Bad luck, Martin McGuinness: Theresa May and Arlene Foster will ensure Brexit does not lead to a united Ireland
Since Theresa May became prime minister, there have been many excited references to the coincidence of there being women running the United Kingdom and Scotland. Arlene Foster, Nicola Sturgeon’s opposite number in Northern Ireland, was ignored.
But Mrs May will get on much better with the down-to-earth, plain-speaking Mrs Foster than she ever could with the rhetorician Ms Sturgeon. It’s just as well, for as the pair noted when they met in Belfast, Brexit poses serious – though not insoluble – problems on both sides of the 317-mile Irish border.
Since Irish independence, Ireland and the UK have normally operated a Common Travel Area, though during wartime and the Troubles there were security checks. To facilitate keeping the border open between Northern Ireland and the Republic, the latter also stayed out of Schengen.
"In contrast to Ms Sturgeon, who runs what is close to a one-party state, Mrs Foster has to share power with hitherto mortal enemies"
With Brexit, however, the fear is that a new hard border will have to be put in place – on what will become our sole land frontier with the EU – to deal with tariffs and backdoor immigration.
Mrs Foster’s party, the DUP, was the only major Northern Irish party on the Leave side, which lost in the province to Remain by 56 per cent to 44 per cent. Sinn Féin, which opposed the EU until last year, got used to subsidies and therefore did a U-turn, and now insists that Northern Ireland be allowed to stay in Europe. As the post-Brexit SNP thunder on about another vote for independence, so Sinn Féin has been demanding an immediate border poll on Irish reunification.
Martin McGuinness CREDIT: JANE BARLOW/JANE BARLOW/PA WIRE
But in contrast to Ms Sturgeon, who runs what is close to a one-party state, Mrs Foster has to share power with hitherto mortal enemies: her deputy is Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, one-time IRA chief of staff. And despite comparative peace since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, unionists and nationalists are still at constitutional loggerheads.
The able Mrs Foster comes from rural Fermanagh, where community relations are good. But when she became First Minister she spoke publicly of her personal difficulties with her deputy. The IRA violence she had experienced growing up had included an attempt to kill her police-reservist father. When the gunman, Seamus McElwaine, who had murdered several Fermanagh Protestants, was shot by the SAS in 1986, Martin McGuinness had given an oration describing him as a “freedom fighter murdered by a British terrorist” and a “saint” compared to Margaret Thatcher.
None the less, Mrs Foster declared she would work with McGuinness because “the past is the past. What I want to do is to build a future that everybody in Northern Ireland can ascribe to.” She has got on with that to the best of her ability, but she stays forthright, crisply telling her political opponents that all of the UK has to go along with Brexit, and rejecting a border poll since it is required only if there is widespread support for it. (There isn’t, as only small minorities north or south have any aspirations for a united Ireland any day soon, not least because it would financially cripple the Republic.) “We have nothing to fear,” she has told nervous unionists.
"Reassuringly for the post-Brexit worriers, Anglo-Irish and north-south relations have never been better"
Mrs Foster was displeased when Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin, leader of Fianna Fáil, the next biggest Irish party, were both seduced by journalists at a public event into musing about the possibility of uniting Ireland. “That’s all very well at summer schools and what have you,” said Mrs Foster, “but I have to deal with reality and they have to be prepared for the people of Northern Ireland moving forward in this new era.”
Despite the not-an-inch reputation of unionists, it is Mrs Foster who talks of breaking new ground. “We don’t have to do things in the way we did in the past and that’s what the Brexit vote is about – something, new, something different, let’s think about all of that.”
Reassuringly for the post-Brexit worriers, Anglo-Irish and north-south relations have never been better. None of the major players wants a hard border. As Mrs May put it prosaically after her meeting with Mrs Foster and Martin McGuinness: “What we do want to do is to find a way through this that is going to work and deliver a practical solution for everybody.”
The protestations and flights of romantic fancy will die down. It’s time for the hard-headed to get down to problem-solving. Mrs May and Foster look ideally suited to the task.