At first, no one took the Brexit vote seriously. Few believed that the British would actually leave the European Union (EU). But the decision has become a reality and Ireland and the rest of the world could be among its casualties.
The EU was originally set up so that the 29 countries of Europe could trade among themselves without custom duties. The union also encouraged free travel with no passport control between countries that had so often gone to war with one another.
The British people with their superior attitudes were skeptical of the EU at first, but they joined up several years after its establishment when they saw that it was far more profitable to be in than out.
In answer to demands that British participation in the union be reviewed, former Prime Minister David Cameron called for a special election in June 2016, and to the surprise of most everyone, 51.9 percent of the people voted to leave the EU. It appears few voters understood the real impact of what they had voted for.
Northern Ireland, Scotland, and the people of London voted to stay with Europe, but majority ruled, and Brexit became a reality.
As former president George W. Bush said recently, this return to nationalism can be very harmful to world peace and cooperation.
Leaving the European Union requires negotiations to set up border controls to collect custom duties and institute passport controls. Thus far, talks have produced little agreement. Two of the main sticking points are the land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland and the large payments the British will owe the remaining 28 European countries for breaking away.
Northern Ireland and Ireland trade extensively with each other, and with Britain. To set up full controls and custom stations between them will be very expensive and, further, a violation of the hard-won Good Friday agreement.
Americans in Dublin looking to visit Belfast can now drive to Northern Ireland in less than two hours. A return to a closed border with passport controls will both delay and discourage frequent travel over this now invisible border. The government of Ireland estimates it will have to install eight new customs and passport facilities to keep track of all the activity.
As Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadker, said in late October in the Belfast Telegraph “It is still not clear what the UK wants in terms of a new relationship, because on the one hand it seems that the UK wants to have a close trading relationship with Europe like it has now, but also seems to want something different, and it is very hard for us as European prime ministers to understand exactly what the UK wants.” Expanding on that confusion in an interview with the BBC, Varadker said, “It certainly can’t be, and I think anyone will understand it can’t be, having all the benefits of EU membership but none of the responsibilities and none of the costs.”
Complicating the situation is the fact that the political situation in Northern Ireland is a mess. The leaders can’t seem to agree on anything. With the rise of the Catholic vote in the elections last March, and the resulting dramatic increase in Sinn Fein representation in the membership of the Northern Ireland assembly, the new108 members of the assembly have been unable to agree on procedures. There have been no Assembly meetings since early in the year, and, therefore, no representation in the Brexit talks to protect Northern Ireland.
Former President Bill Clinton visited all the parties last month in an effort to help reconcile differences. He also went to London and met with British Prime Minister Theresa May as part of the same mission.
In the British parliamentary elections in June, the Conservatives, led by Theresa May, fell ten votes short of the number needed to create a new British government in London. So, the former Paisley Party in Northern Ireland known as the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) pledged its ten votes to the Conservatives, allowing them to form a government. One result of that pledge is that the DUP now has enormous influence within the Brexit negotiations.
The DUP wants a “hard border” to solidify their position as separate from Ireland. We can only guess at what private agreements have been made between the DUP and British Conservatives. And since the Northern Ireland Assembly is inoperative at the moment, there is no one to represent the Nationalist side.
Complicating things further are indications that Sinn Fein leadership is conflicted within itself and is not taking a firm stand on issues. With the death of its powerful leader, Martin McGuinness, there may be leadership difficulties ahead.
Northern Ireland Secretary of State James Brokenshire, who reports directly to May in London, had issued an ultimatum setting the end of October as the time for a newly organized Northern Ireland Assembly to be in place. That is a situation worth watching.