Brexit and the ghosts of Ireland’s past

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The ghosts of Ireland’s past, present and future could well land on the negotiation table again by Christmas next year at a crucial point before exit day, writes Melanie Sully. [Stuart Caie / Flickr]

Negotiations in Northern Ireland have a law of their own. The Good Friday Agreement came about after months of painstaking diplomacy between London, Belfast and Dublin. Brexit will be no different, writes Dr Melanie Sully.

Dr Sully is a British political scientist and director of the Vienna-based Institute for Go-Governance. The original German version of this article is accessible on the Wiener Zeitung.

It was always the Irish Question that dogged London. For a time the Scots stole the international headlines but that was a mere sideshow. Now, the ghosts of Ireland’s past return to haunt the Brexit negotiations. It was Ireland’s break with a Union in the 1920s that accelerated the diminished influence of Great Britain, a process that continued in the post-war period.

Negotiations in Northern Ireland have a law of their own. The Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement came about through months of painstaking diplomacy. Very often it seemed all was lost.

Tony Blair noted the culture of opposition in the politics of Northern Ireland. If one side supported Israel then in principle the other side would vow loyalty to the Palestinian cause. And so in Brexit, if Dublin looks like winning too much, Belfast for sure will put a spanner in the works.

Article 50 to start the Brexit process was triggered, with the support of the Labour Party, and opened the way for the EU guidelines. Nothing in Article 50 bounds the EU to stipulate three conditions but it chose to go down this route and dragged Ireland onto the negotiation table knowing full well that Belfast had no functioning government.

The UK accepted reluctantly in the hope that it could reach agreement on money and at some point come back to Ireland once the trade relations with the EU were clearer. No such luck especially after the appearance of a relatively unknown party, the Democratic Unionist Party jumped into the Downing Street driving seat.

As if that was not enough, we have a weak and unstable minority government in Dublin that desperately needs to show that it is in control.

With the EU mantra “all for one and one for all, united we stand, divided we fall”, Ireland became the biggest stumbling block in the negotiations to date. Dublin has a window of opportunity that it will lose once the trade talks start. But if at the end of the day a mixed agreement on trade is forged then the national and some regional parliaments will have to sign off the deal.

Before going any further the EU and London should agree to take the question of citizens’ rights out of the conundrum. The agreement reached on this so far could be guaranteed and not hinge on the fate of Ireland or money. Millions of EU citizens have suffered enough uncertainty through no fault of their own.

As for Ireland, it is clear that the UK in the future will be a Union of different speeds. Scotland and Wales could also choose to retain conformity with EU law in those areas for which they have autonomy. This could work in regions where a modicum of consensus and stability prevails but this is absent in Northern Ireland. Greater decentralisation or federalism requires robust political institutions that are simply absent in Belfast.

The EU tied in Ireland too early into the Brexit process, contributing to the current mess. The ghosts of Ireland’s past, present and future could well land on the negotiation table again by Christmas next year at a crucial point before exit day.