Talks about a future commercial relationship between the EU and Britain have (at least temporarily) imploded, with both shuffling awkwardly to make the announcements. Even British Prime Minister Theresa May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker failed to disguise the catalyst for the derailment: namely, Ireland and its border with Britain.
Former Labour leader Tony Blair recently entered the argument to warn of direct European trading interests in the future character of the Irish border. A resolved national crisis to which Blair is given perhaps undue credit, he – supposedly alongside his former Press Secretary and Campaign Spokesman Alastair Campbell – nevertheless claims a stake in averting the so-called pivot back toward explosive sectarianism.
This all begs the question: Did Ireland ever really cease to be sectarian?
The Brexit referendum reignited old debates within the British Isles about Europe to a degree unanticipated by many. Not least affected was Ireland: whereas the North voted to stay in the EU with a narrow majority, England and Wales dragged Scotland and Northern Ireland kicking and screaming from the continent. And whilst the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) voted for Brexit, many Catholics opted to remain. Subsequently, a botched Tory election campaign necessitated that Tories made a deal with the Irish Unionists, a decision which produced as much derision as consternation in Westminster as well as Northern Ireland.
Yet Ireland remains as divided now as ever. Granted, the nature of the hostilities has changed somewhat, and a general aversion towards the use of force in the conduct of politics in the 21st century may continue to deter a national backlash from quickly mutating into violence.
Then again, perhaps this is all wishful thinking. Ireland long gave British policymakers a severe headache. Were this issue to be solely national, however, a political settlement would have sooner occurred. In reality, Irish domestic politics and its policy toward the UK have been greatly exacerbated by antiquated religious tensions.
Membership of the European Union changed centuries of overt mutual religious suspicion. It is, without doubt, the old hostilities continued to linger under the surface, ever simmering away, just as medieval religious barbarism prolonged misery on the continent. But the precept of European integration, which necessitated the overthrow of dictatorship and unwavering commitment to parliamentary democracy, gave the British and Irish a different ideal to aspire toward (than, say, the divine right of kings). With each year of membership, the Irish border seemed more ridiculous. British withdrawal from the EU has therefore accentuated a crisis which the last generation had thought shriveled and died.
The border is a tremendous challenge, not least because religious fanaticism can multiply political differences which might more easily be reconciled. We now face a problem that defeated many generations of talented politicians and which the far less adroit politicians currently in Westminster have only a few weeks to solve