Two weeks before last year’s EU referendum, Sir John Major and Tony Blair appeared together at an event in County Derry to warn that Brexit could undermine the foundations of peace in Northern Ireland and sabotage relations with the Irish Republic. Such a sombre note struck by two former prime ministers should have resonated long and loud. It did not. The leave campaign had effectively cast the remain camp as serial alarmists and discredited the collective voice of experience and expertise. The Irish challenge was forgotten as another face of “project fear”. But, like many warnings written off under that rubric, this one was accurate.
Brexit makes the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic an external frontier of the EU. It also follows from the UK government’s choice to quit the single market and customs union that new regulation will be needed. Neither side wants a hard border and David Davis calls for “imagination” in navigating the challenge. But he cannot imagine his way out of the facts.
The European commission view, published on Wednesday, is that the UK has chosen to recreate the border and so it falls to the British government to come up with proposals to make it work. Michel Barnier, Mr Davis’s counterpart in the negotiations, reiterated that progress on settling Irish concerns is a precondition for advancement to the second phase of Brexit talks – the post-departure trade deal that Mr Davis is desperate to discuss.
There is a catch-22 here: the UK cannot talk trade without a border deal and it cannot fix the border problem until it knows what the trade situation will be. Mr Barnier knows this, which is why he emphasises the integrity of the Good Friday peace agreement – drafted in terms that presume UK membership of the EU – more than the final status of the border, although the two are linked.
The EU’s interest in the Good Friday agreement goes beyond legal technicality. It is an axiom of the European project that membership elides borders, fostering mutual economic interdependency and prosperity, thereby advancing peace among nations. That is a foundational principle as keenly felt in Brussels as it is misunderstood in London.
UK governments also regularly underestimate the EU’s capacity to amplify the interests of smaller states. Irish politicians and diplomats acted swiftly and deftly to make sure their perspective was central to Brexit talks, while their counterparts in London still thought everything could be stitched up in a phone call to Berlin. That delusion still persists among many Brexiters. They should remember that a treaty settling the EU’s relations with Britain must be ratified in 27 capitals, including Dublin.
That challenge exposes a deeper failing in the government’s approach: refusal to recognise that Brexit inflicts costs on allies, and the greatest cost on the nearest neighbours. There is no upside for Ireland, only degrees of harm. Dublin bears this with patience, mindful that the misfortune arises from a democratic vote. Theresa May lacks equivalent empathy, unable to see her actions as they appear from overseas.
Where Northern Ireland is concerned, she is also compromised by reliance on the Democratic Unionist party to pass legislation through the Commons. That deal already tests the duty of neutrality imposed on the UK government as a co-sponsor of the peace process. It will raise multiple concerns when parliament comes to vote on Brexit preparations. Yet Mrs May shows no hint of sensitivity to that hazard.
Despite all the evidence that Ireland holds the key to a realistic appraisal of Brexit challenges and the clear moral and political obligation to address the border issue as a matter of first priority, the UK government’s stance is lackadaisical. The problem is not a lack of imagination on the EU side. It is the UK government’s lack of application to the task and lack of respect for its neighbours.