As I write, the latest version of the Good Friday Settlement is struggling for breath, half way between death and an existence dependent on one of those respirators that have become all too familiar in these Covid-ridden days.
I am tempted to say that I told you so, and now I have. If this collapse in Belfast takes hold it will be because of a fatal but foreseeable error in the post-Brexit architecture insisted upon by Europe, with the eager support of Dublin and, to a lesser extent, London.
The choice was between two models. One was to regard Northern Ireland as part and parcel of the UK’s non-membership of the EU, in which customs controls would approximate to the political border between North and South. The other was what we ended up with: no customs border on land, but at some mythical, invisible point in the Irish Sea, and the North, a part of an all-island set up.
I needn’t spell out the politics of this to most of my readers. It was a pro-Nationalist solution and everyone could see that, especially the Unionists. But of course it wasn’t sold like that at the time. Instead the Irish government summoned up ghosts from the Troubles and warned that establishing Europe’s Border in Ireland would remind people of partition, provoke republican hardliners and nourish a renaissance of republican violence. Remember Leo Varadkar’s trip to Europe, his briefcase stuffed with scary photographs of the IRA bombing of Newry customs station way back in the 1970’s’.
This is what we could return to, warned the bold Leo, if we re-erect a land border in Ireland. Europe agreed, the Brits went along and we ended up with an arrangement which, because it had been erected at the urging of Irish nationalists, would always be opposed by Unionists.
If that was the real plan, and the name of the game was to stick one into the Unionists, then fine; be honest about it. But in this debate, honesty had been in short supply,
At the core of the Varadkar proposition was a claim that it was the Border that had fueled the Troubles, when all the evidence was that while the Border certainly facilitated conflict, Unionist misbehavior was the real culprit. It is a cliche but true nonetheless: had Unionists reached out, as Captain Terence O’Neill urged them to do, and won the support of their Catholic neighbours way back in the 1960’s, it is very possible the Troubles would never have happened and the Border would hardly have mattered.
In this context the Brexit solution that was chosen has brought Northern Ireland to a different crisis. With the theoretical Border now somewhere in the Irish Sea, the absence of a land border serves to underline Unionists sense of insecurity and has led, inevitably, to yesterday’s resignations at Stormont. Putting Humpty together again will be, to put it mildly, a challenge.
The fault in the analysis and what it says about the South’s political understanding of the Provos – and the North – makes depressing reading. For Leo Varadkar to be correct then one would have to argue that people joined the IRA in Ballymurphy, the Short Strand and Andersonstown not because they had just had their heads kicked in by Paras, but because they had caught a glimpse of a barrier straddling a Border road.
To my mind, that’s a flimsy basis for such a big bet.