Skip to main content

The Brexiteers in the Tory cabinet are shrugging off the collapse in the pound. After all, sterling has been through crises before. It will take more than short selling by a few avaricious hedge fund managers to stop the tide of English nationalism, they reckon.

However, what the Brexit clan may not have bargained for was that other nationalist tribe: the Irish.

Northern Ireland, finally at peace after decades of civil strife, is becoming the Achilles heel of the Brexit project. The once-troubled province voted by a 56 per cent majority to remain in the European Union. The six counties of the North, which remain part of the United Kingdom, have prospered greatly, like the rest of the island, from EU membership and there is now mounting anxiety that the peace between Catholic nationalists and Protestant Unionists won in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement could be torn apart by a nationalist rebellion in England.

Story continues below advertisement

The main issue is the border, some 450 meandering kilometres straddled by fields, farms and villages. Today, it is barely visible but during almost four decades of near civil war, the border with the Republic was patrolled by gun-toting British squaddies and armoured cars, and overlooked by watchtowers.

No one in Ireland wants to go back to that place of terror, fratricide and assassination. Trade between the Republic and the entire United Kingdom has expanded over the past three decades, and Northern Ireland has been transformed from a ghettoized and impoverished backwater into a tourist destination.

Yet, Brexit has created a terrible dilemma: The hard line adopted by the government toward the Brexit negotiations in Brussels, due to kick off in March, indicates that Britain will do whatever is necessary to take back control of immigration. That means border controls for people. And if, as seems likely, the United Kingdom falls out of the Single Market, a hard border with customs and tariffs will be re-erected between the Republic and the North.

In Dublin, there is mounting panic. The Taoiseach Enda Kenny (Ireland's prime minister) campaigned vigorously before the referendum, urging the million or so Irish residents in the United Kingdom to vote against Brexit. Sein Fein, the Irish nationalist party, is now campaigning for a "border poll" that would effectively reunite Ireland, a referendum that would no doubt be fought viciously by diehard unionists. Over the last few weeks, Westminster has woken up to the hideous truth: Popular discontent in the English shires with central government encouraged the poor and the disillusioned to lash out against Westminster and Brussels. In so doing, the careless or reckless English rebels have kicked over an Irish hornet's nest.

The Tory government insists that the existing rights of the Irish will be guaranteed, but how? English Protestants colonized Ireland in the 16th century and for more than 400 years, bloodily suppressed nationalist rebellion until a peace treaty in 1921 created the Irish Free State. The six counties of Northern Ireland where Protestants were then a majority remained part of the United Kingdom. Since then, legislation by successive British governments has guaranteed that the Irish could move freely to and from Britain and even vote in United Kingdom elections.

It's entirely unclear how such a guarantee of the status quo will work post-Brexit. Britain's insistence that Ireland is a special case was trumpeted this week by the U.K. Northern Ireland Secretary of State who claimed that Brexit would not undo Britain's obligations under the Good Friday Treaty.

Meanwhile, the Taoiseach is bending the ear of Michel Barnier, the European Union's Brexit Commissioner, who was in Dublin this week on a whistle-stop tour of EU capitals, gauging member state opinion about the coming negotiations. This is key: Whatever deal emerges from Brexit, it must be approved by every member state and if Ireland gets a special deal, that too must have the approbation of the 27 remaining EU governments. Even if Mr. Barnier should agree, it seems doubtful that Poland, Romania and the other eastern states will be content with Ireland getting instant employment rights in the United Kingdom, while their own citizens go to the back of the queue.

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Kenny will have been at pains to explain to Mr. Barnier why Ireland was special with its Common Travel Area, major trading links and historic ties with Britain. But there is more: the Good Friday Agreement created a constitutional guarantee that everyone born in Northern Ireland or who can claim a parent born in the province, has a right to claim both British or Irish nationality, or both.

What this means, in effect, is that everyone in Northern Ireland has a right to be a citizen of the European Union, by virtue of their guarantee of Irish nationality. Several constitutional challenges to Brexit have already been launched in the courts in Northern Ireland, arguing that Brexit is in violation of the 1998 Northern Ireland settlement.

Meanwhile, Westminster and Dublin are tying themselves up in knots trying to sort out how Britain will defend its new "hard" border with the European Union while maintaining an open border with the Republic. Hackles are already rising in Dublin over the leak that the Irish government may be discussing the installation of a "proxy" British border at Ireland's airports and ports. Ireland already acts as an external border for the United Kingdom where non-EU transit travellers are concerned. But the idea that French or German travellers would be vetted as potentially suspicious aliens at Dublin airport, to satisfy Britain's desire to control migrants, is politically untenable, if not more powder for the keg.

For Ireland, resurgent English nationalism is more than a ghastly irony; it is a reckless political gamble that is about to open a wound that everyone thought healed. The whole of Europe may live to regret it.

Carl Mortished is a Canadian financial journalist based in London.

Report an error
About the Author

Carl Mortished is a Canadian financial journalist and freelance consultant based in the U.K. With a career spanning investment banking, journalism and consulting for global companies, he was for many years a financial writer and columnist for The Times of London. More

Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