Dublin is in denial about Brexit – Irish politicians urgently need to adopt a new Brexit strategy

Dublin is in denial about Brexit – Irish politicians urgently need to adopt a new Brexit strategy

Brexit and the Irish question have together brought about some unexpected anomalies. On the one hand, Sinn Fein, the once anti-European party, is now made up of arch-Europhiles. Its members made a gamble that the UK would vote to Remain and that they would be on the right side of the argument post-June 2016. That backfired when the UK voted to Leave. The same party that wants Irish unity peculiarly supports partition in Spain. On the other hand, unionist farmers across Northern Ireland, who according to some benefited most from the European subsidy package, strongly voted in favour of Brexit.

Unionists in general, whose very state is defined by partition, have been adamant that Brexit will protect the soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Meanwhile, nationalist parties North and South have been vocally complaining about a hard border that has not arrived and is unlikely to appear unless the Republic of Ireland really wants it.

The most negatively politicised arguments currently rage around the issue of the border and the attitudes toward it. The dispute has been so divisive. Rather than reasonable dialogue about trade and free movement, an agenda appears to be in place to make the matter unsolvable and as divisive as possible – for no apparent reason other than to score cheap political and ideological points.

The fact is that there is a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Smuggling along this border has been occurring ever since price and product differentials made it worthwhile, and no matter what the political arrangements, there will be those prepared to take advantage of the border for illicit trade. The entire might of the army, police and customs officers both during and after the Troubles have been unequal to the task of stopping the smugglers’ activities, and frankly I don’t see that changing fast.

On the practical point of border policing and customs arrangements: is the Republic of Ireland seriously telling us that, at the bidding of the EU post-Brexit, it will erect a physical border with customs posts, security posts and all the other apparatus? The UK has no interest in building such a division, either along the border or at certain key roads. But if the EU and the Republic are going to proceed, most unionists will smile a bemused smile and say ‘go right ahead and build that wall’.

The opportunity to craft the reality of Brexit into a business advantage appears to be lost on the politicians of the Republic of Ireland. They have adopted a policy of shouting at the border – and the louder they shout, the more attention they draw to the utter impotence of their position. Denying the border’s existence is not an option for anyone. However, shouting about how bad Brexit is for the border is neither a strategy nor a political philosophy nor, for that matter, a coherent policy of how to deal with what is occurring.

Politicians in the Republic would do well to learn from what has happened in Gibraltar. Its citizens voted massively to Remain. Yet instead of complaining about the negative impact of this for Gibraltarians, the Chief Minister and his team have chosen to turn the situation into massive gains for Gibraltar and to put the minds of the people in sync with those of the British people so that they equally gain. If you like, he has achieved a special place in the relationship without demanding special status. Gibraltarians are now enthusiastic because their political authorities have demonstrated leadership and their business community is following enthusiastically and with confidence.

In contrast, the Republic of Ireland is in total denial about Brexit. It is happening – and fast – and the Republic needs to adopt is a much more realistic position. Demanding that the UK cede territorial and constitutional ground – by excluding a piece of its territory, namely Northern Ireland, from Brexit in a so-called special status deal – is not the answer. Rather, the Republic should be seeking from the EU26 a special status for itself.

Given that over 60 percent of the Republic’s goods and services are traded with the UK and that a significant proportion of the remainder are traded with the USA, it is the Republic that requires a special status within the EU. In fact, the Republic could play things to its advantage by arguing that in the post-Brexit EU, it should be the lynchpin in the relationship between the EU26 and the UK. But it has so far failed even to recognise that it needs to change tactics, let alone adopt a strategy to milk Brexit for all it is worth. It’s actually quite depressing, as the Irish politician and businessperson have always been adept at turning disadvantage to advantage.

But in this matter they have failed to grasp the potential. I would go further and say they don’t appear to have the necessary tools in their political toolbox any more. Their leaders have, instead of leading, become complacent in using a compliment-style management. As a result, they just agree with the other 26 instead of recognising that they will suffer most from a Brexit that’s badly managed by the EU.

Although the Republic won what it thought was an early success in having the border on centre stage of the negotiations, the issue is now an albatross around the neck, choking progressive political conversation about the nature of the new relationship. In-depth conversations and negotiations about the trading relationship, which is the most important platform to the Republic of Ireland, are thus being avoided.

It is about time that the Irish allowed a new national conversation to begin and that they at least considered what it would be like to exit the EU along with the UK. Given that the lion’s share of the Republic’s trade is so wrapped up with the UK, it is irresponsible for such a conversation to be stifled.