Cllr Thomas Bridge is a Conservative councillor for Brentwood.
For most people in the Republic of Ireland, the border with Northern Ireland, and indeed its status, has not been a significant political issue for some time. While most voters would pay lip service to the ideal of a united Ireland, the dominant political issues have been the Irish economy, the Republic’s role in Europe, corruption in the planning process and Irish politics more generally, as well as inner city issues that would seem familiar to many British politicans. Even the rise of Sinn Fein in the Republic has more to do with the party’s position on domestic issues than on the “national question”.
In recent years, this change has been driven by the Northern Irish peace process. The removal of customs posts and watchtowers from along the border has made the border almost invisible, to the extent that the main indication you’ve crossed it has been that the unit of measurement for speed limits has changed from kilometres to miles (or vice versa). The consequence of this has been that most people in Ireland were happy to maintain the status quo, and partition issue faded into the background.
However, it would be a mistake to assume that it has completely gone away. Threats to disrupt the status quo on the island were always going to result in an emotional reaction, and the implications of even potential change to the border is significant. Apart from direct cross-border issues, there is also the consideration that the main way for people to get from County Donegal to much of the rest of the Republic is to go through Northern Ireland.
Both sides agree that a hard border would be disastrous. It would be likely to drive up support for Sinn Fein. From a Unionist perspective, this would be the biggest threat to Northern Ireland remaining in the United Kingdom. A frictionless border is the best way to get people to feel that it doesn’t matter.
Regrettably, there seems to be a misunderstanding of the motivations behind Leo Varadkar’s comments about the border ,and the threat of the use of a veto by Ireland over progress to the next stage of talks. Comments have been made – notably by Iain Duncan Smith and Jacob Rees Mogg – that the motivation is about domestic electoral politics and the fear of losses to Sinn Fein. The recent threat of a general election driven by Ireland’s main opposition party, Fianna Fail, came after the Taoiseach made his comments about using the veto – so that argument is weak. (Duncan Smith, when challenged about this on Channel 4 News, made a reference to next year’s presidential election – but there’s no guarantee right now that one will even take place, since it’s unlikely there will be a challenge if Michael D.Higgins chooses to run for a second term).
What is almost certainly motivating the Taoiseach’s comments is the lack of concrete proposals about how the border will work. It would appear that his concern is more than we could end up blundering into a situation where we end up effectively with a hard border, which is one of the implied consequences of a no deal Brexit. It is fairly clear that there simply hasn’t been enough thought given to how Brexit will impact the border, and how this will be managed.
And although rumours that Foreign Office officials told their counterparts in Dublin to ignore the Foreign Secretary if he goes “off script” have been denied by both sides, the continuing failure by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet to articulate their vision of a post-Brexit future can look to outsiders like the government is blundering its way forward. This explains why the Taoiseach feels there simply isn’t enough clarity on the biggest issue his own government and country is facing. His comments come with the support of Micheal Martin, the leader of Fianna Fail.
We would do well, as a party and a government, to recognise there is no greater friend to the UK in these negotiations than the current Irish Taoiseach. Brexit has major implications for the Republic of Ireland, both in terms of the border itself and the wider economic impact to Ireland. Varadkar leads a party that is often referred to as the Irish Tories, which is a consequence of the fact that there are many similarities between Fine Gael and the Conservatives in terms of policies: Fine Gael are part of the European Peoples Party bloc in the European parliament, which previously the Conservatives were also part of. While clearly we differ from Fine Gael over attitudes to the EU itself, this suggests much common ground in other areas.
The Taoiseach has repeatedly made comments about a “bespoke” solution that would allow for a frictionless border, while also recognising that the UK will leave both the Single Market and the Customs Union. If we come up with such a solution, we will find a good friend in Dublin. We must also remember though that he is the leader of a country that, nearly a century ago left a union the majority of its citizens no longer wanted to be part of, and that he is ultimately going to put the best of interests of his country ahead of the union they left. Nonetheless, he remains one of the best friends we have in that process, and we should be doing all we can to reassure him of our intentions over the border.