Diarmaid Ferriter: Ireland is back on the menu in Westminster

Will Theresa May’s newfound interest in Ireland pay dividends?

British prime minister Theresa May: before Brexit she predicted “Border controls” if the referendum was carried; now, she speaks disingenuously of a “frictionless” Border. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

British prime minister Theresa May: before Brexit she predicted “Border controls” if the referendum was carried; now, she speaks disingenuously of a “frictionless” Border. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

 

How would you like your Brexit served? Hard? Harder? Soft? Open? And what about your side dish of Irish Border; how would you like that done? Hard or frictionless? In the aftermath of the British general election we have been offered a dizzying menu of possibilities which have given rise to both the fear that the election result and the Conservative Party’s dependence on the votes of the DUP will worsen the implications of the Brexit process for Ireland or else offer an opportunity for the process to be less devastating than feared.

Perhaps both possibilities are based on the questionable notion that Ireland or Irish concerns will be a major factor in British political thinking. History would suggest otherwise. Writing to his wife in 1924, Austen Chamberlain complained, “Ireland is indeed a fatal influence on British politics.” It certainly had been on the Conservative Party the previous decade as its leader Andrew Bonar Law had steered the party in an extreme and dangerous direction in opposition to home rule, not just because of his family connections to Ulster but also to try and use the Irish question as a tactic to force an election that would defeat the Liberals.

Off the table

But the following decade, the Irish question was one to be taken off the table; first by engineering a deal over Ulster – partition – and then by negotiating with Irish republicans to reach a solution that would allow Downing Street’s concentration on other affairs. In his 2013 book Fatal Path, Ronan Fanning made it clear, in looking at the attitude of prime ministers Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George during the Irish revolution, that they were more preoccupied with how the Irish question would impact on their own party and British politics than on Ireland, with Ireland as a pawn in the game of their career advancement. There were serious consequences for Ireland as a result.

Charles Townshend has reminded of leading politicians who were 'thoroughly English in seeing Ireland as a confounded nuisance rather than a challenge or a threat'

There was also the reality, suggested by Lord Salisbury, another senior Conservative, that the average English voter had “little interest in, and less understanding of, Irish affairs”. Historian Charles Townshend has also reminded, with biting accuracy, of leading politicians who were “thoroughly English in seeing Ireland as a confounded nuisance rather than a challenge or a threat”. There would, therefore, be no going back to the days when it dominated, and ignorance too often replaced absorption.

Historic neglect

As a result, British interest in Ireland was never as deep as Irish politicians would have liked. William Shannon, US ambassador to Ireland from 1977-81, remarked acidly in 1986 that when in 1984 there was a debate in the House of Commons on the New Ireland Forum, “as usual most members of parliament chose a debate on Northern Ireland as the time to go answer their mail or have a drink with a constituent”. The parliament “dwindled to the usual hard core of Northern Ireland members and the few English members who interest themselves in the matter”. The peace process was, therefore, partly about rectifying historic neglect.

DUP leader Arlene Foster: “It may be possible to bring stability to our nation at this time of great challenge.” Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA
The warnings former British prime minister John Major sounded during the week "about the dangers to Northern Ireland as a result of the British general election and the DUP (leader Arlene Foster, above) holding the balance of power should be taken seriously". File photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

John Major, by his own admission, “knew very little of Northern Ireland” for much of his career, but ultimately engaged sincerely with the Irish question. Of course he is now concerned with his peace process legacy, but the warnings he sounded during the week about the dangers to Northern Ireland as a result of the British general election and the DUP holding the balance of power should be taken seriously. May is already on record as insisting her party “will never be neutral in expressing support” for Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK, an unwise declaration given the peace process idea of the British government as an “honest broker”.

‘Soft Border’

Where does all this leave the DUP and can it exert influence? Ironically, unionists a century ago at Westminster were in need of as hard an Irish Border as possible; now, the talk is of the DUP pushing for a “soft Border”, but this is merely a slogan. After all, as Theresa May herself reminded us before the Brexit vote, that it was “inconceivable” the invisible Border would not be affected by Brexit and May predicted “Border controls” if the referendum was carried. Now, she speaks disingenuously of a “frictionless” Border.

The DUP have rejected the idea of a “special status” for Northern Ireland arising out of Brexit, even though that is precisely what is needed

Nor has May seen Northern Ireland as a priority; prior to this week’s meetings the extent of her engagement was to visit the Balmoral Show during the general election campaign.

The DUP have also rejected the idea of a “special status” for Northern Ireland arising out of Brexit, even though that is precisely what is needed. What would be helpful is if the DUP, given where it now finds itself, was aggressively clear about what Brexit and Border it wants served when dining with the Conservatives.

It is worth attempting a return to the days when Irish priorities were seen “as a challenge and a threat” to the British political establishment, because that is what the Irish response to Brexit requires.

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