Ireland stands united against Westminster’s arrogant Brexiteers | Caelainn Hogan

With our fragile peace being used as a bargaining chip, there is anger towards the British cabinet on both sides of the border

Bodies fall and winged spirits rise in a towering sculpture in Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance – dedicated to the people who gave their lives for Irish freedom. Eight years ago, a reigning British monarch bowed her head and stood in silence before this tribute. At a state dinner in Dublin Castle, dripping in diamonds, she called us “friends” in our own language.

The country was still reeling from recession, with waves of young Irish people still emigrating, many to the UK. David Cameron, the man who would gamble with Britain’s future and lose, prophesised that the visit would “set the seal on what is already a very strong relationship between our two countries, but a relationship I believe can get even stronger still”.

A lot has changed. Since becoming prime minister, Boris Johnson has threatened a no-deal Brexit – with all the ensuing ramifications for both countries – if Ireland didn’t drop the backstop, an insurance policy painstakingly negotiated between the EU and Britain to prevent the return to a hard border on the island of Ireland and to protect a fragile peace. Last month a bomb targeting police officers went off near the border.

There is an expectation among Brexiteers that Ireland must cave. “Why should we?” an Irish friend asked me bluntly over the phone from London, where he has worked for nearly a decade. “What good is that meant to do us?”

“There is no secret cabal of Irish people that think we should all just bend over for Britain,” he said. “I don’t think it’s acceptable for the Irish government to shirk its responsibility to people who by rights are Irish.” The sentiment among other friends was the same. “I’m no fan of this [Irish] government but they’ve played a steady hand on Brexit,” an Irish historian told me. “It shows the depth of Tory ignorance on Ireland.”

No viable alternatives have been offered by Britain to the backstop. Brexit party members and the European Research Group have already made it clear that if Johnson succeeds in getting rid of the backstop, they still won’t accept the deal. If a hard border returns to Ireland, it will be because Brexiteers used peace as a bargaining chip and risked the futures of countless people.

At best, many Brexiteers seem to be hoping that Johnson’s game of chicken will cause Ireland to swerve on its commitment to the backstop. There is a sense that Ireland is being set up as a scapegoat for the fallout from a no-deal exit. Fringe political groups in Ireland aligned with the anti-EU far right are already stoking the xenophobia that in part fuelled Brexit, and British rightwing figures have been actively trying to rally anti-EU sentiment in Ireland.

Despite this, Irish support for the EU remains strong. Irish people know the shortcomings of our current government, which is failing to tackle a deepening housing crisis resulting in rising homelessness and inequality. But there is little doubt that Ireland was more prepared for Brexit than the British themselves. The government is firmly standing its ground – with public and political support.

When Brexiteers boast about defending the will of the people, they seem to forget that a majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU and support the backstop (although the latter has less support among hardline unionists).

Before Brexit, I never thought a united Ireland would be something seriously discussed as a possibility within our lifetime. Now it is getting widespread consideration.

There is a palpable fear that the conflict in the north could be reignited by the British government’s refusal to accept the backstop, the continued breakdown of power-sharing in Stormont, the hundreds of UK police that could reportedly be deployed to the border in the event of no deal, and recent attacks by the New IRA. As the political system in Britain seems to be fracturing, in Ireland the main parties have remained unified in support for the backstop, as have the major pro-remain parties in the north, which see it as key to protecting the peace.

There was concern in the voice of a respected Irish journalist on the radio recently when pressing the deputy prime minister, Simon Coveney, on whether the government was engaging with Britain about contingency plans for a deal. The risks to our security and to our economy are very real. In the north, thousands of jobs could be lost. Coveney was clear that while contingency plans were definitely in place, no side-deal could be brokered and Ireland was keeping its commitment to protecting the Good Friday agreement.

When it was suggested that Ireland rejoin the UK, we were just about able to laugh it off. But attempts to blame Ireland for a no-deal fallout aren’t a joke. Centuries of British policies put Irish lives at risk for the benefit of an empire. The British cabinet now includes people who wanted to threaten Ireland with food shortages and who have called the Good Friday agreement a “moral stain”. There is a feeling of active hostility and a complete disregard for our security.

“The Brits are at it again”, we say to ourselves with gallows humour. This is not anger at the everyday British people who will also bear the brunt of a no-deal Brexit: many of us have British relatives and friends; we are neighbours. But there is an anger and frustration at the ongoing ignorance or denial of history and the real risk of a return to conflict.

From a place of great privilege, people like Boris Johnson are posing as “men of the people” – yet are happy to risk the consequences of a no deal because these consequences do not threaten their lives. Meanwhile, Brexiteers gamble with the security of Ireland and the futures of people on both sides of the border.

Caelainn Hogan is an Irish journalist and author of Republic of Shame

• This article was amended on 5 September 2019. An earlier version said the British cabinet includes people who have called the Good Friday agreement a “mortal stain”. That should have been a “moral stain”


Caelainn Hogan

The GuardianTramp

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