully support that membership.
Ireland is EU
A poll from summer of last year suggested that 88% of Irish people think Ireland should remain in the European Union, while 99% of full-time students also share this view. A Red C poll published on Europe Day also found that 82% believe that the UK should have voted to remain in the EU, so clearly no support for the Brexit cause there either. And there is no doubt that given the recent actions, and repercussion of the negotiations with the EU, the Irish public must surly look at what is happening across the water and say “no, thanks”.
Most important though is how the Irish feel about the Good Friday Agreement and how important it is for all people on the island of Ireland, regardless of what their attitude is toward the EU. Because what the British either don’t understand or care about is that the agreement is now a part of Irish society and to try and disrupt it in any way would be seen almost as an act of war.
Cold war tactics
So what Britain is effectively doing is playing cold war tactics with Dublin. But this time the sides have switched. Ireland is now in the modern day version of NATO with a massive support of twenty six other member states who, despite their outward patience, have most likely had enough of this constant parade by Downing Street to drag out the whole Brexit process as much as possible.
The Irish border has been and will be the biggest problem for Brexit. It was there on day one and it will be there the day they leave.
And as I write this, I now see that it has been revealed that the Brexit bill will be in the region of 45 to 55 billion euro for Britain to pay. A good deal and probably what everyone had predicted in terms of the final figure. But this announcement cannot be used to force Ireland into accepting the border issue to be kicked down the roads. The EU must allow Ireland to express its right to be angry with the lack of effort in resolving a problem that it did not create, because, make no mistake, Ireland will use that veto if it has to.
It is no longer the small player and will be very keen to express that.