Ireland is not abandoned. Britain does give a damn but in its own way

“The Brexiteers – (meaning the ascendant strain in the Conservative party -) don’t give a damn about Ireland” is a common reaction from Martin McGuinness to Fintan O’Toole.

It’s quite an irony to hear Irish nationalists complain about nationalists of the English persuasion. But the cry is as much plaintive as enraged. After all that reconciliation stuff  Why Have You Done This To Us? But it wasn’t that, friends.  it’s just that England (sic) takes priority in a zero sum decision; what do you expect? The Irish government were allowed – even encouraged – to pitch for Remain in what some saw as stretching the rules of fair campaigning.

Yet it is always true that UK wide concerns take priority. The most spectacular case was in 1974, just three months  after the Sunningdale Agreement. Heath’s calling of a general election to try to break the miner’s strike wrecked whatever faint chances of success existed for the first power sharing executive. Would the south react any differently when their own priorities are engaged?

Still, Irish dismay with Britain  is understandable. They are still working through their own political and financial crisis since the great crash of 2008. Economic recovery is slow but apparently steady.

Joint membership of the EU was cement for the building blocks of the GFA.  The open border allows Ireland to imagine unity already. Unity itself  is finally  a decision for the Irish north and south, not the British.  A hard border would mean the Brits are back, so to speak.

On the other hand, it was significant that Major and Blair came to Derry, only three miles from the border, to plead the cause of Remain and the stability of the UK’s constitutional arrangements. They made the direct link between membership of the  EU and the survival of the Union.  They couldn’t make the case in Scotland because the SNP were leading for Remain there, nor in England because Blair was toxic over Iraq with Labour. Where better then to revisit the scene of their greatest triumph, the peace process? In Derry it wasn’t the Union they were defending specifically but the consent principle enshrined in the GFA . But of course they are yesterday’s men ( and how!). Does the same commitment hold good today?

I would say basically yes. The British do give a damn – in their own way.  They  may not have felt consistently warm towards Ireland north and south but it was specifically legislated for Irish emigrants to be classed as as “  not foreign  “ when the Republic was declared in 1949. A change for the Irish in Britain is inconceivable. It is not dependent on the EU link.  During the Troubles the Troops Out movement never took hold despite the loss of 503 regular British soldiers compared to 179 in Iraq.

Clearly  future handling will need greater sensitivity and application than that shown by that driest to Brexiteers Theresa Villiers.  Thankfully in her first pitch to become Conservative leader,  Theresa May abandoned her bid to end appeals to the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg. It’s a good sign that the DUP support preserving an open border. They haven’t said so yet in terms but logically this surely means transferring immigration checks to GB ports of entry from the land border.

Meanwhile a dragon needs to be slain.  Scotland and Northern Ireland cannot retain full EU membership. The EU says No, not just the UK. The Irish government is gently steering Sinn Fein and the SDLP in the direction of full participation in the Brexit negotiations with the new UK government.

The role of Parliament could turn out to be significant. Leavers are trying to insist that Parliament’s permission is needed to trigger Article 50  to begin the two year timetable  for completing the Brexit negotiations. This matters because  Remain zealots imagine that a Conservative minority would join Labour, the SNP and Lib Dems  in blocking the trigger and holding out for a change in circumstances to Remain.   Once again the spectre rises of the DUP holding the balance.

Post- GFA,  the big question for Northern Ireland on the horizon is whether the Brexit vote marks a  growing divergence of interest from Britain and a gradual convergence with Ireland. The trend is far form clear as the future form of the EU is hardly any clearer than the future of the constitutional order in ” these islands.”  This is not one for today. But it would surely involve no surrender of principle for the DUP at least  to take part in an all Ireland consultative forum.


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London