Looking at Post-Brexit Ireland

A review of our relations with more of our neighbours

When Irish eyes are smiling....When Irish eyes are smiling.... Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has resigned so let's have a look at Irish politics; not just in Eire but the whole lot of it including Ulster. It was both the luck of the Irish and Leo Varadkar that Brexit came along when it did; the former could continue to play victim, they always do, while the latter hid behind it and went in for endless Brit-bashing. This hid the fact that Varadkar had little to offer in the way of policies but eventually there came an election and Varadkar and his party did badly. We should remember this was his first general election too as the previous Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, stood down while in office and there was a leadership election that Varadkar narrowly won and he set out to make his mark. Enda Kenny was a politician of substance in that he came from a political family and had many years of experience. The Brexit referendum was just a year before Kenny stood down and he had made a point about Brexit being awkward for Ireland in a rather cack-handed way. He had also dialled in the Peace Process, another handy tool that is used by many to lever an argument their way even if the logic is flawed and the context fatuous.

Kenny was denounced by the UK government for: "scaremongering of the worst possible kind". However, it was now time for Varadkar to get noticed. So while Kenny had played the victim card for his party, Fine Gael, to perfection Varadkar, although also from Fine Gael, seemed to react as if he was a political rival.
Varadkar took it to the extreme, there was no political continuity nothing statesmanlike or measured as he pressed the GO button on the Brit-bashing machine and sat back to give himself and Ireland a double dose of what they like best. It may have satisfied the base instincts of the crowd but it was a gamble. But what of the crowd? The Varadkar constituency is Dublin West, sort of Islington if you like, so they were happy as was the EU; this was a dog that could really bark, so they thought . And that was the problem, all bark and no bite. For Varadkar putting one across the Brits was not as easy as it looked.

Then the Irish got lucky again. Kenny had convinced the EU to accept that even if Ulster followed the Brits out of the EU in the event of a ballot for a united Ireland they would be forced to rejoin. The EU always wanted to punish the Brits for daring to want to leave and the loss of Ulster looked to be about right. So what of the chances of a ballot? It has been said that following the drubbing of Varadkar by Sinn Fein this might have moved a step closer. On the other hand this assumes Sinn Fein can do more than just talk the talk. While it’s true Ulster voted to Remain in the 2016 Referendum, what cannot be assumed from this is that they also voted to change their status. Remain yes but become part of a united Ireland? Probably not. This has been one of the major deceptions to come from the Referendum. London also voted to Remain but not to become part of Belgium.

Low quality arguments from Remain were common and the one that included the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) is typical. Irish politics as a whole, both Ulster and Ireland, is complicated and is a trap for the unwary. Remainers claimed the GFA was under threat from Brexit. However, Lord Trimble who is often described as the architect of the GFA would disagree. The GFA and Brexit are not in tandem and those who wish to overturn a democratic decision of the UK, which is the latter, cannot use the former to do so. The mix of disingenuous and opportunistic goings on following the Brexit referendum was spectacular. It was pure hypocrisy to see in Ulster placards saying, ‘Respect the Remain vote’, when really the thrust of the argument is stuff the Leave vote because we are special: no you are not! The people of Ulster cannot overlook there was a win for Leave. They took part in the Referendum and would have been annoyed to have been left out so must accept the result. We also see endless references to a ‘hard border’. Belfast has ‘Peace Walls’ which may have a rather twee and misleading name but are simply hard borders but ones we do not speak about.

The whole of the ‘Irish problem’, both parts, Ireland and Ulster, is full of complex contradictions which the EU, without bothering to understand them, simply adopted. Here was a stick to beat the UK with so that’s what they did. But in time it may go wrong for the EU, the resignation of Varadkar and the uncertainty that follows is just the start. First of all we have to remember both the scale and the nature of the divisions in Ireland As Ruth Dudley Edwards wrote following the Varadkar result -

'Few southerners have any grasp of, or indeed interest in, what really went on in Northern Ireland. The media are intensely protective of the peace process and discourage criticism of Sinn Fein. And the young weren’t, of course, born during the Troubles'.

She is right and this is worth going over in detail. It's common to complain about politicians and the political establishment living in a bubble. In Ireland they do it naturally as that's what the whole population, both Ulster and Ireland, do. It stems from the Irish 'culture', bathed in pity- me victimhood and half truths, there is little else to do. All those people with, get-up-and-go, got up and went years ago! Also being super protective of the Peace Process is perhaps wise. Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail stem directly from segments of the civil war. There is no Left and Right between them as you might find in other political spheres. It has been said that Fine Gael and Fianna Fail represent two sides of the same coin. Naturally voters do tend towards some form of tribalism but not along the lines of classic political polarity.

Sinn Fein is the only political party in modern times in Europe to pretend not to have an armed wing. We should remember the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons and the Charlie Hebdo shootings. Sometimes your freedom of expression is not supported by the society in which you live. Also, as Ireland has no idea of, or indeed interest in, what really went on in Ulster we may assume they are also ill informed of the Peace process in general or the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in particular. Finally only the Irish could label the bloody civil war of the 1970s to 1990s carried out by the IRA in its various forms as 'The Troubles'. A stupid name that makes it seem to be no worse than an irritant, like a stomach upset. This is not just living in a bubble but insanity.

