Tuesday 22 October 2019

John Downing: 'A memo to Ms Foster - PM is now warning of united Ireland'


DUP leader Arlene Foster. Photo: Reuters
DUP leader Arlene Foster. Photo: Reuters
John Downing

John Downing

Another manic Monday in the Palace of Westminster has given way to more uncertainty. The UK prime minister announced that she is about to engage in even more "dialogue" with her EU counterparts today and tomorrow as she prepares for another summit in Brussels on Thursday.

There is no doubt that her EU colleagues will be polite, kind, and helpful - up to a very limited point. Yesterday's proceedings in the UK parliament told us the Brexit game still remains to be played out in London.

As Ireland's EU Commissioner Phil Hogan has rather pithily told us many times, we are still waiting on the outcome of London-London Brexit debate and decision-making processes. The other 27 EU member states have remained steadfastly united on this vexed issue, at a time when they are often pulled in many different directions on so many other topics.

Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney, and more especially his senior officials, have done a very good job infiltrating what was already a very sympathetic EU line-up. It did take a while to do all that. At one stage the Irish contingent appeared more ready to see if they could cobble an Ireland-UK deal which they would subsequently sell in Brussels. Happily, Dublin returned to the Brussels fold, which was the only source of sensible politics on this most fraught topic.

Yes, Ireland's key aim - to prevent the return of a visible Border on this island - happened to overlap with the EU's aim of sustaining peace on this island. The EU has invested heavily in Northern Ireland's peace mission since the first IRA ceasefire in 1994.

That funding was given readily without too much political pressure. While Washington rightly got considerable political kudos out of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the EU played a low-key bank-rolling part.

In Brussels, and the other EU capitals, they also realised that they must manage the reality that the stretch of ground between Dundalk and Derry would, in the wake of Brexit, de facto become an international frontier between the EU single market and the UK. The EU has shown considerable kindness and pragmatism to overcome the consequences of that reality for ordinary citizens North and south in this draft deal.

Many Irish people on both sides of that almost 100-year-old Border remain very puzzled about the limited political thinking of the Democratic Unionist Party amid all this ferment. Soon after the UK voters' Brexit choice in June 2016, Sinn Féin unhelpfully complicated everything with demands for a "Border poll" on the future of partition in Ireland. It was as if there was not enough noise already in the political market at the time.

That Border poll is a bad idea. But amid the maelstrom in Westminster yesterday, Theresa May delivered a rather pointed side-swipe to her disloyal DUP supporters. In sum, she said a united Ireland will move dramatically closer if the 'backstop' is removed from the Brexit deal.

Irish Independent

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