Noel Whelan: Anger over Brexit will not get Ireland anywhere

Irish frustration must be channelled towards getting the best outcome in EU negotiations

A protester in London holds an effigy of Britain’s prime minister Theresa May during an anti-Brexit demonstration in London, England. Photograph: Peter Nicholls/Reuters

A protester in London holds an effigy of Britain’s prime minister Theresa May during an anti-Brexit demonstration in London, England. Photograph: Peter Nicholls/Reuters

 

We in Ireland North and South have every reason to be angry at Britain for what it has just done.

Triggering the Brexit process is the most harmful act perpetrated by a British government on Ireland – or at least on Southern Ireland – in 95 years.

Britain has not only gambled with its own future but has collaterally damaged our economy, disturbed our constitutional settlement and spun us into years of uncertainty.

Just when we are emerging from a gruelling recession and should be able to focus on shaping a more equitable society and sustainable economy, we will be consumed instead with seeking to mitigate the impact of Brexit.

Our intense anger is justified and should be expressed loud and clear.

Apart from anger at the position we have been put in, we are also entitled to feel frustrated at the extent to which our country’s future is now in the hands of negotiations being conducted in the first instance by British politicians with Brussels bureaucrats.

The only political involvement which Ireland will have on those negotiations will be as one of 27 heads of government or ministers at European councils and/or with a delegation of MEPs.

One wonders what planet Theresa May has been living on for the last nine months

Anger, of course, isn’t a policy and our frustration is more usefully channelled towards achieving the best outcome from the negotiations.

While the scale of the potential implications for Ireland from Brexit were clear from even before the referendum was passed last June, the opportunity has been wasted in the nine months since to better position Ireland in the negotiations process that has been triggered this week.

Central role

Of course, there has been a flurry of diplomatic activity on Ireland’s behalf in Brussels, London and other European cities.

That is the least we should expect. That effort has contributed to the inclusion of Ireland-friendly phrases in the British letter of withdrawal and in the draft guidelines for the Brussels negotiators.

What has been lacking in the Irish approach is the clarity, creativity and straight-talking necessary to frame the negotiations in a way which can maximise the outcome for us.

We should have insisted on playing a central role and having direct Irish political involvement in aspects of the negotiations which impact on this island and on the relationship between these two islands.

There is nothing in article 50 to prevent such a strand to the negotiations. All that was required was the political will to make it happen.

Irish Government politicians and diplomats were anxious to point to, and tweet out, the paragraph in Theresa May’s letter where she speaks of Ireland.

She devoted 116 words in her six-page letter to the implications of Brexit for the Republic and Northern Ireland.

She wrote warmly about the unique relationship between our countries and the importance of the peace process.

She then, in a statement of the obvious, told Tusk how the State is the only member state with a land border with the UK.

She said one of her key objectives is making sure that “the UK’s withdrawal from the EU does not harm the Republic of Ireland”.

Damaging uncertainty

One wonders what planet she has been living on for the last nine months.

Brexit has already created damaging uncertainty for Ireland and there is no possible scenario where the UK withdrawal can be done in a way which does not further damage Ireland. It is simply a nonsensical statement.

She goes on to emphasise “the important responsibility to make sure that nothing is done to jeopardise the peace process in Northern Ireland”.

If it were not so serious it would be laughable. Again, Brexit has already had a destabilising impact on politics in Northern Ireland and on the delicate constitutional settlement reflected in the Belfast Agreement.

One German MEP said a torture chamber was being prepared for the British ahead of Brexit talks

The Government here is also drawing comfort from public statements by other member states showing appreciation for the Irish dimension.

However, it was ominous for Ireland that German chancellor Angela Merkel was out early in response to May’s letter reiterating that talks on the new trade arrangements with the UK cannot start until after the UK has actually left.

The focus in Berlin and many other capitals is on making sure no other member is tempted to follow the UK out of the European Union.

Publicly, this emphasis is dressed in diplomatic language about the need to preserve unity among the EU27.

Privately, it is often professed in more colourful terms.

One Irish delegation of businesses and exporters visiting politicians in Brussels last week were told by one German MEP about how a torture chamber was being prepared for the British in advance of the negotiations in order to deter other defections.

The language is unpalatable on many levels, but it shows how we Irish are not the only ones who are angry at what just over half of the British people have decided to do.

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