News John Downing

Sunday 23 October 2016

Politics has been churned up by Brexit - and this is just the start

Published 01/08/2016 | 02:30

Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster speaks at the opening of the Battle of the Somme Exhibition at Cavan County Museum, Ballyjamesduff, Co Cavan. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster speaks at the opening of the Battle of the Somme Exhibition at Cavan County Museum, Ballyjamesduff, Co Cavan. Photo: Caroline Quinn

Most Irish politicians call a truce in August. But on mainland Europe they slope off to a complete shutdown. Brexit, which hit Ireland with a hammer blow on June 23, is far from dead - it is merely sleeping, and will kick into life again with a vengeance at a special EU leaders' summit in Bratislava in mid-September.

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The issue's importance cannot be exaggerated for Ireland - just as we were hoping that a nascent economic recovery would endure. For that reason, and because some unprecedented things have happened in its wake, it is well worth recapping a few salient facts.

The first remarkable thing was that the Dublin Government did a 'soft canvass' for Remain in the Brexit campaign, trying to influence the Irish community in Britain, voters in Northern Ireland and British voters in the Republic of Ireland. The intervention was unprecedented but understandable.

The Leave result was the Irish Government's worst nightmare. It is now left to pursue three clear objectives, which are enmeshed.

1. Trade. The Government wants to help keep the UK's access to the single market. Total trade between Ireland and Britain going both ways is worth €1.2bn per week. This issue must be negotiated among the 27 other member states.

2. The Common Travel Area. Travel without systematic checks has existed in these islands since the foundation of the Irish State in 1922 and predates the European Union in all its manifestations. Migration was a huge issue in the Brexit campaign and is also a big issue on mainland Europe due to terrorist attacks.

3. The Border. Customs checks disappeared with the EU 1992 single market. Security towers and checks were relatively quickly phased out in the wake of the first IRA ceasefire in 1994. Nobody in these islands wants those back.

Next, an extraordinary development came at the first post-Brexit EU leaders' summit in Brussels on June 27. Taoiseach Enda Kenny spoke up for Scotland's interests, pointing out that Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had asked him to stress that six out of 10 people in Scotland voted Remain.

It was a significant move. Since 1922, the Dublin Government has studiously avoided giving any overt succour or support to Scottish or Welsh nationalists. It always and everywhere decided that the relationship with London was paramount.

Three specific points are worth noting: First, the outgoing British Prime Minister, David Cameron - the only one entitled to voice internal UK concerns - was still present when Kenny spoke for Scotland; second, Kenny did not at that stage raise the question of Northern Ireland, where 56pc voted Remain; and third, Kenny was also risking antagonising the Spanish government, which has its own internal separatist issues.

Sinn Féin immediately demanded a Border poll in the wake of the Brexit outcome on the grounds of the majority Remain vote in the North. A Border poll is provided for in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. If there is evidence of a political demand then the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland can call such a plebiscite.

Both Dublin and London rejected the Sinn Féin call, arguing that the majority Remain vote in the North did not equate to a move for a United Ireland. The two main parties in Dublin - Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil - were particularly strong and prompt in their rejection of a Border poll.

Then came another extraordinary happening. Speaking in Donegal on July 18, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said the prospect of a future Border poll should be part of the EU negotiations on Brexit. Kenny's comments were rather tortuous in expression and ultimately careful and limited. But the remarks represented a significant shift of emphasis. It was also the first time in generations that a Taoiseach had raised the prospect of Irish reunification in such a fashion.

In essence, Kenny was saying that the Brexit negotiations had to have regard to the prospect of future changes in Northern Ireland's status. If the North opted to leave the United Kingdom, it should have an easy passage to EU membership alongside the Republic of Ireland. Tactically, Kenny and the Dublin Government were playing up the Border issue in the belief that it was a more effective means of getting a hearing from the EU powerbrokers.

There is also a danger, not immediate, of the fragile Northern Ireland peace process coming under additional stress.

Dublin telling its trade troubles in Brussels and the other EU capitals has limited negotiating currency. Talking border issues has emotional resonance, especially for Germany, which has experienced partition and reunification.

Another unexpected spin-off came in regard to relationships in the North. It was assumed that the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, elected last January, could improve an uneasy relationship with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. Then the Brexit result - essentially something extraneous - landed to complicate things. Their divergence has continued in public since the result.

McGuinness insists that Irish divisions cannot be compounded by the North being outside the EU while the South is inside. Foster has stressed that the June 23 result was the outcome of a "UK vote" and must stand for the entire UK - including Northern Ireland.

In summary, Brexit has already churned up relationships across Ireland and Britain. And there is probably more to come.

Irish Independent

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