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Ireland and Britain remain dangerously locked in mutual incomprehension on Brexit and the border

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar (R) and Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson give a joint press conference on the steps of the Government buildings in Dublin on September 9, 2019 prior to their meeting.

Brexiteers and Backstoppers are trapped in a danse macabre, with Northern Ireland stuck in the middle

The old adage about two countries being separated by a common language has never looked more apt. The only difference is that it’s now Ireland, rather than the United States, with whom Britain is locked in mutual incomprehension.

Yesterday’s meeting in Dublin demonstrated that perfectly. It was as if Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar were each lost without a translator to interpret what the other was saying.

When trying to understand why the Taoiseach is so resistant to extending a helping hand to the new Prime Minister, it helps to remember that, unlike in other European nations, hostility to the federalist project is negligible to non-existent in Ireland. The leader of the only party to back “Irexit” polled a miserly 0.67 per cent in the recent European Parliament election.

Irish sympathy for the forces that swung the referendum is so lacking that there was even widespread irritation at the Prime Minister’s pledge to “never, ever instigate checks at the border”, whatever happens in the coming months. Contrast that with the warm welcome given to European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker when he visited Dublin a couple of years ago and made the same promise. It’s evident in retrospect that the EU intended all along to enforce border checks to protect its single market, but it seems the Irish would rather hear falsehoods from Europe than the truth from the British Government.

Brexiteers appear equally indifferent to Irish fears about the effect of a hard border on the peace process, much less to the succour which Ireland derives from belonging to a union of 500 million people, with all the opportunities for trade and free movement that presents to a nation which has spent too long either under foreign domination or isolated and struggling with economic stagnation.

The feeling that Britain is using its weight to browbeat the Irish into backing down has inevitably stirred up anglophobic urges which were, at long last, beginning to fade. The Irish don’t like being told they must bend to Britain’s will, any more than British people would react kindly to being ordered about by the French. Some of the ways that antagonism is expressing itself may be petty, but they’re no less heartfelt for that.

As a consequence, the Brexiteers and the Backstoppers on both sides of the Irish Sea have become trapped in a danse macabre, with Northern Ireland stuck in the middle.

Yesterday, there was much talk about what London and Dublin wanted and needed from negotiations. Belfast was barely mentioned, except when the Taoiseach chose to add more fuel to the fire by insisting that he would resist any moves to bring back direct rule in Northern Ireland to overcome the continuing stalemate at Stormont. Not content with backing EU efforts to keep a part of the UK under effective direct rule by Brussels, the Irish government simultaneously appears intent on upping the ante by demanding a form of joint authority that Unionists have repeatedly said is unacceptable. This is where Irish incomprehension about Brexit could have dangerous consequences.

In Britain, there are strong voices, in Parliament and across the media, putting forward the EU position. There is no equivalent advocacy for Britain’s cause in Ireland. Instead, daring to suggest that the government should soften its stance to avoid no deal invites accusations of disloyalty. It’s the backstop, do or die, and anyone who suggests otherwise is, to borrow a phrase, a great big girl’s blouse.

So why invite Johnson to Dublin at all if it was only to scold him for not accepting that the backstop is set in stone?

If the Withdrawal Agreement is immutable, despite still not being ratified by all member states, then the Belfast Agreement must be yet more sacrosanct. There is no way to reconcile the requirement that there be no change in Northern Ireland’s status without the consent of a majority there with plans to draw a border down the Irish Sea to preserve what Johnson twice referred to in Dublin as “the economic unity of the island of Ireland”. The Irish have every right to be sceptical that the Prime Minister can square that circle, but deep down they must be worried that he might find a way to get round the backstop. Yesterday Varadkar made an interesting slip of the tongue when, instead of saying “exits”, he wondered aloud what would happen “if the United Kingdom ends the European Union on October 31st”.

Boris isn’t the only one playing a high-risk game.