Brexit border brinksmanship threatens both Ireland and UK

From ‘taking back control’ to‘Ireland will take back control for us’...

“Ah, it’ll be grand. No one wants a hard border.” If you’ve been paying attention to the border debate in Ireland in the wake of the Brexit referendum, you’ll have heard some variation of that nugget. For all the optimism that common sense would prevail and the realpolitik would protect interests in the Republic and Northern Ireland, there is a growing sense of dread that something wicked this way comes.

The Guardian headline on Monday was that wake up call - “UK seeks to move border into Ireland”.

It’s the mother of all kite-flying exercises. In reality, what the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire is talking about is Irish authorities policing for Britain at our ports and airports - making it a step beyond the data-sharing arrangement we’ve had with the UK since 2014.

As a solution to the border question, it’s a divisive one to say the very least. It’s a bit rich for the British Government, leading the Union into Brexit with the slogan ‘taking back control’, to now say ‘Ireland will take back control for us’.

Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan had the right idea in sounding a diplomatic note while pointing to the fact that, in any event, Brussels will have the final say. Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald, on the other hand, has drawn a big target on the back of the Government by all but backing Brokenshire’s idea, saying ‘there isn’t anything surprising’ about the suggestion.

The problem for her, and for the British government, is that this is such an emotive issue for the public. Comparisons were immediately made online to the Treaty Ports, others claimed Anglo-Irish relations were being wound back 20 years. There is a degree of hyperbole there but it’s hard to see the Irish public stomaching the idea of Britain’s frontiers being policed in Ireland.

The problem here is that Theresa May is reaching. The Brexit debate rarely, if ever, focused on the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. No matter who shouted it from the sideline, or raised concerns about the impact on the peace process, it simply didn’t permeate a campaign that was squarely focused on immigration.

May, whose tepid support for the Remain campaign was a spectacular gambit for her own career prospects, now appears to be willing to pander to the staunch Brexiteers and xenophobic elements that fuelled the darker end of the debate. The news lines out of the Conservative party conference last week, like ‘Firms must list foreign workers’ were for the benefit, are part of that attempt to protect her own back.

This is dangerous rhetoric and will do little to allay the fears of foreign workers living in Britain, who have been the subject of a wave of hate crimes in the months following the vote.

What’s almost as worrying is the sense of mayhem that is seeping through May’s Brexit preparations. You might allow yourself a raised eyebrow at the early reports that her Brexit experts had no fixed abode and were meeting at a central London Starbucks. But when The Sunday Telegraph tells you that Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, could be a ‘potent force’ in repairing the UK’s relations across Europe, there’s no more doubt - establishment Britain is in a tailspin.

It didn’t take George Orwell to see this uncertainty coming from 70-years out - but the great man’s foresight of a misguided backlash against immigration is perhaps the most profound warning for Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Amber Rudd and David Davis. “British prosperity depends largely on factors outside Britain”. The sooner they realise it, the better their hopes of securing Britain’s place in the world, and - hopefully - the peace and prosperity of our island.