by Gareth Axenderrie
Since well before polling night, many framed the EU referendum debate as ‘us and them’. ‘Us’ being the British, often ignorant of the fact we are several nations within a country. ‘Them’ being the ‘European Union’, often ignorant of the fact that the EU is an organisation that includes 27 other individual member states.
One of those member states was almost completely ignored in the debate, and it’s quite possibly more important than those countries like France, Germany, Romania and Turkey who dominated the conversation. That state is the Republic of Ireland, and it’s a country that the UK shares a land border with, a fact often ignored, up until now.
Both Irelands now present huge separate issues to the entire Brexit process and the public’s attitude toward the past, present and future.
As UK negotiators have been hopping back and forth between Brussels, with the UK media interrogating everything that has or hasn’t been happening across the English Channel, voices across the Irish Sea have, for months now, been largely ignored.
The Republic of Ireland currently has a ‘soft’ border with the UK via Northern Ireland, meaning trade and travel pass freely between the two, aiding both economies.
The EU’s lead negotiator Michel Barnier said last May that “The [Irish] border issue will be one of my three priorities for the first phase of the negotiation. Together with citizens’ rights and the financial settlement.” Since then, the UK’s media has relentlessly regurgitated analysis and commentary on the former two points, with EU citizens’ rights and the cost of leaving a topic of conversation on a daily basis. The underrepresentation of the Irish question however has baffled our Celtic neighbours, and as their concerns have increased, our ignorance and arrogance has been laid bare.
The Irish Parliament is united, from left wing independents to right wing evangelical Christians: a soft border must remain between the Irelands. With a 310-mile unmarked border between the two, the freedom of movement is a complex illustration of the turbulent nature of two coexisting Irelands since the Government of Ireland Act in 1920.
At the height of the troubles, the border was heavily militarised, with thousands of troops and checkpoints. Yet, it remained easy too pass through undetected. In all honesty, the tasks of protecting rights of EU nations and agreeing an exit settlement are a piece of cake compared to the Irish border question.
What’s even more concerning is how many key British figures and public informants are completely out of the touch with the issues. Ian Duncan Smith told Channel 4 News last week that Ireland is taking a hard line on the border issues because “there is an election coming up.” Meanwhile, BBC journalist Laura Kuenssberg tweeted, “The sooner their [Ireland] political turmoil calms, the sooner progress could be made on border question.” These blatantly ignorant comments completely reject the fact that the UK-Ireland border is the most salient issue in Ireland. A hard border would be absolutely catastrophic for the Irish economy, it simply cannot happen. More than just economically though, what happens on this border questions the relative peace the UK and Ireland have lived in over the last two decades. A hard border, an enforced division between Irish and British people, will surely threaten to ask thousands if not millions of people to question their identity. European? Irish? British? English? Is dual identity still an option? Is a united Ireland back on the table as an inflating metropolitan population in the north question whether the old bipolarity is fit for an ever-changing situation? And, don’t forget, the Republic of Ireland has the power to veto any deal the UK reaches in its severance with the EU.
North of the border, an even more sinister situation exists: money. More specifically, the money that funded Brexit. We have heard a lot about Russian meddling in the EU referendum campaign. Outside actors will always seek to influence political movements within a country, but this takes a dark turn when funding comes via Britain itself.
Donations to political parties must be declared in the UK, but Northern Ireland is an exception. This was for very good reason, as donors to parties on both sides of the republican-unionist divide have often come under violent scrutiny from militant opponents. This loophole is believed to have been exploited in the EU referendum however.
Open Democracy Editor Adam Ramsay has discovered that money has been pumped into the leave campaign via the DUP in Northern Ireland, now the Conservative Party’s supply and demand partner in Westminster.
The DUP is believed to have received funds of up to £250,000 a time, money that was spent on campaign material on the British mainland. Ramsay found that money originating in Saudi Arabia was syphoned through the Northern Irish loophole and used by leave campaigners in the UK.
Furthermore, Legatum, a favourite think tank of Brexiteers was funded from Dubai, via their place of registry in the Virgin Islands.
This inconvenient truth raises questions of who is framing, leading and influencing what is painted as a democratic and free debate in the UK. How much of an influence these ‘dark’ funds had on the outcome of the referendum can be debated, but surely every pro-British, pro-democratic person on any side of the debate must agree that illegal, external meddling is an erosion of the democratic process.
So, both Irelands have thrown up major challenges to public perception of the Brexit process. It is how our politicians and public respond to it however, that illustrates where we seek to head as a nation. Brexiteers spoke of an outward looking, international Britain, one of sovereignty that won’t turn its back on the world. This will now be put to the ultimate test. How can we claim to be ‘sovereign’ if we allow outside funding to have any influence in our political debate? How can we be ‘outward looking’ if we turn our backs on our closest neighbours? We are going to find out who we are very shortly, our neighbours are waiting.