Boris Johnson’s quick stop visit to Dublin on Friday demonstrated, as if that were necessary, that the Irish government should take nothing for granted when dealing with the hardline Brexiteers in Theresa May’s cabinet. Although some of the proceedings at Iveagh House seemed light-hearted, the underlying gulf between Britain and Ireland in relation to Brexit is no laughing matter.
It is difficult to believe how recently Boris Johnson and Michael Gove appeared to be allies in seeking the leadership of the Tory party for Johnson. Then came Michael Gove’s great stab in the back when he decided to ditch Johnson and seek the job for himself. The struggle between them bore all the hallmarks of a tussle between rivals for the presidency of an Oxbridge debating union.
Neither man has any interest in Ireland or its welfare. Gove, as I wrote here recently, ferociously once attacked the Good Friday Agreement as an abject surrender of everything the Tory party stood for. Johnson’s remarks about Ireland’s world-wide influence in the form of Nigeria-brewed Guinness and his fond memories of weekending in Dublin demonstrated the shallowness of his understanding of Ireland or his sympathy for the problems that Brexit will inevitably bring to the affairs of this island.
The recent letter to Theresa May co-signed by Johnson and Gove was, on any view, a blatant attempt at red-line drawing and political intimidation directed at her capacity to negotiate a Brexit agreement with Michel Barnier.
While it is obvious, as I pointed out in these columns, that the resolution of the problems created by Brexit for the island of Ireland, and in particular for an open border, must depend in the long run on the shape of any post-Brexit trading agreement between the UK and the EU, the Irish government is faced with a dilemma.
If we allow the Brexit talks process to proceed past the first stage (dealing with citizenship rights, Irish issues and the financial divorce settlement), we are, in effect, creating a situation in which Irish interests will not be protected by an Irish veto in the context of a requirement for unanimity, but will fall to be bargaining chips in horse-trading about tariffs and market access where qualified majority voting will leave Ireland with little or no diplomatic leverage.
The big question, then, is as to what can be achieved of value to Ireland in respect of the Irish issues before the second stage of the negotiations is reached. Some of us have not forgotten the boastful promise made by Guy Verhofstadt that the EU would not allow Ireland or the Good Friday Agreement to be damaged by Brexit. Did that promise mean anything? Or was it yet another example of overblown rhetoric, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing?
How can any decision in principle about the border, the status of Northern Ireland, and trading relations between the two parts of Ireland be made at anything other than the highest level of abstraction if the possibility still remains that there will be no deal in the end on trade and tariffs, not to mention citizenship rights and Brexit divorce payments by the UK?
These are issues on which it is far easier to pontificate at the level of abstraction than to plan out concrete workable solutions.
Michael Gove has studiously avoided any attempt to describe how agriculture and agri-business policy will develop in the years after 2021. Do the Tories have any intention of replacing CAP policies and payments with a similar system of subsidies to farmers in the UK? How could there be a single agricultural and agri-food market on the island of Ireland if radically different subsidy support regimes existed on either side of the border? How could EU subsidised Irish farmers export into a market in competition with unsubsidised British farmers? Gove’s silence on these matters is not merely perplexing; it is ominous.
While the original founding ideology of the Conservative and Unionist party in Britain would be hard to reconcile with a situation in which Northern Ireland continued to have special arrangements post-Brexit analogous to membership of the Customs Union, it is very difficult to imagine any arrangement that could leave the Irish border an “open border” in the absence of comprehensive free trade in goods between the UK and the EU. That seems our only strategic aim.
Our problem, as mentioned above, is that the Irish question will be instantly downgraded in terms of Irish leverage and comparative importance to other member states once the talks move on to their second stage.
If by that time we have no clear picture on some of the fundamental issues which inevitably arise out of the Brexit decision, the danger is that we will have to await a final outcome of the entire process in which Irish interests will be relegated to the status of residual issues at a stage at which Ireland will just have to be a passive taker of the scraps falling from the big boys’ negotiating table.
Meanwhile, Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, is already sounding warning notes about some of the post-Brexit symptoms of UK economic dislocation. In particular, he has warned about the falling level of retail sales in a period of accelerating inflation due to the weakness of Sterling and a virtual wage freeze caused by the austerity remedies currently being administered by the Tories, like bleeding and leeches in medicine of yore, to the languid body of the British economy.
In terms of UK economic analysis, we are reading A Tale of Two Economies. The Brexiteers are pointing to continuing economic growth and falling unemployment; others are pointing to declining real purchasing power of wage earners, declining retail sales and burgeoning low wage employment as danger signals for an imminent onset of stagflation in the UK.
It is hard not to believe that Brexiteers, when expressing confidence about Britain’s capacity to go it alone on WTO rules without any agreement with the EU, are whistling past an economic graveyard.
More particularly, it is hard to see how Northern Ireland, dependent as it is on handouts from a shrivelling Westminster exchequer, can prosper at all if it is to be the furthest corner of the most isolated economy in Europe. Without wishing to be pessimistic in any way, and while acknowledging that we in the Republic will also have major problems post Brexit, the outlook for Northern Ireland appears rather bleak.
Does this matter at all to Johnson and Gove? Do they see Northern Ireland simply as British territory? Do they care about anything other than its colour in the atlas? Do they hold out hope for its divided communities? It is hard to believe that they do.
Confronted with these problems, it is equally hard to understand how Sinn Féin can extend its abstentionist policies from Westminster to Stormont by reference to issues such as the extent of official recognition and use of the Irish language.
Even if Gerry Adams is planning detailed arrangements for his Mugabe-like retirement from the Provisional movement, and even if his party is now prepared to serve as a junior partner in a future coalition in Dublin (but not in Belfast), does any such government offer any reason to hope?
We have arrived at a bleak political place in terms of hope on this island, especially when the younger generation see themselves as having prospects less inviting than their parents’ generation, are offered a future as tenants of vulture funds. and we have a political system that appears to be broken, aimless and freewheeling away from our control.
Political discourse suddenly seems like a Samuel Beckett stage play – verbal complexities devoid of origin or outcome.
(Photo credit: Twitter)