Visitors to the Central Lobby of the Palace of Westminster should remember to look up. On the ceiling is a relic of British constitutional history: a mosaic depicting the four patron saints of the British Isles.
Patrick gets equal billing with George, Andrew and David. It’s a claim literally set in stone at the heart of British democracy that, despite 150 years of painful history, the bonds between the UK and Ireland are too deep to be denied. No two states should know and understand one another better. That illusion has collapsed like a cowboy builder’s cheap plaster job.
The Irish border is now more likely to block progress in Brexit talks than the multi-billion pound divorce bill. More remarkable still, the government is affecting surprise and Brexit-supporting media and commentators are outraged that it’s a problem at all.
Ireland should have been the UK’s natural ally on Brexit, and with a bit of care and effort might have helped advance Britain’s interests behind closed doors in Brussels.
But the disregard and occasional contempt of a political establishment gripped by Brexit towards our closest friend and neighbour was quick to reveal itself. Rather than take the opportunity to reassure a worried ally, Theresa May snubbed an invitation to address the Irish parliament. Reports suggest one of David Davis’ aides wrote to the office of the Taoiseach demanding a meeting with ‘Kenny’ – Enda Kenny, the then-Prime Minister. Things have gone downhill from there.
For demanding assurances about how the UK intends to prevent a hard border between North and South, the current Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has been criticised in condescending terms, occasionally straying into dog-whistle territory.
Like the Central Lobby ceiling, some Brexit advocates appear to be trapped in the 19th century, struggling to accept the Republic of Ireland is a sovereign state with its own politics and that its government that can block EU trade talks.
The government’s work on the border is scarcely credible, arguing that drones and remotely operated cameras can secure an EU frontier crossed by thousands of tonnes of agricultural produce daily.
Comparisons with the Norway-Sweden border are largely irrelevant: Norway is in the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and thereby tied to EU regulations, which the UK wants freedom to diverge from. Ministers claim the future of the Irish border cannot be resolved until trade talks begin, a position that betrays the UK’s inability to rule out a hard Brexit and a hard border with total sincerity. Brexiteers are being forced into increasingly Trumpian rhetoric to shift responsibility onto Dublin, culminating in the claim by Labour’s Kate Hoey that Ireland would have to pay for a hard border.
Even now, with days to get a breakthrough before a European summit in December, UK commentators claim Ireland wouldn’t dare to ‘veto’ trade talks, as if Dublin is an isolated dissenter.
But the EU27 are united and Brussels has made Irish issues its own, standing in as steward of the Good Friday Agreement in place of a government that signed it. Without assurances from the UK, it won’t be an Irish veto but a unanimous refusal.
What ministers cannot admit is that their decision to leave the single market and customs union probably guaranteed a hardening of the frontier in Ireland and seriously damaged the Good Friday Agreement, which stipulates free cross-border travel, trade and cooperation in a number of areas. If Brexiteers were honest, they would admit as much and that they see it as a price worth paying.
That refusal to face facts is contagious. If anywhere deserves to be European City of Culture, it’s Dundee. It has hauled itself out of a 100-year slumber with a visionary redevelopment plan, and investment worth £128m and 16,000 jobs would have cemented its destination status.
News that Dundee’s hopes of European recognition for its revival had been dashed provoked a flash of misdirected anger, even from neutral and pro-EU commentators in Remain-voting Scotland. In less heated circumstances, I suspect they would advise anyone entering a competition – read the rules first.
For European City of Culture, they couldn’t be clearer: only EU, European Economic Area (EEA) or EFTA members and accession candidates can apply.
The rules are broad and flexible enough for Turkey, whose zombie accession talks have been kept alive in a spirit of cooperation at the EU’s expense for decades, to play the game.
But the decision to leave the single market and customs union means that by 2023, the UK cannot. This was no secret, and the uncertainty of Dundee’s position was written into its bid document. Yet reports suggest the Department of Culture, Media and Sport ignored warnings from UK officials in Brussels about the consequences, and as recently as this month, the Prime Minister was telling MPs asking for her personal endorsement that everything would be fine.
If there is blame, it belongs to Whitehall. You can’t leave the club and still expect to win the president’s Christmas raffle.
You can’t slam the door on your way out then ask for the rules to be re-written. These are basic principles. It’s easy to get tangled in the detail of World Trade Organisation tariffs and EU directives, but the lesson here is one that primary school pupils would recognise: actions have consequences.
We expect basic responsibility from our leaders, but it is a value that has been utterly absent from the political upheavals in the countries that once led the world, the United States and the UK. Until it’s once again safe to hold our leaders to the same standards as children, we will be left to clean up the same messes.