Why Theresa May must not rush the Irish border issue

PUBLISHED: 15:18 24 May 2018 | UPDATED: 15:26 24 May 2018

Prime minister Theresa May must answer tough question over the Irish border
Photo: PA / Simon Dawson

Prime minister Theresa May must answer tough question over the Irish border Photo: PA / Simon Dawson

PA Wire/PA Images

Winston Churchill remains a towering political figure not only in Britain but also far beyond these shores.

Although we tend to look upon him with rose-tinted glasses these days, his achievements are not in question.

His enthusiasm, gusto and belief dragged this country through some very dark days and laid the foundations for both modern Britain and Europe.

For decades European nations fought bloody wars but when the guns were finally silenced and the bombs ceased falling out of the sky in 1945 Mr Churchill set about building a lasting peace.

In September 1946 he delivered a speech in Zurich calling for the “United States of Europe” which urged a reconciliation between Germany and France. That peace he hoped for has endured. He had the vision to see a solution.

But back in 1922 in the chaotic, confused aftermath of the First World War he was flummoxed by a problem which is still causing political ructions.

His analysis of the situation in Northern Ireland was bleak. He wrote: “The whole map of Europe has changed ... but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that has been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world.”

He was right to be bleak. Decades of anger and hatred preceded the uprisings of the 1960s sparked bloodshed on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Through the 1970s and 1980s it seemed there was no way out. The Troubles became a way of life for people caught up in the conflict.

It took the determination of two British prime ministers from different parties before there was a real breakthrough.

When John Major’s Conservatives suffered the worst defeat by a ruling party since the Reform Act of 1832 at the hands of Tony Blair and his slick New Labour machine he famously went off to watch the cricket. His legacy appeared to be nonexistent, he was a joke figure for many.

But during his time in Number 10 he had embarked on an ambitious plan to negotiate a ceasefire with the IRA. It was these early, exploratory talks that ultimately paved the way for Mr Blair’s Good Friday Agreement.

Between them Mr Blair and Mr Major – along with US senator George Mitchell – believed there could be a brighter future in Ireland. And since 1998 the transformation has been extraordinary. Then came Brexit.

The Irish border has become the biggest sticking point between Brussels and Theresa May’s government. The complexities are vast and often perplexing but put simply Mrs May vowed Brexit meant Britain would be leaving the customs union. And if that is to be the case there will need to be a border of sorts.

This issue has crept up on us. There certainly wasn’t much discussion of the Irish border during the referendum campaign – although it could be argued there wasn’t much discussion of anything other than fanciful claims about the millions destined for the NHS and how Brexit could plunge us in to a Third World War.

Now the border has framed the negotiations – Mrs May has to get this one right.

There is little appetite for a hard border, the days of check points and barbed wire must be left behind. But Mrs May has painted herself into a corner with her rash promise – one she no doubt regrets now – about the type of Brexit she is going to deliver.

She now talks of ‘a’ customs union rather than ‘the’ customs union but all she has actually achieved is to anger both camps of the nation and spark an increasingly bitter civil war in her own party that even rages in the cabinet.

The Brexit select committee has suggested Britain will have to stay in the customs union beyond 2020 and it is rumoured that Mrs May has also come to this conclusion. Now she has to somehow convince the Brexiteers to agree to it. That won’t be easy.

It does appear sensible. A solution to the Irish border issue must not be rushed. It is far too important.

In his autobiography A Journey, Mr Blair spells out the 10 key elements that made the Good Friday Agreement happen. Number 10 reads: “Never give up ... This is not about gripping the conflict; it is about refusing to accept defeat.

“As we used to say in Northern Ireland: if you can’t solve it, manage it until you can solve it; but don’t walk away and leave it untended.”

A blueprint for Brexit negotiations perhaps?

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