“You’ll never beat the Irish” is the song that fans like to sing at international sporting matches involving the Republic of Ireland. Sometimes it ends up being ironic, but the cheerful spirit of the fans is resilient. However, Brexit threatens to beat the Irish in a number of ways, as Northern Ireland leaves the EU and the so-called six counties in the north of the island of Ireland become foreign territory.
But could the Irish veto the whole process at an EU meeting in mid-December?
At the EU Council in Brussels on December 14-15, a vote will be taken on progress so far in the negotiations between the UK and the remaining 27 EU members.
At this meeting, any EU state can stymie moving forward. But at subsequent meetings, the Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) system will ensure that no single country has a veto. It means there’s a critical last chance for Ireland to force the issue of the open borders it wants to retain with the north — to keep border trade open but also the free movement of goods and people central to the accords which ended decades of sectarian unrest.
Academic and journalist Paul Gillespie told WikiTribune: “It is as fine a call as any in the history of Irish foreign policy.”
As in any situation involving the Irish Republic and the northern counties which form part of the United Kingdom, the shadow of the Troubles, the years of sectarian discord between nationalist and unionist, Catholic and Protestant, is not far away.
Ireland determined to keep border open
If Ireland feels that issues surrounding its border with Northern Ireland have not been cleared up, it could in theory vote against. The former prime minister, Bertie Ahern, in a speech to the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce, reported in The Irish Times, warned that Irish influence over the Brexit negotiations will wane after the December European Council gathering. And the plain-spoken former leader, who co-signed the Good Friday Agreement with Tony Blair in 1998, observed that if anyone “expects that when it comes to the cold light of day on trade issues that the EU 27 will break up over anything that is do with us, well, Christmas isn’t coming this year, folks”.
More fighting words came from the Irish Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Coveney, interviewed by London newspaper the Evening Standard.
After Mrs May doubled her proposed “divorce settlement” to €40 billion, Mr Coveney said that this should not be enough to ensure acceptance of the British offer. The UK Prime Minister would also have to address the Irish border question. He said: “Anybody who thinks that just because the financial settlement issue gets resolved . . . that somehow Ireland will have a hand put on the shoulder and be told, ‘Look, it’s time to move on.’ Well, we’re not going to move on.”
“Anyone who thinks that it can be a closed border does not know the border. Neither President Trump nor even Benjamin Netanyahu could build a wall along it.”
– Lord Cope of Berkeley, Hansard, UK House of Lords, September 2017
At the core of the issue is the openness of the border between the two parts of the island of Ireland, and the complexity of that border, writes WikiTribune contributor Jonathan Cardy. The border, which runs for 310 miles (500km), follows historic county lines, which predate even the road system. In the past when the border was enforced many minor crossings were closed in order to make the border manageable. This involved inconveniences that many who live near the border are loath to see resumed. In recent decades the border has been completely open, both for trade (with the UK and the Republic of Ireland in the same trading bloc), and also for travel. The UK and Ireland have very similar rules as to who can live, visit or work in their countries.
London has apparently contradictory aims
However, the UK’s vote for Brexit is likely to mean that the UK will no longer be in the same trading bloc as Ireland. Meanwhile, the UK government’s wish to “take control” of its border and cut down on immigration from Eastern Europe is widely seen as incompatible with keeping an open border with an Irish Republic that has no restrictions on migration from the other 26 EU countries.
In Theresa May’s so-called Florence speech in September she committed both that “we will not accept any physical infrastructure at the border” and also that “it will take time to put in place the new immigration system required to re-take control of the UK’s borders”.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Irish government will be keen to see how she plans to reconcile such apparently contradictory statements before it lets the negotiations go beyond the point where Dublin can exercise a veto. Mrs May’s problem is that with her government dependent on Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party to survive, it may not be possible for her to reconcile those statements and continue to hold her coalition together.
Complicating everything is the effective suspension of the local political assembly in Northern Ireland, which has lasted most of 2017, as The Economist magazine summarises.
International news agency Bloomberg wondered whether Ireland was hurtling towards a veto which would have the effect of halting the Brexit negotiations. Paul Gillespie, a veteran observer of all things EU, expressed his concerns in this column, ‘Should Ireland fear a perfidious Albion?’
Peace process seen at risk
Former Irish Justice Minister, Alan Shatter, stated his view in a letter to The Irish Times, the Irish “paper of record“. He wrote: “It is politically important to do everything necessary to force the UK Brexiteers to confront reality and the UK government discuss what arrangements it is proposing to ensure we do not return to past divisions on this island and do anything that could act as a catalyst to the resumption of sectarian violence. However, we also need to ensure we do not lose sight of the importance Northern unionists attach to their British identity and the impact of flags and symbols on our island.”
London law firm Doughty Street published a thorough analysis of the issues affecting Northern Ireland, with special attention to the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and the possible alternatives of ‘special status’ for the six counties in the north. Authors Caoilfhionn Gallagher and Katherine O’Byrne wrote: “Of all the complex political and legal problems facing the UK and Europe in advance of the UK’s exit from the European Union in March 2019, its potential impact on Northern Ireland is undoubtedly the most difficult.”
Noting that the Good Friday Agreement “includes multiple provisions for implementation of EU policies and programmes”, the authors conclude that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, as it stands, “is not compatible with the GFA in all its parts” (their italics).
Complicating all of this was the Irish government being poised on a knife-edge in late November, with only a fortnight until the key EU meeting. A long-running controversy over attempts by the national police force to discredit a whistle-blower culminated with an opposition motion of no confidence in the deputy prime minister (Tánaiste), Frances Fitzgerald. Feverish talk of a pre-Christmas election – and a lame-duck administration talking to the EU – was defused when Ms Fitzgerald resigned, as The Irish Times reported.
The chance remains that Ireland could and would use its veto, its last opportunity to derail the progress of Brexit.