A solution to the border question is possible with a little imagination
As WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman observed in their great satire on English history 1066 and All That, every time William Gladstone almost guessed the answer to the Irish question, he found the Irish had secretly changed it.
This time round, by voting to leave the EU, it is the British who have suddenly changed the question, and the consequences for their smaller neighbour are potentially very damaging.
These days Ireland has a cheerful, positive image. Having been traditionally conservative, it acquired a new pride in itself in the mid-1990s that survived recession and austerity after 2008. Close relationships between British and Irish politicians and diplomats made them allies over the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that put a virtual stop to terrorism.
And the buoyant self-confidence of Ireland’s cosmopolitan young led to its enthusiastic adoption of a progressive agenda: in 2015 it embraced single-sex marriage, and, in June, elected a half-Indian 38-year-old gay man as their Taoiseach.
Leo Varadkar has had a friendly relationship with Arlene Foster, leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party, and dislikes Sinn Féin, which is why there is surprise as well as alarm in Downing Street at his government’s recent change in tone over reinstating the Stormont power-sharing executive, which was brought down in January by Sinn Féin, who are blocking a deal by constantly adding to their demands for what they call a “rights-based society”.
The Brexit vote has exacerbated divisions. The DUP backed Leave and Sinn Féin, which has opposed the EU since Ireland’s accession in 1973, did a volte face for electoral reasons and backed Remain. Not only are the vast majority of the electorate of the Republic (where Sinn Féin hopes to be in coalition after another general election) fervently pro-EU, but Northern Ireland voted 56 per cent for Remain, with 88 per cent of those identifying as nationalists voting Remain as against 34 per cent of unionists. Unfortunately, Northern Ireland has a border with Ireland which meanders for 310 miles and raises old spectres of customs posts.
The previous Taoiseach, the 66-year-old Enda Kenny, was less clever and articulate than his successor, but he was experienced and wily, as well as accommodating, and was given to defusing rather than exacerbating tension. With Anglo-Irish relations better than they had ever been, Brexit came as a shock to the Irish government, but Mr Kenny set out to be constructive by initiating work on electronic border technology that Mr Varadkar then cancelled.
Mr Varadkar seems not to have done much homework on either Northern Ireland or Brexit, and he is lumbered with a foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who lost to him in the election for the leadership of the Fine Gael party, which governs with the aid of a handful of independents and a confidence-and-supply arrangement with Fianna Fáil.
For reasons to do with Ireland’s complex electoral system of proportional representation and multi-seat constituencies, Mr Coveney keeps a nervous eye on the competition and courts the green vote, which has caused him to push a nationalist agenda and make bellicose statements about Brexit that Mr Varadkar began to echo.
On Wednesday, Mr Coveney chose a Northern Ireland business breakfast to emphasise what had previously been hinted at: that Ireland is right behind EU negotiators in refusing to go to the next stage of the talks without progress on the rights of EU citizens, the financial settlement and the border. It is prepared to use its veto if necessary, and, for now is insisting that the border should be somewhere in the Irish Sea, leaving Northern Ireland de facto still in the EU.
Apart from being anathema to unionists, as Ray Bassett, a rare dissenting voice among retired senior Irish diplomats, put it, “the demand that Britain will be economically dismembered, with the North staying in the customs union while the rest of Britain goes its own way, is universally seen as undeliverable by any British government”.
The UK accounts for 14 per cent of Irish exports and 25 per cent of Irish imports and there is additionally a high volume of services trade between the two countries. What people like Mr Bassett and Graham Gudgin of the think-tank Policy Exchange point out is that trade with Britain as a whole is infinitely more important to Ireland than that with Northern Ireland in particular.
Therefore the focus should be on working towards a free-trade Brexit. It is foolish to endanger the mutually beneficial British-Irish relationship for the sake of currying favour with the European Commission, which has a short way with small countries when they get in its way — as Greece can testify. Remembering how the commission backed the European Central Bank’s insistence that the Irish taxpayer should pay all the senior bondholders of the banks, Ireland should recognise that if the EU decides to harmonise corporation tax, it will push it through even if that devastates the Irish economy.
Messrs Bassett and Gudgin, and a recent report from the Legatum Institute, a think-tank, argue that the British and Irish should be working closely together to come up with technical and legal solutions to the problems posed by the border. The two countries are intertwined and Irish anglophobia is mostly limited to Sinn Féin. The nightmare scenario is that, while the DUP props up the British government, Sinn Féin becomes part of the government in Ireland. Now that would certainly change the Irish question.