Unlocking the Irish Puzzle – The American Prospect
For most of this year, Great Britain has been paralyzed, trying to negotiate and renegotiate its Brexit withdrawal deal and transition plan. Despite numerous votes in Parliament—followed by numerous historic defeats—nothing has been agreed on yet, in part because of the deal’s largest stumbling block: Northern Ireland. The territory occupies an uneasy middle ground, literally sharing an island and culture with a European Union member state (the Republic of Ireland), yet politically speaking, part of the Brexiting United Kingdom.
A period called the Troubles refers to the decades of violence and thousands of deaths between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Irish Ambassador to the United States Daniel Mulhall began his career in foreign service more than 40 years ago chronicling the Troubles in press releases. Mulhall told the Prospect that he remembers late nights in the Irish Foreign Ministry press office being tasked with writing up the news of the most recent fatalities.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement between the U.K. and Ireland, brokered by the United States, outlined the peace that governs the island today. Despite being separate countries, the Republic and Northern Ireland co-exist without any hard border between them. Both the Irish and the Brits live, work, and socialize harmoniously on both sides of the metaphorical border, with room for politics of both the Irish nationalists and the unionists.
But the agreement makes explicit references to the U.K.’s and Ireland’s shared regulations through their respective memberships in the European Union, raising questions about the nature of the border after Brexit. Resolving this has confounded negotiators for years after the British vote to leave the EU.
Parliament rejected former Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan, which included the infamous “Irish backstop.” While it avoided a hard border, it would bind Northern Ireland to most of the rules of the European Single Market as long as no long-term trade agreement between the EU and U.K. is reached. Critics of this plan believed it isolated Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom, which was a nonstarter for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and many Conservatives.
When May stepped down this summer, it seemed there would be no other solution, until just weeks before the last Brexit deadline, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson met with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, the Republic’s prime minister. “It’s not a surprise that when they found a deal it was when Varadkar and Johnson got away from the cameras and the press for a couple of hours,” Mulhall says.
The new plan prevents a hard border on the island of Ireland by economically positioning Northern Ireland in both the European Single Market as well as the British Customs Union. Northern Ireland therefore would become the beneficiary of the British government’s anticipated new free-trade agreements while maintaining the benefits of free trade with the rest of the European Union. Economists see this agreement as a huge economic advantage to Northern Ireland over the rest of the EU-exiting U.K. Mulhall agrees. “Certain investment might well settle in Northern Ireland,” he says, but “with the difficult 50-year history they’ve had, I don’t think anyone would begrudge Northern Ireland that advantage.”
The New York Times called Varadkar and Johnson’s one-on-one diplomacy an “adrenaline shot” for Brexit. It’s representative of the type of diplomatic efforts that have improved relations between the two countries, and will be necessary for the U.K. to continue after Brexit. “For the last 45 years, officials from the U.K. and Ireland sat in Brussels discussing the same issues and finding themselves on the same page and often supporting each other,” Mulhall says. He adds that there were also always bilateral meetings “away from the glare of cameras” in Brussels.
Before moving to the U.S. in 2016, Mulhall helped orchestrate the first state visit of an Irish president to the United Kingdom. This was just three years after Queen Elizabeth II made the first-ever visit as a reigning monarch to Ireland, invited by then-President Mary McAleese.
This direct diplomacy was mirrored in the Johnson/Varadkar agreement, a success for a British prime minister who said he would “rather die in a ditch” than budge on his Brexit views. However, it was not enough to close out Brexit’s unfinished business. The DUP voted against Johnson’s deal, continuing to insist that it would divide the Union. Contrary to the economic received wisdom, DUP members of Parliament believe the deal would make Northern Ireland an economic colony of the EU, living under separate rules than the rest of the United Kingdom.
Leader of the DUP Arlene Foster said that Johnson’s deal was “fundamentally wrong” and was the “wrong direction” for Northern Ireland at her party conference in September. And in October, her party withheld support for the deal, voting against its Second Reading and its Programme. Despite being in a coalition with the Conservatives, Foster’s party showed how powerful its ten votes are in Parliament and essentially forced Prime Minister Johnson to accept an extension from the European Union to hold a new general election.
The other 27 member states of the EU agreed to the extension, despite previously rigid statements in opposition. Ireland’s voice in EU 27 on Brexit is especially important because it’s Ireland that would likely feel the first negative effects of a No Deal Brexit. It’s possible that Johnson’s direct-diplomacy effort with Ireland made the difference in the attitudes for the rest of the EU. There was some hesitation from France to grant the extension, but, Mulhall says, President Emmanuel Macron’s vote to grant the extension was a show of solidarity for the remaining member states.
Britain’s slow withdrawal has also raised questions about the possibilities of a revival of the Troubles. The lack of a functioning government in Northern Ireland has caused problems for almost three years, and the stuttering progress on a Brexit resolution hasn’t helped ease the uncertainty.
In June, a domestic terrorist group, called the New IRA, killed a journalist with a stray bullet and planted bombs meant to hurt police officers. Mulhall dismisses the terrorist groups, saying they should not be dignified with a response. “They’re a very small group of people [and] they have exploited the political vacuum,” he says. “I don’t see Northern Ireland teetering on the brink of violence in any way. My priority and the priority of Ireland is to maintain peace … tensions still exist, but probably a couple hundred lives have been saved through the Good Friday Agreement.”
The U.K. is now in the middle of a general election campaign with the results for Brexit depending on the outcome. But what is clear is that the U.K.’s post-Brexit priority should be diplomacy with other nations, particularly within the EU after this three-year strain. Mulhall calls himself a generalist, thanks to Ireland’s relatively small foreign-service unit, after serving in posts around the world: from India to the United States to Brussels and Malaysia—and a trip to China in 1980 when the country was still isolated from most of the Western world. He’s seen the power of diplomacy, and when it comes to the U.K.’s future with Ireland and the rest of the EU, he looks back not nostalgically, as some politicians in the West today do, but instead at the tools that work.