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Sunday 24 September 2017

Comment: Gibraltar riddle leaves Mrs May between a Rock and a hard place

Tourists on the top of the Rock in the British overseas territory of Gibraltar. Photo: REUTERS/Jon Nazca
Tourists on the top of the Rock in the British overseas territory of Gibraltar. Photo: REUTERS/Jon Nazca
John Downing

John Downing

Here's one from the cold comfort department: that border between the North and the Republic is not the only Brexit UK-EU frontier flashpoint.

We in Ireland rarely think about Gibraltar - that odd British rock jutting into the Mediterranean and attached to the south of Spain.

Back almost 30 years ago, in March 1988, three IRA activists did think a lot about the place as they planned to blow a large chunk of it sky high. But they were summarily shot dead in very controversial circumstances by British commandos of the SAS.

In an earlier time, from 1835 onwards, the Irish Christian Brothers ran a large school on the Rock and their biggest school lasted until 1977. The Irish Ursuline sisters also operated schools there for decades. For the rest, Irish links are rather diffuse.

Those with a literary bent may know that James Joyce's fictional Molly Bloom grew up on the Rock and speaks rhapsodically about it all in his epic novel Ulysses. The authorities in Gibraltar reciprocated with a statue of the young Molly Bloom in the beautiful Alameda Gardens.

By now we hear you ask: is there a political point to these facts and oddities about Gibraltar of all places? Well there is a rather strong point.

And it is that we are in the middle of a very European crisis and we must see it as such. If Ireland is to make alliances to get what we want in the Brexit talks, we need to know all about all the other member states' needs.

The British have held tiny Gibraltar since 1704. The so-called "British presence" in the island of Ireland was cemented by the 1609 Plantation of Ulster. No one predicted Gibraltar would become an early flashpoint in the Brexit negotiations, but that was the outcome of the publication of the EU negotiating guidelines late last month.

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The text said that no Brexit agreement would apply to Gibraltar without the agreement of the Spanish. Cue unsurprising outrage from the Gibraltar government, big reassurances from the London government, and even some sabre-rattling and threats of war from a former Tory leader, Michael Howard. He even made some hyperbolic comparisons with the Falklands crisis of 1982.

Perhaps the biggest point to be taken from it all is that the Gibraltar issue entirely escaped the attention of British Prime Minister Theresa May. Her scant attention to the Northern Ireland border appears rather encyclopaedic by comparison. It reminds us that London still has no Brexit plan - and leaves us wondering what other important details were overlooked.

Meanwhile, Spain - who won that assurance on Gibraltar - has also said that it would not stand in the way of EU membership for an independent Scotland. Up to now, all the signals from Madrid were that they would block Scotland's candidature lest it encourage the Catalans to cede from Spain and opt for independence within the EU.

That again could have implications for Ireland. If Scotland does cede from the United Kingdom, the reverberations in the North of Ireland will be considerable.

Ireland has many key and valid Brexit aims - but they all must fit on a big EU canvass. We have vast issues to consider.

John Downing is an Irish Independent political correspondent

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