A new DUP leader and the anger of Unionists have opened Dublin’s eyes to its border miscalculation
Publishded: 17 May 2021
My message to our friends in Europe,” wrote Brexit minister Lord Frost on Sunday, “is: stop the point-scoring and work with us. Seize the moment, help find a new approach to Northern Ireland, and then we can build a new relationship for the future.”
But will the EU listen? The stakes, now, are very high. Brussels has chosen to implement the Northern Ireland Protocol in the most damaging manner possible. And it’s not just the UK that is concerned about the effect this is having on Unionist opinion. After spending the Brexit talks acting as a cheerleader for the EU’s most hard-line demands, the signs are that, under the eminently reasonable Taoiseach, Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin, the Irish government has come to recognise that it overreached disastrously.
It was under Martin’s predecessor, Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar, and Simon Coveney, his foreign minister, that the Irish government helped to create the mess that is the protocol. At a period of resurgence of Anglophobia – paradoxically because of a feeling that Britain had betrayed Ireland by abandoning it – and afflicted by the frequent Irish mistaken belief that if you do what Brussels tells you, you will be rewarded, the two politicians overplayed their hand and unintentionally undermined the stability of the Good Friday Agreement.
The straightforward solution would have been to cooperate on technical fixes and put any customs hardware on the Irish side. Instead, the Irish raised the spectre of Republican violence, which Michel Barnier seized on to present the EU as defenders of the Good Friday Agreement. It was a nonsensical argument. But it was so successful that some loyalists have now concluded that it may only be violence that can get rid of the border in the Irish Sea.
While the Unionist community is law-abiding, the perception that Northern Ireland has been sacrificed by the British government, and that there is a chance – as nationalists remind them daily –it could be forced into a United Ireland, strengthens the hard men who are encouraging protests and threatening worse.
The Republic knows this would be a disaster, and if it were left to Martin, Brexit-related problems would be being amicably sorted out. But Brussels is making it clear that Ireland is only one of 27 voices in the EU. And there is fear in the Republic that the European Commission will use as a bargaining tool its support for President Biden’s push for a 21 per cent global corporation tax rate, which will strengthen the EU drive for tax harmonisation and threaten Ireland’s 12.5 per cent corporation tax rate on which its prosperity over the past few decades has been largely dependent.
Martin has other troubles. Last year’s general election was disastrous for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, lifelong enemies who have alternated in power ever since Ireland got its independence. Horrified by the prospect of allowing Sinn Fein into power, they made a deal to form an unprecedented coalition. Martin became Taoiseach in June with Varadkar as deputy and Coveney again as foreign minister: Martin and Varadkar will swap jobs in December 2022.
Sinn Fein are now the energetic and articulate official opposition, inspiring a young electorate with promises so reckless they would embarrass Jeremy Corbyn. Few under 40 care about the horrors of the Troubles, and they appear unreachable by the argument that a party that still extols IRA murders is unfit to govern a democracy. And Martin has a very active green opposition in his own party, and is in no position to risk another election.
There is some hope. Varadkar is subdued by an inquiry into a leaked document and even Coveney seems less gung-ho about the border than he used to be, so neither is likely to fight a compromise.
There is regret that the protocol helped defenestrate the approachable Arlene Foster of the DUP and nervousness about how intransigent her successor, Edwin Poots, will be. There is also a new leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Doug Beattie, a war hero, who, though liberal and non-sectarian, is a true Unionist and very tough.
Will Brussels grasp that if it doesn’t accept Lord Frost’s invitation it may destabilise the peace it has misused to its advantage? If not, the implications for the future of the island of Ireland are frightening