Here is a summary of how the backstop came to happen.
Brexit offers Ireland a limited upside, and an extensive downside. A report from the Lords’ European Union Committee suggested that Ireland “stands to suffer the greatest loss to GDP of all other member states”. It will undoubtedly take a short-term hit. Following the conventional wisdom that leaving the EU will be bad for Britain’s economy, even over the long-term, the committee added that the cost to Ireland could be even bigger.
But perhaps the biggest Brexit effect on Ireland is not so much economic as political – even psychological. Britain and Ireland entered the Common Market on the same day. This has come to be seen as symbolic. The two countries have a troubled mutual history. The European project liberated Ireland, opening up new horizons wider than those offered by its neighbour, whille constraining Britain, binding its policy to a bigger enterprise. The EU is seen in Ireland as integral to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Northern Ireland’s peace process and the Belfast Agreement – paving the way for a golden age in Anglo-Irish relations, capped by the Queen’s visit to Ireland in 2011.
The two countries grew closer and closer still. Both are English-speaking, market-orientated, America-friendly – and, to some extent, bound together in a common British Isles economy. By the time of the 2016 referendum, no two EU countries were closer. No European leader lobbied harder for David Cameron than Enda Kenny. Ireland did not want the protectionist bloc in the EU to be left stronger, its own contributions to the Union to be higher, and for it to be exposed as its main English-speaking country, with the Commission poised to make difficult waves over its corporation tax rates.
After the referendum result, Ireland stayed on auto-pilot – concerned to minimise the impact of Brexit and work with Britain to do so, building on over 40 years of improved relations. Initially, Kenny’s government looked to manage the land border between the two countries in much the same way as Theresa May’s wanted, exploring the use of technology to avoid checks on the frontier and mulling how two different regulatory regimes might be reconciled. Dismissed now as fantastical unicorns, these were real horses – up and if not quite running, at least cantering.
During 2017, this changed. The reasons are mixed – but, to cut to the chase, Ireland’s Government came to ask itself, as the wider Brexit negotiations intensified, why it should break with its fellow EU members to accommodate a country that was leaving. The Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in January convinced Ireland’s Government, which had wanted to believe otherwise, that Britain was now set on leaving the Single Market, if not the Customs Union too. In June, May lost her majority and allied with the DUP. The second didn’t go down well in Dublin and the first was seen to leave her weaker. In any event, planning the land border’s future turned out to be complex.
With May’s conceding on the sequencing of the talks, the Irish Government began to ask itself if she might not eventually fold, too, on the Customs Union and Single Market – even, perhaps, on Brexit itself. Furthermore, it didn’t take to David Davis and had never liked Boris Johnson, at least since his campaigning for Leave in the referendum. May might be sincere in wishing to avoid a hard border, but could the Brexiteers really be trusted – for, after all, are they not the future of the Conservative Party? At any rate, Ireland threw in its lot decisively with its fellow EU members, and the very language that governed talk of a hard border began to change.
To the British side, the phrase means border posts, checkpoints, cameras, barriers, barbed wire – all the paraphernalia of the Troubles. To the Irish side, it has come to signify any departure whatsoever from the customs and regulary status quo. The backstop proposal bound that settlement into the Joint Declaration, and caught London by surprise. And so the journey from last December’s joint report to this year’s Withdrawal Agreement began. It is sometimes claimed that Leo Varadkar instigated the change in Irish policy. This isn’t so. It began under Kenny, though his successor certainly intensified it.
So we have stalemate. And it is no exaggeration to say that the success or failure of May’s negotation, and whether Britain leaves with a deal or without one, hangs on what happens to the backstop. Anglo-Irish relations turn out to have consequences. That Lords Committee proposed a draft bilateral agreement between the UK and Ireland in order, inter alia, to answer the border question. The idea was dying even as its report was leaving the printers.
Three lessons emerge for our Government from this story. They are founded on a truth which it helps to demonstrate. Ireland thinks about Britain a lot – not because it wants to, but because it has to. That’s what comes of living alongside a bigger neighbour with which one has a difficult history. Britain, by contrast, thinks about Ireland a lot less, sometimes scarcely at all.
First, government is not well set up for Anglo-Irish diplomacy. The new Department for Exiting the European Union delegated Ireland to Robin Walker, an able Minister, but a junior one. Davis was mostly engaged elsewhere. The Northern Ireland Office has no institutional memory of the story stretching back through the Belfast Agreement to the troubles. By her own admission, the Secretary of State was unaware, prior to her appointment, that unionists don’t vote for nationalist parties, and vice-versa. What experience there is rests largely on a single appointment – that of Jonathan Caine, one of her SpAds, who has previouly served no fewer than four former Conservative Secretaries of State, and has experience stretching back over 25 years. The only figure at the centre with a feel for Anglo-Irish relations is David Lidington, who was Shadow Secretary of State under David Cameron.
Second, the Government – and Whitehall and Westminster more broadly – made no real effort, post-referendum, to feel Ireland’s pain. May is not exactly cut out to do the Bill Clinton bit, but Lidington might have been used more. (Cameron’s former Secretaries of State, Theresa Villiers and Owen Paterson, were both Brexiteers.) The Government ought to have been searching around to find what special measures it might deploy to help support Ireland’s economy, in the event both of deal and no deal.
