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Dearbhail McDonald: ‘Principle of consent has been dislodged in North – now all gains may be squandered’


Oops: Transport Minister Shane Ross apparently let slip the Government’s thoughts on Border checks as he gave a joint briefing with Tánaiste Simon Coveney on Tuesday. Photo: Michelle Devane/PA
Oops: Transport Minister Shane Ross apparently let slip the Government’s thoughts on Border checks as he gave a joint briefing with Tánaiste Simon Coveney on Tuesday. Photo: Michelle Devane/PA

It would be a tragedy, and an ironic one at that, if the Government’s primary goal, backed by its European partners, of ensuring that there was no hard Border in Ireland – the so-called Brexit backstop – resulted in exactly that.

But such was the scale of Theresa May’s Commons defeat that the prospect of the return of a hard Border, or derivatives thereof, is one that cannot be ruled out.

No deal means no backstop, means a hard Border of some kind or another.

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This much was admitted by Tánaiste Simon Coveney, who had to intervene – during a joint press briefing held with his cabinet colleague Shane Ross – to declare there were no plans for Border checks in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Mr Ross, the Transport Minister, had seconds before stated publicly to journalists it was likely there would be Border checks in the event of a no-deal Brexit, only to admit in a private follow-up conversation (caught on tape) that he didn’t know what to say.

More significantly, Mr Coveney admitted in the private exchange there was a likelihood of checks (though it was not clear where they would happen) in the event of a no-deal Brexit, the Tánaiste warning his junior coalition partner they did not want to become the Government responsible for the re-introduction of Border checks in Ireland.

No wonder Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said the Government was increasingly like the old episode of the classic TV comedy ‘Fawlty Towers’ with the line “Don’t mention the war”. Mr Martin went further, stating there was private understanding in political circles a hard Border in Ireland was increasingly likely, a reality the Government can’t or, according to Mr Martin, won’t convey to the public.

You can appreciate the Government’s reluctance, morally and strategically, to make public such a concession.

The prospect of any return to a hard Border, despite DUP leader Arlene Foster’s staggering denial of its existence, is inconceivable for most on this island, if wholly unappreciated by many across the Irish Sea.

Incredibly, amid all the chaos that has ensued from Westminster this week – the comprehensive defeat of Mrs May has left us no clearer about what form of Brexit may ultimately emerge – the markets have remained remarkably calm, with investors surmising the UK is less likely now to crash out of the EU without a deal.

But that’s a calm that could quickly morph into an almighty storm if a hard Brexit is unleashed.

In many respects, Brexit is already here.

The relentless political uncertainty is already disrupting the all-island economy, affecting investment decisions and consumer confidence, igniting fear and anxiety and undermining prosperity, a key promise of our 20-year-old peace process.

Unlike politics, businesses, big and small, North and south, don’t have the luxury of going down to the wire. Years of political and economic progress are under extraordinary strains.

The unity of Northern Ireland’s business community – crying out for certainty to protect jobs and future trade – stands in stark contrast to the deeply divided state of politics in the North.

Indeed, what was staggering among all the noise in Westminster and the convulsions over the backstop – although the scale of the defeat indicated the UK parliament has bigger problems – was the lack of any voice representing the collective decision of the people of Northern Ireland, who voted resoundingly to remain.

The DUP’s dereliction of the wishes of Northern Ireland’s majority is matched in its insanity by the refusal of Sinn Féin to represent the voice of nationalism, while stoking the fires by calling for a Border poll that could – at this time – destabilise the North even further.

The 1990 Good Friday Agreement (GFA) was and remains the foundation block for peace and prosperity on the island, our membership of the customs union and single market a key component in reducing the physical and psychological barriers that blighted the Border.

At the heart of the GFA lies the principle of consent, which has been dislodged by the fraught decision by the UK population, as a whole, to leave the EU.

The backstop burns precisely because it drives a stake through the heart of the principle of consent and acts as a catalyst on issues such as a united Ireland that we had hoped would be developed, organically – and smoothed by integration and a consensus on an agreed Ireland – over time.

Yesterday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar insisted we can’t shift on the issue of no hard Border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, noting his British counterparts had made the same commitment.

Yet the Irish Government has activated our no-deal contingencies all the same.

Is there any way that this red line can be blurred?

Will we, as some predict, come to regret holding the line on the issue of the backstop?

Is there any way that the backstop can be renegotiated? Not in 70 days.

Beyond the toxicity of the historic UK parliamentary vote, the immediacy presented by the March 29 deadline, and the red line of the Border backstop, lies an extraordinary social and political challenge to mend relationships in a society that was just beginning to heal.

Future generations will not forgive us for squandering those gains.

Irish Independent

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