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Ireland's Brexit troubles



As an Australian living in Ireland, I've been watching the whole Brexit brouhaha with mildly alarmed curiosity. My ancestors were, predictably for an Anglo-Aussie, a hodgepodge mix of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh, so I have no particular fondness nor animus towards the Brits, although my mum tells me my Irish-ancestry grandmother refused to stand for 'God Save the Queen' back when it was our national anthem.  

Michel Barnier, European Chief Negotiator for the United Kingdom Exiting the European Union (left), visits the UK/Irish Border and gives a joint speech with Irish Prime Minister Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (right). (Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)My Irish husband has always thought I'm a 'right eejit' for not minding having Her Royal Majesty as the Australian head of state. (Don't @ me — I'm not passionately opposed to a Republic, it's more a case of if it ain't broke, don't spend pots of money to change the letterhead.)

Still, when the 2016 United Kingdom referendum to leave the European Union passed, I did think those 52 per cent of voters were acting on a sense of Rule, Britannia nostalgia rather than a sober assessment of their current European interdependent reality.

More-to-the-point, I suspected many such voters were motivated more by inflammatory newspaper headlines about invading immigrants and strangling European regulations, than by a proper understanding of Brexit's implications. But then, nobody knew what Brexit would really mean, not even the policy wonks. Politicians said anything and everything before the vote, most of which turned out to be false promises and hyperbole.

Take the infamous NHS buses — the ones carrying Vote Leave advertisements plastered all over them implying the £350 million a week being paid to the EU could be more properly given to the NHS.

Apparently a vote winner for the Leave campaign, yet once Brexit became a reality, funding promises were rejigged and will require a substantial increase in taxes and government borrowing to be fulfilled; the European Medicines Agency (EMA) naturally announced it was moving; a British Medical Association survey found that nearly half of Euro-docs working in the UK were considering leaving; there was a staggering drop in the number of European nurses applying to work in the UK; and now the threat of a no-deal crash-out could mean patients needing to stockpile their drugs while the politicians and the pharmaceutical companies work out supply and tariff regulations.

Furthermore, British patients will lose access to the European Directive route for healthcare, in which patients on long waiting lists can pay for immediate treatment elsewhere in Europe and be reimbursed by the NHS. It is the ordinary people — the pensioners on trollies, the sick interminably waiting on ever-increasing lists, the patients being treated in understaffed hospitals — who will truly suffer from Brexit's immediate body shocks to an already frail healthcare system decimated by years of austerity funding cuts.


"The imposition of new border patrols and customs checks might well enflame republican passions if the UK will not agree to customs unity with the EU or alternatively place the border down the middle of the Irish Sea."


But the issue to which most Brexiteers gave less than a moment's 'they'll obviously leave the EU too' thought, is that of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic — the UK's only land border, which runs 499km from Lough Foyle in the north of Ireland to Carlingford Lough in the northeast and with more than 200 roads crossing it. That border is practically invisible today, the only real clue being the change between imperial and metric and whether or not Irish appears along with English on road signs.

That invisibility was hard-won through the Good Friday Agreement but is being threatened by the current impasse between UK and EU Brexit negotiators. Nobody wants a return to the Troubles when identity checks at the border were policed by British forces, making free movement almost impossible, despite the pre-EU existence of the 'common travel area'.

But the imposition of new border patrols and customs checks might well enflame republican passions if the UK will not agree to customs unity with the EU or alternatively place the border down the middle of the Irish Sea, something the DUP is adamantly against because that differentiates Northern Ireland from Great Britain and feels way too close to (re-)unification with the Republic. A return to the Troubles is a very real scenario in the absence of sensible compromise.

Yet, it is customs harmony with the EU that hardline Brexiteers reject, Ireland be damned, it seems. That is what gets up the nose of the Irish, because as the Taoiseach (Ireland's Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar recently pointed out, the hardliners seem to be surprised and annoyed the Irish border has become an issue.

'You'd swear we created the problem,' he said, discussing the British establishment's almost cavalier attitude. It's hard not to be sympathetic to Ireland's getting all hot-and-bothered over the border issue, when you have pro-Brexit Tory MP Andrew Bridgen presuming as an English person he's entitled to an Irish passport, like isn't Ireland still sort of part of the British Empire?

The Brexiteers promised it would be easy, that it would bring real dividends to the British people, and they presumed that Ireland would follow suit. I just don't believe a damned word they say.



Rachel WoodlockDr Rachel Woodlock is an expat Australian academic and writer living in Ireland.



Main image: Michel Barnier, European Chief Negotiator for the United Kingdom Exiting the European Union (left), visits the UK/Irish Border and gives a joint speech with Irish Prime Minister Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (right). (Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Rachel Woodlock, Ireland, Brexit



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Existing comments

It was not only the Leave protagonists who gave no thought to the implications for the border; nether did the Remain protagonists, so far as I have been able to ascertain. Little wonder that my English-born friends in Australia have looked blankly at me when I have asked 'What about the border?' Their response has been, often as not, 'What border?'

Ginger Meggs | 02 November 2018  

The United Kingdom is a fake democracy. Scotland & Northern Ireland. A majority of Scots & Ulstermen voted to stay in EU. Perfidious Albion has reaped a harvest of confusion through the lies & misrepresentations of its Brexiteers. I predict a Celtic Revolt.

Uncle Pat | 06 November 2018  

Well said! I too am an 'Irish Australian'... from the North. I was home with my aged mother at the time of the vote, and took her to cast it... even though I knew which way she would vote... as noted here, for an outdated notion of Britannia ruling the waves! As for the DUP... who get paid for doing nothing... not so much Stormont as Stagnant... immigration is a global problem which will not be solved by fear mongering...

Dotti Simmons | 06 November 2018  

Because I have Irish roots (various parts, but dating from the days before separation) I read such articles with interest. I forwarded it to cousin in Armagh and received the following comment: "The article is, in my opinion, profoundly pessimistic. As I have always said, five years from now, people will scratch their head and wonder what all the fuss was about. Her pessimism over the Border is not justified. I remember when there was a hard border and it was never a problem." It's always interesting to get a politically-aware local insider's perspective on such matters.

Paddy Byers | 07 November 2018  

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