Monday 21 October 2019

John Downing: 'Arlene Foster's absurd attack harks back to a darker era we had all hoped was over'

Furious: DUP leader Arlene Foster attacked the Taoiseach. Picture: Reuters
Furious: DUP leader Arlene Foster attacked the Taoiseach. Picture: Reuters
John Downing

John Downing

By now it's like the opening scene in the late, great Spike Milligan's uproarious novel 'Puckoon'.

Set in the early 1920s, in an Irish Border village, weary and fractious officials in London have hurriedly finished their dreary task of drawing the partition line across the north-west of Ireland.

Puckoon village is crudely divided, most of it is in the Free State, but a good chunk falls into the North. The absurd partition story had much basis in reality.

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The historian DS Johnson, in a lively account of Border cattle-smuggling, notes a case of a house in Fermanagh divided by the Border which came to light in 1937. The pressure group, the Catholic Registration Association, tried in vain to have four Protestant residents in the house deprived of the vote on grounds that their bedrooms were south of the Border.

READ MORE: Border checks will hit Northern farmers hard, minister tells DUP base

But such darkly comedic Border spin-offs, with World War II smugglers - or was that 'Emergency' smugglers? - taking petrol and tea south, and butter and bacon north, really were a coping mechanism for a very grim and mixed-up reality.

On January 1, 1993, the EU border-free single market did more than any other entity to remove visible evidence of the Border, consigning those shabby customs buildings to history. When the IRA ceasefires happened in the mid-1990s, banishing armed soldiers, huge watchtowers, and other distressing security paraphernalia, the EU again helped advance things with generous peace grants.

Then enter Brexit in June 2016, and cue three years of confusion and false declarations surrounding the Border.

All sides of the triangle - London, Brussels, and Dublin - insisted there would never be a return of controls which risked being a focal point again for terrorist attacks.

READ MORE: Coveney: Getting a Brexit deal not ‘mission impossible’

We thought we had a focused solution via the backstop - a fix which treated the North as a special case in November 2017. Then-UK prime minister Theresa May signed off on a draft with her EU colleagues in late 2018 but failed three times to get her parliament's approval until she was ousted.

About 15 months ago, journalist Darach McDonald walked a large chunk of the Border close to his native Clones and in his book 'Hard Border' summed up not just the economic implications, but also the separated and disputed history, cultural and social implications. He caught the sense of worry and fear which afflicts the communities in Border areas.

The 'Puckoon' parallel is obvious to anyone who has kept even half a passing eye on the head-melting toing and froing of Brexit. Twelve days from a crucial EU leaders' summit, and 26 days from the next deadline, we are contemplating new flawed UK proposals to deal with the Irish Border in a post-Brexit world.

Mrs May's successor, the third UK PM in three Brexit-fraught years, Boris Johnson, has filed a new would-be replacement for the backstop.

Helping hand: Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen adjusts Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s airbag bicycle helmet ahead of a meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark, yesterday. Photo: Reuters
Helping hand: Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen adjusts Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s airbag bicycle helmet ahead of a meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark, yesterday. Photo: Reuters

Taking a more positive view we see a deal of progress in that Johnson concedes that the North should stay in the EU single market for at least four years, with a border down the Irish Sea. The proposals are also open to further negotiation.

The drawbacks were highlighted by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney along with other EU leaders. The key ones are that the North would leave the EU customs union, giving rise to Irish trade checks, and that Stormont would have an effective future veto.

READ MORE: Boris Johnson’s 'two borders' Brexit proposal not supported by people or businesses in North, says Leo Varadkar

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leadership is supportive, raising Johnson's hopes that he might bundle the plan through parliament.

But the level of ferocity and tone of DUP criticisms of both Dublin leaders was astonishing. Ms Foster directed her raw fury principally at the Tánaiste, styling him as "obstructionist and intransigent". Then with a certain symmetry her deputy Nigel Dodds focused on the Taoiseach, saying he would go down in history as the one "who restored a hard Border".

Strange stuff indeed from the DUP, who backed an unnecessary Brexit referendum, ignored the 56pc Remain majority in the North and the wishes of business and farmers, and then selectively propped up a divisive Tory government.

We had hopefully thought we had come on a remedy for the Border in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Now, as we approach the centenary of the Government of Ireland Act 1920 which created Northern Ireland, we appear to have seriously regressed.

And Arlene Foster's election-driven attacks on the Dublin Government risk dragging us all back to a dark era we hoped we had left behind.

Irish Independent

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