Ireland. So often a question and rarely the answer. Back in the mists of time, maybe 2018, Theresa May’s government was mired in the “Irish Backstop”. It’s difficult to remember it now, so much has happened since. Whichever way she turned, her road was blocked. I don’t need to rehearse the old arguments that eventually led to her demise. I thought, at the end of January 2020 as the UK ceased to be a member of the EU, that everything I had fought for was lost. And I still do. So I stopped obsessing about the Irish border. But it’s back. It never went away.
Bath and Bristol head for Brussels
It was in March 2018 that the two campaign groups “Bristol for Europe” and “Bath for Europe” collaborated and took a joint party of about twenty people to Brussels. I was one of that delegation. Over three days we organised multiple meetings with officials at the European Commission and with politicians at the European Parliament. We wanted them to learn at first hand the arguments of the British citizens who did not want to leave the EU. We received the warmest of welcomes from everyone we met there. They loved our “Bath berets” with the yellow stars on blue, so ubiquitous at the anti-Brexit marches.
On the train back to St Pancras I was left with mixed feelings – simultaneous inspiration and depression. I was inspired to have briefly been on the inside of institutions dedicated to maintaining an integrated and united Europe. Surely a noble cause. But depressed by the realisation of the implications of the total resolve of everyone we met in Brussels to negotiate solutions to all disputes between the then 28, now 27 members.
How the EU works to find solutions
The countries of the EU are of course varied in their cultures and perceptions of what is in their self interest. What confronted me in Brussels were officials who spent their lives searching and succeeding in finding ways to patch up, or solve differences. They were used to always finding a way to agreement, even if it meant fudging issues. They appeared sublimely confident of their abilities in this sphere. Add to that umpteen trade agreements and treaties with third nations and you can see their confidence is well based.
What rammed this home to me above all was a meeting some of us had with the negotiating team of Guy Verhofstadt. Verhofstadt represented the European Parliament in the negotiations with the the UK on Brexit. In the course of our meeting I pressed as hard as I could the view that I and many others had that we could see no way an agreement could be achieved on Ireland. The British government were totally committed to leaving the Single Market and Customs Union, that meant border controls being set up but they would be in contravention of the Good Friday Agreement. Every way you turned the route was blocked. But I was told in no uncertain terms that in time an agreement would be found. They felt completely certain of that, to the point of arrogance.
So what’s the solution for the island of Ireland?
My greatest fear had always been that the Irish tin can would be kicked down the road and the UK would leave the EU without a resolution of the Irish question. As we all know, that fear shared by so many came to pass. To some extent I felt sold down the river by the EU.
But cans can only be kicked so far down the road at any one time. Boris Johnson’s extraordinary willingness to agree to a border in the Irish Sea flatfooted everyone. It now appears that includes himself.
So here we are with weeks left before the end of negotiations of some kind of trade agreement with the EU and progress seems to be worse than negligible. The UK government is contemplating breaking its agreement with the EU. But that path is blocked by the EU and by the US Ways and Means Committee. He has nowhere to turn, not the mark of a skilled negotiator.
So what next? The Irish question remains just that. It is unresolvable. But something has got to give. Will a resolution be found? Probably. What will it be? I have no idea. But I sense we may all soon hear an echoey metallic noise of tin cans bouncing along the roads leading out of Brussels.
Zoë Perry is a retired BBC Broadcast Journalist and Chartered Accountant. Zoë is also Deputy Chair of Forest of Dean for Europe.