Arlene Foster, Democratic Union party leader, left, and Theresa May, British prime minister © FT Montage/Getty
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In her only speech during the EU referendum campaign, Theresa May mentioned Ireland just once, saying: “We export more to Ireland than we do to China.”
Notably — although she was home secretary at the time — Mrs May did not mention the complications that Brexit would bring in the form of a new land border.
Mrs May did not elaborate on the issue much more in January of this year, when, as prime minister, she set out her Brexit objectives in a speech at Lancaster House. She simply promised to find a “practical solution as soon as we can” to the question of how to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Some Cabinet colleagues have seemed even less interested in the detail. In his 4,200-word Brexit blueprint, published in the Daily Telegraph in September, Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, did not mention Ireland at all.
Such inattention explains in part why the Irish border has become the thorniest issue holding up the first stage of Brexit talks between the UK and Brussels.
Mrs May has left it to the last minute to secure an agreement that is acceptable to both the Irish government and her own parliamentary allies, the Democratic Unionist party. Although both sides still say they are confident of a deal by the end of this week, ahead of a European Council meeting on December 14-15, the latest derailment will deepen suspicions that the UK has misjudged the Brexit process.
“It was simply a breakdown in communication and a misunderstanding between the government and the DUP,” said Andrew Murrison, a Eurosceptic Tory MP who chairs the Northern Ireland select committee.
Another Eurosceptic Conservative MP said: “There’s been far too much swagger and not enough subtlety in our dealings with the Irish Republic.”
That swagger was evident soon after last year’s EU referendum, when Brexit supporters outside the UK government suggested that Ireland should follow the UK out of the EU in order to prevent disruption with its biggest trading partner.
John Kilclooney, a former Ulster Unionist MP, said at the time that Ireland should leave the EU; a policy paper produced by the London-based think-tank Policy Exchange said “serious consideration” should be given to “Irexit”.
David Davis, the Brexit secretary, dismissed speculation about a Brexit “domino effect”, saying weeks after the EU referendum: “I don’t think anyone is likely to follow us down this route.”
But the same month he also offended Irish sensitivities, when, according to Irish journalist Tony Connelly, an official in the UK Brexit department, wrote to the Irish government asking for a meeting with “Kenny”.
The approximate response, according to Mr Connelly, was “a) the Taoiseach [Enda Kenny] is not Davis’s interlocutor and, b) you don’t refer to the prime minister of a country by his surname”.
The collapse of the executive at Stormont has hindered the progress of talks on the border © Reuters
Mr Connelly’s book Brexit and Ireland, published last month, records Irish diplomats’ frustration at the initial vagueness and defensiveness of the British government and Mrs May’s centralised decision-making after last year’s referendum. Paradoxically, in Brussels, the European Commission initially feared that Ireland — once Britain’s closest ally in the bloc — would break ranks and start informal talks with London before the formal exit process had begun.
Ireland’s ambassador to the UK, Adrian O’Neill, said on Tuesday that progress would have been easier if the Northern Ireland executive had been up and running. The executive at Stormont collapsed in January following months of tension between the DUP and Sinn Féin.
The gulf between the UK and Ireland in negotiations widened after June this year, when Mrs May lost her parliamentary majority and became dependent on the support of the hardline DUP. In the same month, Leo Varadkar became the Irish Taoiseach, replacing the more softly spoken Mr Kenny.
“The main shift on the Irish side is tone, but the substance has also shifted,” said Henry Newman, director of Open Europe, the think-tank.
In July, when Eurosceptics suggested that Ireland should take responsibility for solving the border issue, Mr Varadkar shot back, saying he would “design a border for the Brexiters because they’re the ones who want a border”.
In August, the British government published a position paper with only vague proposals on how the Irish border could operate if Britain left the customs union without introducing any physical infrastructure, including passports checks and cameras, at the 310-mile Irish land border. In response, Ireland’s biggest business organisation, Chambers Ireland, said: “The EU and the UK appear to have very different ideas of what is workable.” A week later, Mr Varadkar posted a series of photos of himself in North America on Twitter, with the caption: “Just visited Canada-US border. It’s high-tech and highly efficient, but make no mistake — it’s a hard border.”
The UK position paper proposed “regulatory equivalence on agri-food measures”, to avoid border checks on certain products. During the next three months, Mrs May then agreed to go further, offering to maintain “regulatory alignment” between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic after Brexit.
But in the belated rush to meet Dublin’s demands, Mrs May appears to have neglected her DUP allies, who said that Northern Ireland “must leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the UK”.
“[Monday] was not a good day’s work,” said Mr Murrison. But he added that the impasse in talks had persuaded him and other Brexit supporters to accept greater regulatory alignment between the EU and the whole of the UK after Brexit — even if it would limit the UK’s hand in trade deals with other countries.