It’s just 8.30 am as I write, and already I’ve stumbled over two statements by important people about Brexit and Ireland.
The first was Kenneth Clarke, the Tory MP and open Remainer. He was on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme, and he was listing the reasons for Britain staying in the customs union. He talked for about five minutes and then, near the end of his interview, he said “But most of all, staying in the customs union matters because of Brexit’s possible damage to the Good Friday Agreement. Just when the Irish question had been resolved, along comes Brexit and the risk of endangering that resolution.” John Humphries accused him of being “very naughty” for raising the GFA at the very end of the interview, when time had run out. Clarke, in his usual cheerful way, told Humphries not to worry, there’d be lots on the Good Friday Agreement inside the next couple of months.
As he so often is, Ken Clarke is right and wrong. He’s wrong about the Good Friday Agreement having resolved the ‘Irish question’. Not by a long chalk. The GFA gave us relative peace and that’s a very precious legacy we forget at our peril. But it’s not the end of the ‘Irish question’. Ken and all his Tory colleagues, as well as Jeremy Corbyn and all his fractious MPs, know that only one thing will resolve the Irish question, and it’s not the Good Friday Agreement. But he’s right to point to the possible economic havoc (and maybe worse) if May sticks to her refusal to stay in the customs union.
The second Brexit comment came from Micheál Martin. In the Irish Times, he’s reported thus:
“A rising concern is that Ireland is now being pushed later and later in the negotiations – leaving a real risk that we will face enormous pressure to accept whatever is proposed so that the financial settlement with the UK will not be lost.”
I don’t always agree with Micheál but he’s right on this one. Of course he’s keen to locate any possible point of difference between his party and Fine Gael, because they’re busy disengaging from their cosy relationship with FG in advance of the next general election in the south. But he’s right, even if it is for the wrong reasons. How long ago was it that we were told the Irish border was one of three items requiring addressing before any progress could be made in trade talk with Britain? Months and months and months ago. Yet here we are, apparently, with trade talks rattling on between the UK and the EU. If the fate of the Irish is all that stands between an otherwise satisfactory deal between the UK and the EU, will the EU honour its talk of back-stops and a resolution of the Irish borer question being being necessary, otherwise all bets are off?
Not a chance. Micheál Martin as I say is intent on decoupling from his erstwhile buddies in the FG government; but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong about the Irish border question. It has been kicked down the road repeatedly, and we know that the possibility of the Irish government being able to defend it, shrinks with the passage of every week.
So yes, the Irish border/the Good Friday Agreement are very very important to us. The south and the EU agreed that except a better resolution was arrived at, the Irish border would be a barrier to any arrangements for the UK’s exit from the EU. Let’s all light a blessed candle that Ken Clarke is right and that it will finally and comprehensively be dealt with inside the next few months. Because if it’s not, we’re facing into a mess that won’t be all economic.