England’s Difficulty Is Ireland’s Mortal Danger

The Irish border has emerged as one of the thorniest issues of Brexit.

British Prime Minister Theresa May meets Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Leo Varadkar.
British Prime Minister Theresa May meets Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Leo Varadkar. (Reuters)

DUBLIN—“England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity,” goes the old nationalist slogan. In the elegant Chapter One restaurant, next door to one of Dublin’s most eye-popping Georgian townhouses, I learned that the slogan has been updated. England’s difficulty is now Ireland’s mortal danger.

Eoghan Harris made his career writing for television and films. His grandfather and two of his great-uncles carried arms against Britain in the Easter uprising of 1916. He worries now that Brexit is provoking a dangerously nationalist reaction on the western side of the Irish Sea. “There is no easier political stunt in Ireland than wrapping yourself in the green jersey,” he said. He worries that the present Irish government, and especially its prime minister, Leo Varadkar, are recklessly antagonizing Britain for local political advantage.

Ireland is led by a weak minority government, a legacy of a half decade of economic hardship.

Ireland suffered terribly in the euro currency crisis that struck at the end of 2009. The austerity measures imposed on Ireland by the European Central Bank and the European Commission cut services, raised taxes, and eliminated jobs. When I had drinks in a Dublin hotel with a former Irish prime minister, he arrived by bus: He had lost the car and driver formerly awarded to ex–prime ministers amid the budget cuts needed to keep Ireland on the euro currency. (Ireland being a small country, I then walked from the hotel to a nearby club to have dinner with the government official who had been given the job of breaking the bad news to the former prime ministers.)

The Irish economy has recovered strongly, but the Irish political system has not. Each of the two big parties is associated by voters with different rounds of harsh measures. The result: The terrorism-tainted Sinn Féin won almost 10 percent of the vote and 23 seats in the February 2016 election. Neither of the two big parties would do business with Sinn Féin—making it nearly impossible, even with aid from independents and smaller parties, for either major party to form a government.

Eventually the two big parties reached a rickety, temporary deal between themselves. The Brexit vote four months later froze the deal in place—but it also opened sinister temptations.

Ireland’s two main political parties descend from opposing sides in a civil war that took place a century ago. After the First World War, Irish revolutionaries rose against British rule. In 1920, the British offered a compromise peace: a partition of the island between the Protestant majority province of Ulster, or most of it, and the Catholic majority everywhere else. Some revolutionaries accepted partition. Others rejected it. Violence broke out between former comrades. With military aid from Britain, the war was won by the partitionists.

The issues of the 1920s faded a long time ago. But Irish political culture is still shaped by the civil war. The heirs of the partitionists, Fine Gael, are still marked as the political party of compromise with the British. The party founded by the rejectionists, Fianna Fáil, still bears the DNA of unyielding Irish identity.

Following the ancient principle “Only Nixon can go to China,” most of the important steps in the Anglo-Irish peace process since the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985 have been taken by Fianna Fáil, not Fine Gael.

But what happens if China comes knocking and Nixon is not at home?

The current leader of Fine Gael, Varadkar, personifies the extraordinary cultural changes that had come to Ireland over the past 20 years. In a country that for centuries had sent millions of its children abroad, Varadkar is a son of an immigrant from India. In a country long sustained by ultramontane Catholicism, Varadkar is proudly gay. In a country of conservative folkways, he is a master of social media.

And as the leader of the party associated with accommodation of Britain, Varadkar is the politician who has put on Eoghan Harris’s green jersey in a political strategy to win ultranationalists back from Sinn Féin and gain himself a majority in the next Irish election.

The Irish border has emerged as one of the most difficult of all the separation issues between the United Kingdom and the European Union. Some Euro-skeptical Britons might question whether this difficulty is real or a EU negotiating ploy that conceals other objectives.

At least in words, however, the EU has delegated extraordinary power over the U.K.’s fate to its former subject nation.

At a joint press conference with Varadkar in December 2017, European Council President Donald Tusk warned the U.K., “Let me say very clearly: If the U.K.’s offer is unacceptable for Ireland, it will also be unacceptable for the EU. I realize that for some British politicians, this may be hard to understand. But such is the logic behind the fact that Ireland is an EU member, while the U.K. is leaving. This is why the key to the U.K.’s future lies—in some ways—in Dublin, at least as long as Brexit negotiations continue.”

How did Ireland deploy this remarkable power? What emerged during the rancorous three-way negotiations among the U.K., Ireland, and the EU was the baffling “backstop,” a contrivance to keep the Irish border open. During the transition period scheduled to begin March 29, 2019, it would be Britain’s responsibility to solve the border problem to the EU’s and Ireland’s liking. If Britain failed, the backstop would come into effect. Northern Ireland might then be economically detached from Britain, critics warn. It would remain within the EU customs union and single market, perhaps under different rules than the rest of the United Kingdom.

Varadkar and his party have awakened British suspicions that the backstop’s true purpose is to set in motion the ultimate annexation of Northern Ireland. It did not help that Varadkar’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, told the Irish Parliament in November 2017, “I would like to see a united Ireland in my lifetime—if possible, in my political lifetime.”

This idea has enflamed British opinion. It’s the primary reason that Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement keeps failing in Parliament, and will likely fail again when it receives its final vote sometime next week.

Varadkar himself has poked and prodded the United Kingdom on a suite of other issues. In July 2018, he warned that if Britain did not agree to the backstop, British planes could be banned from Irish skies.

The situation at the moment is that the United Kingdom is part of the Single European Sky, and if they leave the EU, they are not. And that does mean that if there was a no-deal “hard Brexit” next March, the planes would not fly, and Britain would be an island—in many ways—and that is something that they need to think about. Our plan is to negotiate a withdrawal agreement that provides for a transition, but there can only be a withdrawal agreement if there is a backstop, and our position is to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement with the U.K. and an aviation agreement with the U.K. If they want their planes to fly over our skies, they would need to take that into account. You can’t have your cake and eat it. You can’t take back your waters and then expect to take back other people’s sky.

Those already sharp words got sharpened further in the retelling by Britain’s jingoist tabloids. Here’s how the Murdoch-owned Sun reported Varadkar’s aviation comments: “Irish PM: I’ll Ban British Planes as Revenge for Brexit.”

The backstop debate does not even begin to address Brexit’s existential threat to the Irish economy. It does not preserve Irish access to the U.K. market or extend the common travel area between Ireland and the U.K. It does not preserve Irish students’ access to low-cost tuition at U.K. colleges and universities or Irish households’ supply of British natural gas. Instead, it offers a nationalist consolation prize: the economic severance of Northern Ireland from Britain. The green jersey.

But the consolation prize does not console. Instead, it inflames the angriest pain-points on each side. It revives Irish remembrance of British selfishness and unreliability, and it reminds British nationalists of resentments that drove them to Brexit in the first place. The Europe editor of Ireland’s RTE reports in his authoritative book, Brexit & Ireland, that May urged Tusk to set aside Irish objections. “One country cannot hold up progress,” she reportedly said. The U.K. is “a much bigger and more important country than Ireland”—and its wishes should therefore command higher regard. The backstop answers: Not anymore!

Reverting to patterns of the past, it is the leader of Fianna Fáil, Micheál Martin, who has emerged as Ireland’s voice of moderation and conciliation. Martin has backed Varadkar’s policies while urging him publicly and privately to modulate his language. The past two decades have demonstrated what peace and open markets can achieve for all the peoples of both islands, Ireland and Britain. Brexit has put that achievement at risk. The Irish government is coping with a crisis not of its own choosing. But it is Ireland’s choice whether to cope well or badly.