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There may be trouble ahead - but for all our sakes, let's wish the UK bon voyage

Martina Devlin


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Flying the flag: People celebrate at Parliament Square in London. Photo: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Flying the flag: People celebrate at Parliament Square in London. Photo: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

REUTERS

Flying the flag: People celebrate at Parliament Square in London. Photo: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Is Brexit a Titanic-scale disaster or a national salvation plan for Britain which will confound doubters? Time will tell. What we can say for certain is it's full-steam ahead now for Brexit, with the transition phase under way to lock down trade deals - or not.

So, Britain, ave et vale or hail and farewell from the European Union. Our neighbour's departure attracted rather more attention in the Borderlands and the North than in the Republic of Ireland where focus is trained on the General Election.

But one interesting initiative unveiled two days ago was an artistic as opposed to a political response to this momentous event reshaping Irish-British relations.

Artist Rita Duffy's photomontage interpretation of Brexit has gone on display on an exterior wall of Trinity College Dublin's Long Room Hub to mark Brexit Day. It depicts a raft crowded with survivors and an image of the Titanic in the distance.

Simon Coveney has denied that Fine Gael are using Brexit to their advantage in the election campaign after being criticised by Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin. Coveney was at Dublin Port with several other Fine Gael politicians to assess improvements made to its facilitates after over 30 million euros being invested to deal with the "new realities" of Brexit.

British and Irish flags wave from the makeshift boat, representing the North's two communities, alongside various Irish stew ingredients, a pot of shamrock and a man pointing at the horizon "towards the future - a future beyond prejudice and nationalist obsession", according to the artist.

'The Raft Project 2019' was devised following consultation with Border communities and stays on show for a number of weeks, after which it goes on display on the outer walls of buildings - to increase visibility - in other cities including Brussels, London and Cork. Incidentally, the artwork is a reinvention of a famous French shipwreck painting, 'The Raft of the Medusa'.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar gives a speech at the Irish Institute of European Affairs about the next phase of British-Irish relations post-Brexit.

What would Belfast and Derry make of it? After all, the people of the North have been frogmarched out of the EU against the will of the majority there. Following challenges, delays and some Union Jack-brandishing in the European Parliament by Nigel Farage-ites - slapped down in jig time by Mairead McGuinness in the boss seat - Britain has Brexited. "It is a weakening for both sides," grieved EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.

Damage limitation measures have averted a hard Border. Instead, we have a wet Border, with special arrangements agreed for the North. The Good Friday Agreement has been protected and the peace process honoured, despite a gale of opposition from hardliners.

The Withdrawal Agreement is a good deal for the North and Ireland generally, in so far as any Brexit is capable of that. Relocating the Border to the Irish Sea safeguards all-island trade, while citizens' rights have been upheld. Under the new treaty, Northern Ireland technically remains in the UK customs union but practically it's in the EU's.

But this isn't the end. Some hard negotiating in a limited timeframe to secure a free trade agreement now ensues, with the possibility of damaging quotas and tariffs in the background. Amid all the negative energy surrounding Brexit, one positive emerges: opposition to a hard Brexit in the North was cross-community.

Hundreds of anti-Brexit campaigners have taken part in a number of demonstrations along the Irish border in opposition to Brexit. The anti-Brexit protests organised by the Border Communities Against Brexit group and Sinn Fein were held to mark the UK leaving the European Union.

The Irish Government led by Leo Varadkar made Ireland's case - North and South - in Europe, and a soft Brexit was agreed. Simon Coveney has been a stand-out minister and come what may after the General Election, both his and Helen McEntee's perseverance and skill should be acknowledged.

Let's not forget also that political calm in Dáil Éireann, facilitated by Fianna Fáil, was of enormous help.

Currently, there is a dawning realisation that new constitutional arrangements on the island of Ireland are inevitable post-Brexit. A Citizens' Assembly has been suggested as one way to discuss a pathway forward, meeting with a mixed response from politicians. Some find the prospect of change frightening.

As for the electorate, it is Brexit weary and Fine Gael isn't convincing voters that Brexit Phase Two requires its hand on the tiller. The public accept that the party's ministers argued Ireland's case effectively in Europe. But eaten bread is soon forgotten.

Nigel Farage has said Britain’s departure from the EU was “the greatest moment in the modern history of our great nation”.

Currently, we're at the entente cordiale stage with Britain. But time is short and relationships may change again under stress.

Might a new Taoiseach and foreign minister make a significant difference? It can't really help matters at such a sensitive time.

Trust develops gradually, not overnight. Of course, the civil service personnel remain the same and that's useful for continuity of purpose, while Mr Martin is an able and experienced politician. But his front bench could be stronger and we don't know who'll be given the important foreign ministry.

Mr Coveney questions whether Micheál Martin would be as effective in Brexit negotiations as the outgoing Government's team.

However, housing, health and pensions are preoccupying voters, not Brexit. The Tánaiste says he knows people are "fed up" with it but suggests that's a luxury we can't afford.

Affordable or not, it's where people are currently. Clearly, a shake-up at government level is on the way and yet if Mr Coveney is shifted away from the foreign ministry it will be a loss.

The Brexit swamp has been a fraught time for Irish-British relations, with Northern Ireland in the Brexit frontline. During these topsy-turvy three-and-a-half years when Britain was left unBrexited, attempts were made to dismiss Border concerns as irrelevant. Boris Johnson was among those who tried to downplay them.

But he saw the light after becoming prime minister. His conversion happened last October, when he and Mr Varadkar met face-to-face, reached agreement privately and Westminster and Europe signed off on it.

He was luckier, as well as more astute politically, than his predecessor Theresa May.

Mr Johnson's majority in a general election soon after that Thornton Manor rendezvous allowed him the freedom to cast off the DUP, which had been anchoring him to an anti-backstop position.

That meeting between Mr Varadkar and Mr Johnson, which included a private walk in the gardens, was a turning point. But is it evidence of a special relationship between the two premiers? That's doubtful.

They haven't met often enough to forge strong personal links. It delivered largely because Mr Johnson behaved like a pragmatist, recognising what was and wasn't possible to "get Brexit done".

Before then, repeated extensions to the shifting Brexit deadline caused frustration, and both sides on the Remain and Leave divide appeared to be waiting for a Messiah.

Parliament continually blocked the Withdrawal Agreement because of the backstop, MPs wanting what they couldn't have - an orderly Brexit without it.

What can we learn from Brexit? That the North's best interests trail a poor second behind English nationalism.

That the warmth of the Irish-British relationship, after centuries of antagonism and mistrust, was built on shifting sands.

And that Ireland nevertheless needs to be on amicable terms with Britain because of the multiple ties that bind us together.

"I'm a pessimist because of intelligence but an optimist because of will," said the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci. On that note, let us be hopeful for the future, and let us wish Britain a prosperous future as it strikes out on its own.

Irish Independent