Why Brexit’s core dilemma will always elude Westminster

We know Britain but our nearest neighbour has failed to grasp the connections and contradictions that bind us, writes former Downing Street staffer Matthew O’Toole


Leader in waiting: Boris Johnson. Picture by Steve Humphreys
Leader in waiting: Boris Johnson. Picture by Steve Humphreys

The end of the Dingle Peninsula is the most westerly point in mainland Ireland. Which means it is also the furthest it is possible to get from Britain. It has one obvious cultural distance too, being a Gaeltacht region. And as with most of the Atlantic coast, the eye and the mind stretch not east, but west towards the Ocean and, eventually, America. Yet despite its distance from Britain, Dingle manages to sustain its own Arsenal Supporters’ Club.

Even where Ireland is at its most culturally and geographically removed from Britain, there is deep knowledge, intimacy even. It has taken the state a long time to come to relaxed terms with that intimacy, and what it means for the north east corner of the island – where the sense of intimacy is different still.

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The most easterly point on the island of Ireland is near Ballyhalbert, on the Ards Peninsula, which is most certainly not a Gaeltacht region, but rather a stronghold of the Ulster Scots dialect (or language, as some still insist). At Slea Head on the Dingle Peninsula, you can look out at the Blasket Islands, the last few clumps of land before you get to Newfoundland. At Burr Point near Ballyhalbert you can, on a clear day, see Scotland. Even centuries ago, Ulster Scots settlers would take day trips by boat back across the north channel to Galloway.

Who we are, and even where we are, are not settled things, and the Brexit process is ruthlessly exposing the connections and contradictions that exist between these islands. These are the central dilemma of Brexit – and have been since the beginning of the process, even when unnoticed in London.

We have seen Boris Johnson, putative Conservative leader and recently discovered enthusiast for the union between Britain and Northern Ireland, become the champion of an optimistic plan to connect Scotland and the North by bridge. A plan somewhat compromised by both the depth of sea at the relevant stretch and the hundreds, if not thousands, of tonnes of unexploded World War II munitions buried there. It is unlikely that Boris would have developed an interest in Ulster Scots connectivity if the Democratic Unionist Party had not become critical power brokers in the Brexit Parliament.

I was still in Number 10, working as a civil servant on Brexit, when the chaotic general election result of June 2017 made the Brexit process – the formal negotiations on which had yet to actually begin – almost impossible for Theresa May to navigate based on the red lines she had set and the probable red lines of the DUP. The party had supported Brexit, and mostly dismissed concerns about its effects on Northern Ireland.

Before the referendum itself, not only had Irish issues been virtually omitted from the referendum campaign, there had been virtually zero practical engagement on the economic, political and, perhaps most importantly, psychological effects of the UK leaving the European Union on not just Northern Ireland, but the entire island.

By the time of the June 2017 election, and the Confidence and Supply deal with the DUP that was its result, the Irish Government had been working for some time on both scoping the scale and range of difficulties that Brexit would present for cross-border economic and cultural activity. This work had been accelerated in the aftermath of May’s Lancaster House speech in January, which explicitly stated the UK would leave the EU Single Market, and heavily hinted that the UK would leave the Customs Union (though it did not explicitly say so).

The truth is that at Lancaster House, and at the Tory conference a few months earlier, where May had given a strident speech setting her initial red lines, Ireland was treated as background, as marginalia. It’s not that officials weren’t working on it, or didn’t care, but there was virtually no one in Whitehall, or indeed the broader commentariat, who placed it at the centre of the Brexit puzzle. The quirk of my biography meant I was repetitive on the subject, particularly before the referendum – afterwards, there were fewer opportunities to do even that, with decisions made in smaller circles.

The Lancaster House speech set out a list of broad negotiating priorities, of which one was protection of the Common Travel Area. The CTA, which more or less provides for free movement of people between Britain and Ireland, is not a single free-standing treaty that can be viewed in an archive. Like the relationship between Britain and Ireland, it is tangled in a set of legislative fixes and administrative conventions that evolved to order to manage the contradictory relationship between the two islands. Brexiteer MPs during the referendum, and even some ministers afterwards, imbued it with a power that is not borne out by real life. If, for example, they had travelled to Ireland more, they would know that passengers on all British flights into the Republic’s airports have their passports checked.

Untangling the mess of the CTA and putting it into a practical order so that the immigration border will remain relatively seamless even in a no-deal scenario has been an exhausting task for officials in London and Dublin, but it has been exponentially easier than dealing with the border in goods and services. For the first year after the referendum, UK policy in relation to the goods border hovered around vague, aspirational statements that avoided engaging directly on substance. May repeatedly talked of never returning to the “borders of the past” but with no explanation of which particular borders, and there was zero public engagement with the practical challenges created by a harder regulatory border to, for example, cross-border cancer care.

In all of these areas, the Irish Government was far ahead of the UK in scoping the practical effects of the hard Brexit the British prime minister had outlined, and then in constructing a diplomatic means to mitigate them – what has become known as the backstop. The advantage they had was in part the same strange intimacy manifested in the existence of the Dingle Arsenal Supporters’ Club: a deep knowledge of the other island, much deeper than that going the other way, and historical preoccupation with how the actions of the bigger island impacts on the other.

But at the other end of the island, in the DUP and Leave-voting constituency in which Ballyhalbert sits, the DUP’s core vote is concerned less with connections across the island of Ireland but its connections to the other island, both political and psychological. And that is a large part of the explanation for why the DUP will probably never budge on the backstop.

Before Brexit, many thought we had come close to settling contradictory questions about who we are and where we are. It may be that we had just stopping asking the questions for a while.

Indo Review


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