A demonstrator holds a placard during an anti-Brexit protest opposite the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, December 17 2018. Picture: REUTERS/TOBY MELVILLE
A demonstrator holds a placard during an anti-Brexit protest opposite the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, December 17 2018. Picture: REUTERS/TOBY MELVILLE

London — The day after former UK prime minister David Cameron unveiled his plan for a Brexit referendum in January 2013 he grabbed his Irish counterpart, Enda Kenny, in a VIP room in Davos. Cameron told Kenny he had to hold the vote, according to one of the people with them. But there was no reason to worry, everything would be okay. 

The exchange suggests that Cameron, whatever other mistakes he might have made, at least realised the difficulties that Brexit would pose for Britain’s closest neighbour. That awareness was lost as the shock referendum result consumed the British establishment. 

It was a critical mistake. 

As the talks played out over the next two-and-a-half years, the Irish question would shape the negotiations, expose the flaws in the Brexit rhetoric of “control” and ultimately put the entire project in jeopardy.  Last week Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, was pleading with EU leaders for a lifeline to break the impasse created by the Irish border.

This account of how the Irish question came to dominate the entire Brexit project is based on conversations with five officials, past and present, in Dublin and London. They asked not to be identified detailing their private discussions.  

After the UK leaves the EU, a 500km  line running from near Derry in the north to Dundalk in the south will form the bloc’s only land frontier with Britain. That’s a legacy of the partition of Ireland in 1921 following the war of independence against the British.

Controls along the border largely melted away in the 1990s as the two economies joined Europe’s single market and the Good Friday settlement cemented an uneasy peace in a region devastated by sectarian violence. 

As the Brexit drama raised the prospect of checkpoints returning, Kenny could see all those gains put at risk. He was reminded of the stakes each time he glanced above the fireplace in his office where a portrait of the Irish revolutionary Michael Collins hangs. 

Collins led the 1921 delegation that negotiated independence from the UK for the 26 counties of the south. He’s revered as a hero by many people in Ireland for his bravery and astuteness. Others, though, see him as a traitor for surrendering the six counties in the north. For Kenny and his successor, Leo Varadkar, Brexit was their Collins moment.

“The history wasn’t lost on anyone,” said Feargal Purcell, then Kenny’s press spokesperson and now a director of public affairs at public relations firm Edelman. “We were ready diplomatically, strategically. Everyone’s mindset was right.” 

The British couldn’t believe what was happening, said one Irish official involved. They had taken their eye off the ball. By the time the referendum result came in, Kenny and his team had already honed a message for their European allies: for you, this might be about market access, but for us, it’s about peace.

A second unspoken factor was also at play in Brussels.  Northern Ireland was a place where the “fantasies” of the Brexit camp clashed with reality, according to a former adviser. For those seeking to illustrate the difficulties inherent in the wider Brexit project, it was the perfect vehicle.

The Irish found they were pushing at an open door. Though details of the conflict were fading, many EU leaders still recalled the atrocities — especially when reminded by the Irish diplomats — and fears of a return to violence were real. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, was particularly receptive — he’d worked on the peace process as an EU commissioner almost 20 years ago.   

The British, who’d barely considered the issue, seemed unprepared. To compound their problems, Cameron had ordered his officials not to plan for a possible departure before the referendum to avoid handing arguments to the Leave campaign. 

By the time Theresa May took office in July 2016, the Irish had already started framing the border issue and the EU was determined it wouldn’t allow anything to jeopardise the peace. When May travelled to Dublin six months later, Kenny pressed home his advantage, wringing a pledge from May to avoid a return to the “borders of the past”. The Irish suspected that May still didn’t realise the significance of the concession she had just made.

In April 2017, the European Commission made the Irish border one of three key issues that needed “sufficient progress” before it would discuss its future trading relationship with the UK. By the time Varadkar succeeded Kenny that June, the template was set even though the backdrop had shifted dramatically. 

 In a surprise UK election, Tory losses cost May her majority and, in a cruel twist, left her dependent on Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). In UK politics, no one cares about the details of British control in Northern Ireland quite like the territory’s unionist parties. While the DUP is pro-Brexit, remaining an integral part of the UK is its raison d’etre and it opposes anything that suggests separation. 

The narrative toughened in the UK, inevitably triggering a reaction in Dublin. Some on the Irish side felt the British were just paying lip service to the importance of keeping the border open. One phrase in particular stuck in their throats. May and her ministers stuck to the line that they were aiming to keep the border as “frictionless as possible”. The Irish heard that as: we’ll do our best for you, but … 

It wasn’t enough. Ireland and the EU demanded written guarantees that the border wouldn’t return. In December 2017 May made that commitment. Everything flowed from that point. 

Scrambling for a fallback plan to honour her promises even if trade negotiations falter, May settled on a compromise that pleases almost none of the domestic factions. She argues that she secured important concessions. But Brexiteers hate it because ties to the EU customs union limit their freedom to do trade deals. The DUP rejects it because it may create internal barriers in the UK.

But Ireland is on the brink of a diplomatic triumph, if May can somehow get her plan over the line. Even if she fails, the ensuing chaos could lead to an even softer departure, which would suit the Irish just as well. 

The risk, though, is that hardliners in the UK could seize on the prime minister’s weakness to engineer a no-deal Brexit. In that scenario, the Irish would be among the worst affected by the economic fallout. And officials in Dublin would know that it was their demands on the border that scuppered the agreement. 

Some on the Irish side still worry that they pushed the British too far. One official put it like this: “This will either turn out to be an incredible diplomatic triumph by Ireland. Or a strategic mistake.”