So it was with this drift, dream and look the other way that the Varadkar administration cruised into trouble. By spring of last year even the crowd in the pubs of Dublin had their doubts about his strategy. By summer newspaper polls showed these doubts had turned into minority support for him. Basically Varadkar should have seen it coming, but then so should the EU. For them it is too late, Varadkar has gone, the dog has ceased to bark and can no longer bite. Ireland and the EU are stuck with each other even if the successor to Varadkar turns out to be not what they wanted. Whatever the EU may think of the UK under Boris Johnson, having Sinn Fein in the mix will only make things worse for them. It is even possible this could work in Johnson's favour.

So a bit of a mess and all down to Varadkar? No not at all. The door had been left open for a long time by the equally, but different, dysfunctional political situation in Ulster. This was also something that should have been spotted way before but was not, as another group of drifters and dreamers were too busy. Much had been made of the Power Sharing idea. However, it was doomed to fail; but why? Perhaps this concept emerged from the murky depths of a think-tank to loud applause and cheering. On the other hand there may have been groans of disapproval from those who could see it was all theory and nothing more. The political climate of Ulster is based upon, first past the post, there is no tradition of coalition. Furthermore a party like Sinn Fein happy to use both the ballot box and the Armalite was unlikely to see Power Sharing as anything more than an opportunity for a power grab.

Then along came the wood chip scandal, or to be formal the: 'Renewable Heat Incentive scheme' - the RHI scandal. This was one of those 'green' schemes that have another bunch of dreamers behind it. Alas its insertion into Ulster politics proved to be a disaster as it was seen as an opportunity to make a buck. It was dishonest but who cares? It's back to the victimhood thing again. If you live under the yoke of oppression then anything you do that, 'strikes back' is valid. The scheme was focused on business users and was both poorly framed and supervised. The root of the idea was to offer incentives via a subsidy to industry to use 'renewables', in this case wood chips imported from Canada! We can laugh at it now but this is what it was. As we saw with Brexit in the UK the business lobby is also a dab-hand at playing the victim. In the UK the world of business was, with few exceptions, not interested in the moral case for upholding a democratic mandate, 17.4 million people were not important! It was the same in Ulster, whistle-blowers and a few sensible civil servants could see the problem but they were ignored.

Irish politics, in both Ulster and the South, is 'special'. In fact the whole of Ireland thinks it's special, not just those in the political bubble, so with that as the basis of your society you stand no chance. A considerable amount of upset was caused by the fact it was to cost the public an estimated £500 million, in total. But then put this sum of money alongside the costs of the equally crazy and corrupt HS2 and it looks trivial. As the RHI scandal played out it caused the collapse of the Northern Island Assembly. As numerous cases have shown, a government free country has consequences not just to itself but the whole region. It was this vacuum that allowed politics in Ireland to develop a new look. Hence Sinn Fein pushed the old order of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail aside in Ireland to make gains.

It's at this point we come to: 'The Union'. But before we start it's back again to the Ruth Dudley Edwards' comment on how little Ireland knows about Ulster and the reverse position. We may assume the whole of Ireland is besotted by its modern history, after all that is central to its addiction to victimhood. But what of the ancient history? How many Irish people would know that some form of union had existed since 1541 and that this had been a voluntary move by Ireland? It's always assumed by UK politicians and our political establishment that the whole of the UK is in favour of the Union. The public are never allowed to question this, they simply put up with it and pay for it. By contrast the EU and UK relationship has been the subject of a referendum. We had been part of what became known as the EU for 47 years but the formal union, 'The Union', with Ireland dates back to 1800 but seems to be off limits to the public! Why should this be? During negotiations with the EU over Brexit it became clear they thought we should, 'pay a price' for wanting to leave their dysfunctional confederation. This was supposed to be the loss of Ulster.

Both the then PM, Theresa May and her specially selected team of civil servants, failed to comprehend that the public had been consulted on leaving the EU but not on altering the Union. They did not know what the public wanted. As time wore on and May made so many mistakes the prospect of Brexit looked bleak the EU could see this and 'helped' by making things worse. In this game Varadkar and Ireland played their part and so the attitude of the public shifted. So yes the exact level of hostility is unknown but also apparent. As Ireland and Ulster seem to be on a different path to us over Brexit, and perhaps more besides, should there be a referendum on The Union? The problem for Boris Johnson is that he gained power on the back of the 17.4 million people who voted for Brexit. The PM has now consolidated his power and No10 has not been so centralised since WW2. He wants to splash an absurd amount of money on HS2. It could take 30 years for this railway to reach the North of England by which time some towns in the North will have been flooded many more times. So the PM wants HS2 and the people who brought down the 'red wall' want flood defences, what happens next? The PM has to dare to ask the people want they want on many subjects, The Union is just one and it's only right he does so after all the public pays for these things.

Footnote - Photo credit, Collins.