Not only were the Brexiters clueless: they didn’t give a stuff about Ireland. But this will come back to haunt the Tories
Donald Tusk should be criticised not for his malice, but his moderation. The European council president triggered a tsunami of confected outrage from leavers today when he observed, with some justice, that there should be a special place in hell for those who promoted Brexit without a plan. But he should have said far more. He should have added that, within that special place, there should be an executive suite of sleepless torment for those politicians who promoted Brexit without ever giving a stuff about Ireland.
Once again, Brexit is all coming down to Ireland. This was always going to happen, and rightly so. Time after time in our history, Ireland emerges as an awkward reality check that shames the fantasies of those who think the British are better and that Ireland can be ignored. So there is something both fateful and tragic about the fact Theresa May should have prepared for the final showdown by having to make a rare visit to Ireland.
It wasn’t meant to be this way. For the Brexiters, the leaving of Europe was never about Ireland at all. Brexit was about sovereignty, about greatness, or about not liking too many foreigners living here. It was about throwing off the yoke of Brussels and bringing back blue passports. Ireland barely got a look-in during the debates of 2016, save when John Major – yawn, yawn – and Tony Blair – hiss, boo – pointed out from lifetimes of experience that Brexit would threaten the Northern Ireland peace agreements.
Their warnings fell on stony ground, except, not irrelevantly, in Northern Ireland itself, where the majority voted to remain. This was a deeply embarrassing outcome for the Brexiters. Surely a place that wraps itself in the union jack so often would be full-hearted for a Brexit project that did exactly the same? When the Northern Ireland voters failed to oblige, the Brexiters did what fantasists do. They pretended that it hadn’t happened. In this, they were of course assisted by May’s decision, after the 2017 election, to make a pact with the Democratic Unionists, the only important Northern Ireland party to support leaving the EU.
Then came the backstop, designed to prevent a hard border, which is now incorporated into the withdrawal agreement. The political intimacy that has grown up in recent months between the Tory Brexiters and the DUP might lead the unwary to assume they look at the issues in the same way. But they do not, as the backstop repeatedly shows. It is an opportunists’ alliance, nothing more, nothing less. It cannot and will not hold.
The DUP hates the backstop because nationalists support it. They pretend that it could cause regulatory divergence between Britain and Northern Ireland – though they support divergence on issues such as criminal law and some tax issues. They see Dublin’s hand at work everywhere. But the DUP did not get where it is today by compromising with Irish nationalism. So, if Sinn Féin and the SDLP in the north are in favour of the backstop, and if Dublin is in favour too, then the DUP is hardwired to be against it. Their position is tribal.