A Feature by Hugh Vaughan
The British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s jibe in which he likened the European Union to the Soviet Union is an example of the hyperbolic language used in the debate before the UK divorces the EU on 29 March 2019. At a press briefing in Brussels, the President of the European Council, Mr Tusk – the former prime minister of Poland – said:
Comparing the EU to the Soviet Union is as unwise as it is insulting. The Soviet Union was about prisons and gulags, borders and walls, violence against citizens and neighbours. The European Union is about freedom and human rights, prosperity and peace, life without fear, it is about democracy and pluralism – a continent without internal borders and walls.
His strident defence of the EU reminded me of the time, a few years ago, when we were staying in the Prague apartment of the granddaughter of an ambassador to Brussels during the Communist regime. Tresza told us that her father had outfitted the apartment in a 1970s western style during the communist period and begged, stole and borrowed to do so. Her father and his siblings stayed with their grandmother, as a means of ensuring that the ambassador would not remain on the western side of the the Iron Curtain. Their food was supplemented by a vegetable garden in the countryside, which included the house given to them by the regime. Loyal supporters got such a reward only after they simply disappeared. Her mother was a member of Vaclav Havel’s literary dissident group. Tersza was adamant that belonging to the western alliance was crucial to prevent the return of the days that Tusk referred to. Tersza also pointed out the fluid borders of Eastern Europe allowed an invading army easy access and such was history repeating itself with the recent Russian annexation of Crimea.
Today the Brexit battle is focused on the Northern Irish Border. Next year this border will be between an EU country and a non-EU one. A backstop solution has been suggested to allow an open frictionless border that will allow NI to stay in some sort of customs union. This is opposed by many conservative and unionist politicians: the UK, would be no more, they say. There is even the backstop to the backstop! How this will be achieved is the main stumbling block. Extending the transition period is a possibility, but little progress was made at a recent Brussels summit and the UK Shadow Minister for Northern Ireland Stephen Pound MP likens the border problem to the riddle of the universe.
Theresa May danced to the tune of Dancing Queen at her conference; many feel she is dancing to the DUP’s tune, as she is dependent on the minority party to stay in government. Arlene Foster, the DUP leader thinks there will be ‘no deal’ and feels it may be better than a ‘dodgy’ deal. She has a red line – the UK exits the EU as one nation. She said ‘the red line is blood red. It is very red’. Sinn Fein declared in response, ‘the DUP is losing the run of themselves’. The EU negotiators pledge to ‘de-dramatise’ the controversial process. The DUP have warned they will ‘pull the plug’ and vote down the coming budget and will paralyse May’s domestic agenda if she undermines Northern Ireland’s position within the UK; is this the ‘Orange Card’ again?
The border issue is an ‘astonishing confidence trick’ on the UK government according to Sammy Wilson, DUP. In the same Guardian report, Seamus Leheny, the director of policy for the Freight Transport Association, said Northern Ireland was ‘disproportionately disadvantaged’ by Brexit but pointed out that while there were 800,000 freight trips between Northern Ireland and Britain, there were 4.6 million between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland every year. Foster said she could not accept any checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, even if controls were far from the sea border. ‘Why would we need checks between GB and Northern Ireland, or between Northern Ireland and GB, if we were an integral part of the single market of the United Kingdom?’
How Brexit impacts on the Good Friday Agreement is the major concern. Irish citizens in NI may be protected by EU law after Brexit but what of their fellow British citizens? In 2010, the Northern Ireland Chief Justice Declan Morgan said, ‘The rights and freedoms protected by the ECHR represent the values of democratic societies throughout Europe. It is the function of courts in our jurisdiction to ensure that those rights are protected and the corresponding duties enforced.’ NI comedian Patrick Kielty satirically tweeted his take on the Brexit effect of the Good Friday Agreement – ‘devious magic’, he called it.
Brexiteer Boris Johnson suggested building a bridge between GB and NI, stating there was no difference between NI and the Republic, similar to a borough in London! Stephen Rea, the actor is scathing of Brexiteers, making a poetic film about a Hard Border.
So what do the British people want? According to a survey, they would like access to the EU markets for trade, trade deals with other countries, and to make their own laws. They worry about freedom of movement, and its demand on their public services . They like the Norway Model.
As a border child from the counties of Tyrone and Derry, I have seen the hard border, that no one wants again. I remember the salmon smuggling, the customs officers on both sides, my father’s smiling gestures and friendliness to be waved through speedily. The alternative is the bland submissiveness through the physical border of corrugated iron and sandbags and the pointed guns of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British army.
Some even suggest this is the beginning of the end of Northern Ireland.
Hugh McMahon Vaughan was born in Strabane, and raised in Derry, Northern Ireland. He has written two books: A Bump on the Road and Cillefoyle Park, both creative memoirs, focusing on living in the North West of Ireland during the Troubles. Hughmvaughan.com