Theresa May’s task has echoes of challenge faced by Michael Collins
UK prime minister must also sell her deal to a divided cabinet and parliament
Almost a century after Irish independence it is only fitting that the status of the Border is a key part of the challenge facing Theresa May as she seeks to convince a reluctant cabinet, party and parliament that her Brexit deal is the only realistic option facing the United Kingdom.
There are echoes of the challenge faced by Michael Collins when he returned to Dublin from London in December 1921 with the treaty which formalised the Irish Border. He too had to confront a divided cabinet and Dáil in order to get it approved by the narrowest of margins in both cases.
Collins’ ultimate argument was that the only alternative to the treaty was “immediate and terrible war” as threatened by Lloyd George. May’s argument is a variation on that theme, suggesting that the only alternative to Brexit is “immediate and terrible trade war” with the UK’s former EU partners.
May, like Collins, was given an impossible negotiating task. From the beginning there were only going to be two possible ways of leaving the European Union. One was a deal keeping the UK in a close trading and regulatory relationship which would effectively make it a rule taker rather than a rule maker. The other was a no-deal which would inevitably have devastating consequences for the UK economy.
Of course there is a third option which is to forget about leaving the EU altogether and it is still possible, even if highly unlikely, that the British parliament and public will be persuaded that it is a better option than either of the other two.
The fact that the Irish Border became such an important part of the EU negotiating strategy is something that sticks in the craw of the leading Brexiteers, as is evident from the anger and confusion evident from Boris Johnson and his ilk in recent days.
“For the first time since partition, Dublin would have more say in some aspects of the governing of Northern Ireland than London,” thundered Johnson, purposely misrepresenting the position.
Given the way in which the Tory right has stood in the way of good relations between Ireland and Britain in almost every generation since the 1880s, it is hard not to take some pleasure from the fact that the Irish question has come back to haunt them, even if they are exaggerating its impact.
The big question now is whether May will be able to emulate Collins in bringing her cabinet and parliament with her. His achievement was marred by the civil war that followed cabinet approval of the treaty by four votes to three and Dáil approval by 64 votes to 57.
Collins paid with his life for the settlement but it endured and still underpins the democratic institutions we have to this day. While May will obviously not face such extreme physical dangers, her political life is on the line this week and there is no guarantee that she will survive. Acceptance or rejection of the settlement she has agreed with the EU will define the fate of the UK for generations to come.
From an Irish perspective it is extremely important that that the UK ends up with the closest possible trading relationship with the EU, resulting in a frictionless border, not just on the island of Ireland, but down the Irish Sea.
If that happens the Government in Dublin will rightly be able to claim that its negotiating strategy and the priority given to the Border has paid off. There were some high risks to the strategy particularly the possibility, which still exists, that the focus on the Border could scupper the kind of deal on future trade between the UK and the EU that this country desperately needs.
Still, the emphasis placed by the EU on the Border issue forced the UK to confront the reality of Brexit at an early stage in the process. The political system in Westminster had to be disabused of the notion that the UK could “have its cake and eat it”. The priority given to the Border brought home that realisation to the mainstream of the Conservative Party.
That still leaves May with a formidable problem in getting the House of Commons to accept the deal. She is bound to lose some Conservative MPs and probably the Democratic Unionist Party as well. If all of the Labour MPs stick to the party’s official line then the deal with be defeated.
At this stage it is impossible to calculate the consequences of a rejection. There are some Conservative and Labour MPs who believe that such a development will lead to the UK ultimately remaining in the EU but the chances of that are probably remote. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is more anti-EU than many Tories and all the signs are that he intends use the Commons vote on the deal to play party politics regardless of the consequences.
Whatever happens it is important to remember, as former diplomat Bobby McDonagh pointed out in The Irish Times recently, that despite the antics of the hardline Brexiteers the decency and fairness, which is the hallmark of the British people, still exists. Hopefully that will manifest itself in whatever arrangement ultimately emerges from the Brexit shambles.