Diarmaid Ferriter: Brexit may bring North and South closer

Younger unionists keen to stay in EU may feel less trenchant about their unionism

 

During the week, the Merriman Summer School in Ennis was timely in examining the theme of “our gallant allies in Europe”. It offered a chance to reflect on how the wheel has turned over the decades in relation to Anglo-Irish relations and how joint involvement in the EU transformed perspectives.

In the 1960s, Europhile Garret FitzGerald was adamant that joining the EEC, far from being a betrayal of the “ideals” of 1916, was the logical culmination of the Irish struggle for independence, as it was about “rejoining once again the Europe from which for so many centuries she was cut off by the imposition of British rule. We shall negotiate our entry as a sovereign state... but for the sacrifices of those who won our freedom, none of this could have been.” According to British politician Roy Jenkins, FitzGerald handled Ireland’s first presidency of the EEC in 1975 with aplomb, to the extent FitzGerald “succeeded in making London look peripheral to Europe, while Dublin was metropolitan”.

This appetite for psychological liberation was reflected in other ways. In 1978, Dermot Nally, assistant secretary in the Department of An Taoiseach, was fed up about Irish exclusion from briefings about EEC monetary stability proposals and wrote to the taoiseach, Jack Lynch: “It would be no harm, if a suitable opportunity arises, to bring out once more again the fact that we are not an appendage of the British in the European communities.”

Ultimately, however, it was Irish and British governments that became “gallant allies in Europe”, not just because of Ireland’s small size and its need for a powerful ally, but due to their extensive trade and political alliances and, more recently, the determination of both to campaign against Brexit. Now, in the aftermath of the British referendum, the Irish Government will be back in the business of emphasising Irish distinctiveness from Britain but at the same time their common needs, a significant foreign policy challenge.

‘Anachronism’

What now for the Irish Border? Taoiseach Seán Lemass was adamant in 1962 that with membership of a common market “partition will become so obviously an anachronism that all sensible people will want to bring it to an end”. Seán Kennan, the Irish ambassador to Europe, was optimistic a decade later that “membership would obviously contribute significantly towards the ending of partition”, while Patrick Hillery, as minister for foreign affairs, said: “Northern Ireland will become a European problem.” In truth, the EU stayed aloof from the Troubles.

With the peace process, however, EU money was poured into reconciliation ventures. Europe was also the platform from which a “shared history” for the different communities in Ireland could be remembered and commemorated, one of most obvious examples being the nationalists and unionists 100 years ago that fought with the British army at the Slaughter of the Somme.

Cathartic

Such attention to inclusive commemoration, alongside the peace process and the sense of an “invisible” Irish Border, has greatly improved relations between North and South. There was even, with the European soccer championships in France, a cathartic sense of peaceful and supportive co-existence between North and South, summed up in the French sports newspaper L’Equipe’s “for atmosphere, Ireland is united”.

Brexit could be analysed as a move that will harden the Irish Border. Alternatively, given the tension and disunity in the UK and the desire of most in the North to remain in the EU, it may be the case that the historic and seemingly misplaced predictions about the impact of the EU on Irish partition might come true. Younger unionists who want to stay in the EU may feel less trenchant than their parent’s generation about their unionism, and the desire of some of them to possess Irish passports may reflect something more than opportunism.

The soft Border, over which 30,000 travel each day, is convenient and valuable for both North and South, even more so now as both economies are exposed to the consequences of Brexit, perhaps one of the reasons why some unionists on the Leave side seemed half-hearted in their campaigning. The DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson was quick to spin a post-referendum unionist narrative, erroneously insisting his party “will be in a very strong position to influence what happens next”. What the DUP will demand is “a strong package” for Northern Ireland’s agricultural sector, and new, “favourable trading terms”. He dismissed the idea Northern Ireland would take a financial hit: “We’re going to have a lot more money within our own exchequer.”

What Donaldson wants is what the North has now within the EU: free trade, a package of payments to assist agriculture and extensive subvention from the British exchequer. The desire is for Brexit to change nothing. It is difficult to see this as anything other than arrogant delusion, with the potential to do damage to unionism and, arguably, in the long-term, make the prospects of Irish unity more likely.

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