Thursday 19 September 2019

Martina Devlin: 'Europe's number one priority is safeguarding the single market. Peace comes second. So Ireland needs to reassure EU partners we can maintain the bloc's integrity'

US Vice President Mike Pence during a joint news conference with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Farmleigh House in Dublin, Ireland. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
US Vice President Mike Pence during a joint news conference with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Farmleigh House in Dublin, Ireland. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

BRACE yourselves, here comes the Border. We were told it wouldn't happen, subsequently amended to nobody wants it to happen. Now we hear there'll be checks "near" the Border.

Excuse me while I consult my dictionary. Yes, just as I thought. It amounts to the loss of an open Border - that highly symbolic proof of peace and co-operation.

Firstly, how near is near in relation to checks? Secondly, will there be security? Thirdly, what about the Good Friday Agreement? Controls near the Border chip away at the peace deal - they undermine the all-island economy and normalisation process at the heart of the agreement. Fourthly, didn't the Taoiseach pledge Northern citizens that never again would they be left behind?

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Checks mean a change for the worse. Granted, the single market must be protected, and Britain has caused this unwelcome state of affairs by going all Brexity on us. But Ireland should be pushing harder for a sea border rather than caving in to checks "near" the Border.

It will hit vulnerable sectors particularly hard. A small concern trading with the Republic, as many in the Border area do, will face not just delays but tariffs and bureaucracy which risk pushing them out of business. That additional burden might be the difference between solvency and belly-up. Just 6pc of an estimated 20,000 cross-Border traders are prepared for cash-flow and liquidity issues in the event of no deal, Leo Varadkar reminds us. Why so few? Many know they'll struggle to make a go of it.

Those Border-ish controls won't be any more palatable because they take place in counties Monaghan or Cavan as opposed to Tyrone and Fermanagh. Checks will cause tensions. The best that can be hoped is for minimal infrastructure but even that will be antagonistic and lead to problems.

The North always expected to be tossed out of a moving vehicle when the going got tough, whether London or Dublin, acting on the EC's instructions, delivered the blow. People in the borderlands weren't optimistic either.

The Taoiseach could defuse the situation by clarifying that those checks are intended to be temporary. The best way to do that is by beginning now to advance the case for new constitutional arrangements on the island - as the Good Friday Agreement entitles him.

Irish citizens cannot be returned indefinitely to a situation where they face obstructions going about their business. Initially, checks will be directed at haulage trucks, but once introduced they have a nasty habit of mushrooming - especially if they spark a response from dissidents in their vicinity.

A plan for what happens afterwards in Ireland is essential. Events are spinning toward us from outside, but we must be proactive in our own best, long-term interests.

Consider the Taoiseach's speech at the British Irish Chamber of Commerce gala dinner on Thursday: "There will be checks on goods and live animals and, as far as possible, they will take place in ports, airports and at businesses. But some may need to take place near the Border. We are working out the details of this with the European Commission." So, Europe has to sign off on the plan.

Europe's number one priority is safeguarding the single market. Peace comes second. Ireland needs to reassure our EU partners that we can maintain the bloc's integrity. However, we have other considerations, too - we will suffer economic, political and social repercussions from any incursions into our peace. Our leaders need to speak up loudly and persuasively for the Good Friday Agreement at this time when others - notably Britain and Trump/Pence's America - are reversing away from it.

It's appalling to see those clear gains set aside. US Vice-President Mike Pence put the sham into shamrock when he made it clear the Oval Office supports the British government's disingenuous stance - because it wants trade deals was left unsaid, but we figured out that part.

The backstop is about protecting Ireland's hard-won peace, Mr Pence. You think the leprechauns are going to do it for us? We need allies with probity and backbone, not political opportunists who fumble in a greasy till. If that's the best you can do, here's your hat and where's your hurry.

As it happens, an Irish-American of substance - as opposed to one who hums 'Toora Loora' at the drop of a shillelagh - also visited Ireland this week in the shape of Bruce Morrison, a speaker at the Kennedy Summer School. Mr Morrison, who drove immigration reform and helped to create the conditions for IRA ceasefires in the 1990s, noted that Mr Pence belonged to an administration which paid no attention to the downside of Brexit.

The vice-president is pretending to believe Boris Johnson's lies about non-existent negotiations with Europe because it suits the US to undermine the EU power bloc. Play nice, he fingerwagged at Ireland - negotiate in good faith with Britain. As though we've been dealing in blarney for the past three years.

It was an act of deliberate disrespect to his hosts, a globule of spit fired into the soup in full public view. Given the US role in helping to deliver and guarantee the Good Friday Agreement, this was unforgivable.

Mr Varadkar has to suck it up as Taoiseach, but thankfully not everyone does. Protesting at Mr Pence's visit, poet Sarah Clancy took placards to Shannon Airport to send a message to the representative from Trumpland - 'No Fáilte for Fascists' and 'Queers against Pence' they read. Gardaí moved her on but she made her point.

And so to Boris Johnson, who may or may not visit Dublin on Monday, may or may not resign rather than ask for an extension, may or may not throw himself into a ditch, may or may not deliver a hard Brexit, but, on the balance of probabilities, will do little if any of what he promises.

He may have something in his back pocket but for now he's boxed in: rumbled and outmanoeuvred. He gambled on a fractured opposition and Tory loyalty but even his own brother bailed out.

These past days have been Quentin Tarantino-esque. The prime minister lost his majority, control of House of Commons business and 20-odd experienced MPs. The latter showed they didn't trust their leader and were expelled (by text - classy). Yet we're supposed to trust him on the backstop?

The week's standout image is Jacob Rees-Mogg lolling across a bench in the Commons like some decadent aristocrat, calling to mind Louis MacNeice's revulsion for a system that gives the few their fancy lives: "While ninety-nine in the hundred who never attend the banquet/Must wash the grease of ages off the knives."

But the standout word of the week is "near", as in checks in the vicinity of the Border. Impossible to hear that single syllable without a sinking heart, Taoiseach.

Irish Independent

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