Finally, a better-briefed Downing Street would have grasped the significance of the backstop, and reacted accordingly when it was first proposed. One of its foundations is the claim that it is necessary to protect the Belfast Agreement. This is contestable. The DUP was opposed to the agreement at the time, and so is not in the best position to tangle with Dublin about the assertion (though, as some readers will remember, it has plenty to say about it: see Lee Reynolds’ piece on this site). Other Unionists are better situated. David Trimble, who co-negotiated the agreement, argues that the backstop doesn’t strengthen the agreement, but undermines it. Number Ten should have better utilised this co-winner of a Nobel Peace Prize – and other Ulster Unionists from that period, such as Paul Bew, one of Trimble’s main advisers at the time. Instead, it busied itself reassuring Johnson and Michael Gove that the backstop would have no legal force.
So where now?
In the short-term, Anglo-Irish relations will be sticky. Essentially, Varadkar is risking a rational gamble – that Britain will either back down on the backstop, or else rescind Brexit altogether. As we write, it looks as though he may succeed. If so, public attitudes to Ireland here may cool somewhat, but the Taoiseach has presumably factored this into his thinking.
Indeed, there is a strong case for arguing that Irish diplomacy is the biggest single winner of the Brexit negotiations to date. For Britain, the proposed deal presents problems so well rehearsed that we need not repeat them. But some EU27 member states have difficulties with it, too: to some extent, it prises apart the four freedoms, offering Britain favourable Single Market access (though not frictionless trade) without EU budget payments or freedom of movement. But such losses will worry Ireland less than the big gain of the backstop. Some claim that it represents a push for Irish unity. Rightly or wrongly, we don’t read it that way. Rather, the backstop would, in Ireland’s view, seal an all-island arrangement that has underpinned prosperity and minimised violence.
Varadkar’s gamble may fail. No Deal is the status quo in Britain, and so can’t be ruled out. If it happens, he will doubtless fall back on blaming the Brits. Bashing May’s Government has done him no harm at all so far, and he must keep a careful eye on Fianna Fail, on whose support his government relies – not to mention potential successors to his post in Fine Gael, such as Simon Coveney. None the less, the effects of No Deal could be so toxic as to wreck not just his government but Ireland’s economy. Negotiating triumph would turn to diplomatic disaster. There are signs of nervousness in Ireland about this possibility.
What of the longer-term? Any analysis should rest on two foundations.
First, the UK will put its own interests first – whatever happens to Brexit during the months ahead. Ireland needs no reminder of this commonplace, given its experience since the referendum two years ago.
Second, Ireland will do likewise – not as a junior adjunct to the UK but as a fully-fledged member of the EU27, which has incentives to look after its smaller member states, and back them up diplomatically, as we are seeing.
One Minister told ConservativeHome that, over this longer-term, Britain needs “a new strategic partnership with Ireland”. Just as it was our closest ally when we were EU members, but leaning out – he said – so it should fulfil the same role for a UK on the outside, as we lean in. That Ireland itself will want as good a relationship as possible with its neighbour is a given, or should be.
Some will say that this site’s proposals so far – first feeling Ireland’s pain over Brexit; then contesting its view of the backstop – are self-contradictory. To which our reply is that there’s a good old-fashioned word for trying to understand your partner while advancing your interests: diplomacy.
Ireland certainly isn’t an enemy and should be a friend. But perhaps Britain’s relationship with it is best viewed instead through the functional and workmanlike lens of partnership: after all, the better relations with Dublin are, the more comfortable nationalists in Northern Ireland are likely to feel about the Union. We are under-using the institutional means at our disposal to further a future partnership: the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, the British-Irish Council, the All-Parliamentary Group on Ireland. Senior Ministers and MPs need to attend them as a matter of course, and not delegate attendance to juniors. Since British and Irish politicians and diplomats will no longer meet and mingle within the EU institutions, new forums must be found, formal and informal. “Relationships are everything,” another Minister pointed out to this site. And Downing Street needs to ramp up its expertise.
If the language of partnership sounds flavourless and thin, and Conservatives yearn for something a bit richer, it might be worth us glancing back at our own history. Ireland is arguably a conservative country – with two centre-right parties whose rivalry stretches back to the civil war – without a Conservative Party. As in Germany, the term is a no-no (though obviously for different reasons).
None the less, the grandfather of modern conservatism was an Irishman. Would Burke, with his European sensibility and reverence for circumstance, have been horrified by the rupture that is Brexit? Or would he have seen the EU as an ideological project – a “theory” – of the kind he came to oppose at the end of his career? It is useless to pose such counterfactuals: one ends up projecting one’s preoccupations on the past, which is another country. But conjecture has a way of bubbling up all the same.
What can be said for certain is that Burke never forgot the country of his birth. Nor did his opponents allow him to. Even when folded into Whig establishment factions, and operating as a spokesman for them, he was targeted by anti-Irish, anti-Catholic enemies. Burke was an Anglican, but Conor Cruise O’Brien argued through an entire book, The Great Melody, that Burke’s Irish and religious formation is key to understanding his stances, shifts and apparent volte-faces. It was woven into his constituency clash with Bristol merchants over free trade.
Most of us lack Burke’s driving reasons for engagement with Ireland, but they find an echo in something wider-reaching than politics – namely, the mass of working and family relationships and connections between the UK and Ireland. Which reinforces Alan O’Kelly and Hugh Byrne’s idea of a Conservative Friends of Ireland Group as a timely one. Back at the level of formal politics, there is a Brexit and broader lesson: overlooking Ireland has consequences.