The Irish are great craic (the old stereotype goes) until they’re not (the new stereotype insists).
As many times before in the history of our two islands, Ireland comes to the fore in thwarting the ambitions of Britain (or more accurately, parts/segments of British society). So it is once again in the context of Brexit and the ‘problem’ of the Irish Border.
The debate on the ‘backstop’ (a formal UK and Irish government agreed insurance policy to prevent a hard border) has been, routinely characterised by incredulity and ignorance (and often anger, resentment and not a little ‘wind baggery’). One day, we are the puppets of Brussels, the next scheming and nefarious republicans.
Many English nationalists are dumbfounded that such a small and insignificant country, Ireland, should stand in the way of the grand ambitions of that big and significant state, Britain.
Such views are to be routinely heard in the House of Commons, on British TV and Radio, in much of the tabloid press and echoes of this view are even to be frequently found in Maltese media.
Although a tired truism, it’s clear we resist learning from history but what is particularly disturbing about the ignorance and bluster is that it is asserted by current or previous Ministers of the Crown and even former Northern Ireland Secretaries.
English (and frequently British) ignorance of the challenges posed politically, economically and legally by Brexit for Northern Ireland and for all of Ireland (and even for Britain itself) is deeply disturbing yet revealing of an ideology that will do us all harm.
Brexit has dangerously ramped up polarised politics in Northern Ireland once again and threatens to similarly do so between both islands depending on events in the coming months and years.
The vast majority of Nationalists (85%+) voted to remain in the EU as against just 35% of Unionists; more importantly, 85%+ of Sinn Féin voters opted to remain but only 45%+ of Ulster Unionist Party voters and just 30% of Democratic Unionist Party voters.
Apart altogether from the question of Scottish independence, polarisation is also occurring in Britain. Asked in the 2011 census whether they would prefer to be described as British or English, a large majority of the English opted for the latter.
If the Break up of Britain is not yet a constitutional reality, it certainly appears to be a growing mental state
Even more striking, in a 2012 survey, when asked if Westminster should remain the focus for lawmaking for England, only 24% said yes; nearly three quarters responded no.
If the ‘Break up of Britain’ is not yet a constitutional reality, it certainly appears to be a growing mental state. Even some Northern Ireland politicians and not an insignificant number (majority?) of British people appear to be prepared to sacrifice the peace process for Brexit.
It is for this simple but significant reason that the status, shape and practices surrounding the Border must remain centre-stage despite the huffing and puffing and sleights of hand. The Border embodies so much of the historical, political and psychological DNA of our islands and will mould key elements of their future.
There are, of course other important reasons. Post Brexit (whatever its form), Northern Ireland will be the only region of the UK with an EU land border; this, in itself, requires attention. Part of the outcome of the peace process has been a significant ramping up of cross-border trade, institutions alongside the day-to-day movements of people, all of which are threatened by a soft, hard or medium Brexit.
The peace process with all its trappings put an end to the violence that killed some 3,600 people and wounded many, many more (including British people) and, after too many centuries of conflict, began to bring our peoples closer together. Brexit threatens this.
The question of the Border is not just an Irish or even a British issue – it is international. By definition, the 1997 Peace Agreement was an international legal agreement; a process (and aftermath) in which the EU was a key player and it is therefore no surprise that the EU should stay engaged.
In his comments in June 2017 to the House of Commons Northern Ireland Committee, the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland made the assessment that checkpoints of any sort along the Border would inevitably attract dissident paramilitary attacks.
Despite assertions to the contrary, there are still those ready to exploit any opportunity to reignite the age old ‘struggle’. Any Irish politician who allowed this to happen or did little or nothing to stop it would rightly incur the wrath of the vast majority of Irish people.
Faced with the above realities, it is in the strategic interest of Ireland, North and South to ensure the Border remains front and centre in the Brexit process; this is logical, vital and necessary. Faced also with the rise of English nationalism, the death rattle of empire and the possible break up of Britain, we have little choice but to continue to struggle for our peace and reconciliation project.
I grew up and lived a huge chunk of my life with the ‘Troubles’ (as we euphemistically labelled them). I refuse to pass them on to my children and grandchildren.
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