Our nearest neighbour has every right to be angry about the damage about to be inflicted on it, writes Joyce McMillan
It’s one of the paradoxes of urban architecture in these islands that the Irish capital, Dublin, is in some ways the most British-looking city of them all.
Its mixture of brick-built Georgian domestic architecture, grand grey public buildings, and tree-lined autumn streets, often recalls London with a surprising sharpness; and while the green post-boxes and Irish-language signs act as constant reminders that this is not England, there’s never a moment’s doubt that we are in the isles once called British, in a place whose very street names still speak of a long shared history, as well as of the moment of schism that led to Ireland’s independence, 95 years ago.
So it’s perhaps not surprising that the shockwaves of Britain’s Brexit decision, last June, seem to be felt even more strongly here than they are within the UK. Like Scotland, Ireland is a small country hugely dependent on trade with its large neighbour; and in the last decade – following the financial crisis, and the end of Ireland’s “Celtic Tiger” years of massively increasing prosperity - the country has undergone a harsh education in the 21st century limits of national sovereignty, in times of financial stress.
So the last time I visited Dublin’s International Theatre Festival, two years ago, I saw a powerful play about the moment, back in 2010, when the Irish government had to accept the arrival in its corridors of EU and IMF officials sent to enforce not only general financial discipline, but specific policy proposals, from cutting rural bus services to raising prescription charges. And this time, I found a nation hugely preoccupied – to the extent of reports in every news bulletin I heard – with the question of what on earth is going to happen to Ireland’s huge trade across the Irish Sea, at the moment in 2019 when the UK leaves, or crashes out of, the European Union. A total of 47 per cent of Ireland’s agricultural and food exports go to the UK; and estimates suggest that total UK-Irish trade could decrease by more than 20 per cent if there is a reversion to World Trade Organisation rules and tariffs, knocking a huge hole in Ireland’s gradual but increasingly impressive economic recovery.
And all this is to say nothing of the key concerns surrounding the border with Northern Ireland, which has become one of the main stumbling-blocks in the current Brexit negotiations. When the British media report on the pronouncements of Michel Barnier, and on the three matters that must be resolved before Britain can begin to strike a new EU trade deal, they always give the impression that the key difference is about Britain’s so-called “divorce bill”, a subject which makes for juicy anti-EU headlines.
The fact is, though, that 16 months on from the Brexit vote, the UK has still failed completely on both of the other outstanding issues, neither offering a basic guarantee on the rights of EU citizens living here, or producing anything resembling a credible plan for the Irish border following Brexit. There were good reasons why Ireland and the UK, with their economies so tightly interlinked, joined the EU together, on 1 January 1973. And yet now, just a few years after the Queen’s historic 2011 visit to Dublin seemed to mark a new era of ever-closer partnership between the two nations, the British government and people have committed a huge act of betrayal against our nearest neighbour and ally, by unilaterally taking a step that will almost certainly inflict major economic and political damage on the whole island of Ireland, for the foreseeable future.
The Irish, in other words, have every right to be angry; angry with David Cameron for calling the referendum without consultation in a failed attempt to settle an internal Tory spat; angry with the abysmal level of debate during a campaign in which Ireland and its peace process was barely mentioned; angry with the constitutional ineptitude which allowed such a vast historic decision to be made by such a risibly narrow margin, and on such a demonstrably false prospectus. Morally, the Irish premier Leo Varadkar would be justified in doing everything in his power to block, delay and veto the moment of Brexit; and it’s likely that a huge, currently unrepresented chunk of British voters – those who never wanted Brexit in the first place, and for whom neither Labour nor Tory leaderships will speak – would wish him every success in doing so.
In a sense, though, the betrayal of our Irish allies entailed in the Brexit shambles is only one aspect, if an outstandingly important one, of the general betrayal of common sense, and of our shared futures, that characterises the whole Brexit process. I suppose it’s hardly surprising that a 21st century Brexit campaign based on 19th century fantasies of British power and sovereignty should fail to reckon with the recent history of that part of these islands which has had to learn most, and most rapidly, about the limits of modern sovereignty, and about the sophisticated, multi-layered quality of modern identity; we in Scotland, after all, have already been given an unpleasant crash course in just how much the UK government cares about our 62 per cent vote to remain, or about the general idea of diversity enshrined in the devolution settlement.
Even those who care nothing for Ireland or Scotland, though, should be wary of a process based on such a careless trampling of the peaceful and nuanced political structures, both internal and external, that have been built up over the decades since the Second World War. For half a century, those evolving structures – in various forms – have been creating and sustaining the peaceful reality in which most of us in this country have lived; and we have increasingly been able to take them for granted. Now, though, on both sides of the Atlantic, a form of simplistic retro-nationalism has been unleashed which actively wants to tear those structures down, almost regardless of the consequences. The danger to all of us, as human beings and citizens, is palpable, already visible in our looming loss of EU rights; and if Ireland is the first and most obvious victim of Britain’s Brexit folly, it most certainly will not be the last.