Early on Monday morning it seemed as if several months of torturous negotiations between Dublin, Brussels and London had paid off, with all the parties to the discussions ready to sign an agreement over the contentious future status of the United Kingdom’s legacy colony in Ireland. The President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, was meeting with his chief negotiator Michel Barnier and the representative of the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, breezily pledging a “fair deal” for all. David Davis, representing Britain, was in equally optimistic form, smiling for the cameras.
Then came an ill-timed leak published by RTÉ at 11.16 am, claiming that the UK was ready to concede to a key Irish request, and would maintain “regulatory alignment” between the British-administered Six Counties and the rest of the island. In other words, the north-east of the country would continue to have access to the European Union’s single market and customs union if Britain agreed to clone EU regulations in bespoke rules for the disputed region. Rules eventually overseen – and “legitimatised” – by the local, power-sharing assembly and executive at Stormont, should both be restored. This would effectively guarantee no re-imposition of partition or a “Brexit frontier” around the colonial holdout in the north.
According to Irish sources, this “soft border/no border” compromise was a done deal, the final text distributed and approved, simply requiring the United Kingdom to agree its publication so that all sides could move on with the UK’s urgent exit negotiations from the European Union. That left the news media ready for a big announcement from lunchtime onward, as optimistic preparations were made by public relations teams for a rare show of Anglo-European solidarity and good will. Then came a bizarre afternoon of frantic meetings and telephone conversations among British government officials, arguments between dissenting members of the ruling Conservative Party and cabinet in London, and a condemnatory press conference at 02.00 pm in Belfast by Arlene Foster, leader of the ultra-right Democratic Unionist Party: the small, fringe grouping now holding a parliamentary whip-hand over the minority Tory administration.
By 04.00 pm, following an emergency twenty minute phone call by the lacklustre UK prime minster, Theresa May, with the DUP boss – during which the latter apparently berated the Tory premier – the interim settlement was off the table. Much to the visible shock and dismay of negotiators in Dublin and Brussels. Within hours, London would be briefing the metropolitan press with tales of Continental and Hibernian skullduggery, blaming the whole debacle on the European Union and Ireland. Eventually, a ragbag collection of right-wing and nationalist politicians and commentators would join the misinformation campaign, singing an imperial chorus of “No Surrender!” to the Irish for British television and radio audiences during the remainder of the day.
This farce has left an Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, scrabbling to draw solace from a political and diplomatic mess. One which some critics are claiming as another example of Perfidious Albion’s untrustworthiness. Was it a trap? Was the Fine Gael leader and his EU counterparts set up by the British for a deliberate and humiliating fall as part of some elaborate negotiating trick or strategy? Or did Theresa May and her ministerial colleagues overplay their hand in their eagerness to get the “best deal” for Britain? Only to find that the Democratic Unionists were no longer willing to play ball when they saw the final wording of the historic compromise? Irish officials are insisting that a written agreement between both countries as been reached and that Britain can, at best, do no more than tinker with some of the wording before signing. Others think that the British are seeking more pliable phrasing, fine-sounding pledges with semantic get-out clauses should the need arise.
As for the DUP, it is doing a remarkable job of recreating the “Home Rule” crisis of 1912-14. At the start of the 20th century the demagogic leaders of the ethno-religious unionist minority in Ireland sought to prevent the country gaining some degree of autonomy within – or from – the United Kingdom though a mix of politics and violence. Instead of maintaining the “union” their ill-considered actions led to an electoral revolution across the island, a transformation which reduced the British colony to a segregated, northern-eastern rump, as four-fifths of the country regained its freedom from the UK.
With the current Brexit crisis, the modern representatives of the pro-union minority are blindly leading their followers down a familiar, obstructionist path which will inevitably end in the loss of that final fifth and with it several hundred years of British misrule in Ireland. Whatever may happen in the coming years and months, there is a certain satisfaction in knowing that, as with the losses nearly a century ago, political unionism is its own worse enemy.