From Strategic Culture
Brexit and Ireland
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Call it poetic justice, or plain old natural justice. For centuries, Ireland has always been on the receiving end of Britain's collateral damage from its imperial intrigues. Now, however, Ireland could have the last laugh as Britain wades further into a quagmire of trouble over the Brexit debacle to leave the European Union.
Irish sentiments on both sides of the border within that small island country are clamoring for special status which would de facto create an island-of-Ireland unity. A country which would in effect be independent from British rule and moving closer towards the long-held aspiration of Irish nationalists and republicans for a united Ireland, distinct from the rest of Britain.
As Britain stumbles towards its eventual departure from the EU scheduled for March 2019, the historic break raises special problems for Ireland. Northern Ireland, which is under British jurisdiction, will be obliged to follow the Brexit path of quitting the EU, while the Republic of Ireland will of course remain an EU member. That potentially creates the unique scenario of an EU border being imposed on the island, separating the Northern and Southern territories.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of indicators showing that most people on the island of Ireland, North and South, want the continuation of a "soft border" arrangement which has existed since the signing of a landmark peace deal in 1998 to end decades of conflict. This makes sense from an economic and cultural point of view since the ease of transport and travel is a vital daily convenience. This has become ever-more the case in recent years to the point where there are no visible signs of two different jurisdictions. For example, a motorway now links the northern city of Belfast to Dublin and Cork, in the far south, in a seamless corridor. Elsewhere in rural areas, people criss-cross easily like birds on the wing as if there is no border. In effect, Ireland has become closer to being one country, as would seem to be the natural order of things on an island with centuries of a distinct and common Celtic culture.
However, if the British government's negotiations with the EU continue on their present rocky path, there are real fears that a so-called "hard Brexit" will bring about a return of the hard border in Ireland which existed before and during the recent conflict up until 1998, when the Good Friday Peace Accord was signed.
Hardline Brexiteers within Theresa May's Conservative government cabinet are pushing for an abrupt break with the European Union. Ministers like Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, and the international trade secretary, Liam Fox, want to quit the EU altogether and pursue a vision of Britain as a global trading buccaneer nation.
Other British ministers, and many British citizens, as well the opposition Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn, and business leaders, would prefer a "soft Brexit" where Britain still remains part of the European single market and customs union. It would have to pay a fee for such membership and accept Brussels' rules on EU citizens' rights in an arrangement similar to that existing for Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.
A "soft Brexit" would leave the situation in Ireland much as it is today, where movement of goods and people is seamless without regulatory controls.
The trouble is that achieving a soft Brexit is far from certain. There are numerous signs that the EU and its chief negotiator on the matter Michel Barnier are becoming increasingly exasperated with London over its bumbling and incoherent stance.
British premier Theresa May faces a tough summit next month at the European Council in Brussels, at which the other 27 member states are to decide whether negotiations can proceed to substantive talks on the final trade deal with the EU.
May's government is expected to show progress in commitment on three issues: a divorce bill with the EU; the guarantee of EU citizens' rights in a post-Brexit Britain; and guarantees to uphold the soft border situation in Ireland.
The London government has so far dithered on all three issues. On the divorce bill, Theresa May last week, after months of wrangling, finally doubled the British offer of paying Brussels 40 billion (45 billion). This is still way short of what the EU is demanding at around 60 billion. But the financial outlay has infuriated the hardline Brexiteers in her cabinet like Johnson who at one time arrogantly said the EU can "go whistle" -- meaning, accept no payment at all.
On the Irish question, the British government has also shown an arrogant complacency. Last weekend, international trade minister Liam Fox asserted that London would give no commitment to the nature of the border in Ireland until a final deal with the EU was signed.
"We cannot come to a final answer on the Irish question until we get an idea of the end state [with the EU]," Fox told British media.
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