Ireland’s allies: Europe comes to the defense of the Irish in Brexit talks

Posted By: December 24, 2017

Ted Smyth. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Thursday, December 21, 2017

Ted Smyth, a former Pittsburgh executive, is now vice president at Glucksman Ireland House at New York University. As an Irish diplomat, he worked on the Irish peace process.

The Republic of Ireland, a small nation beside Great Britain, a former imperial giant, has always suffered from an asymmetrical power relationship with its neighbor. Like similar nations in such a situation — think Korea and Japan, Portugal and Spain, the Baltic States and Russia — Ireland has for centuries sought allies to correct that imbalance when fighting for its freedom from England.

Irish-Americans have at times provided a counterbalance during the past 200 years, culminating in arms and funds for the 1916 Easter Rebellion and, more recently, support by Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan for the Irish peace process in the 1970s and 1980s, with President Bill Clinton providing an invaluable final push for the 1998 peace agreement.

Nevertheless, with its neighbors in Europe, Ireland has had mixed success over the centuries in securing help against the English. But this month, Ireland’s European Union partners stepped up to side with Ireland against the British government, opposing a reinstatement of a hard (policed) border dividing the Republic of Ireland from the British-allied Northern Ireland following Britain’s divorce from the EU (Brexit). Equipped with these newfound allies, with the “Brussels Playbook,” Politico reported on Ireland’s “rare supremacy” as “the top power broker on Brexit.”

The Irish have been waiting a long time for effective help from the continent of Europe. The 19th-century poet James Clarence Mangan recalled the famous Irish 16th-century hopes of help from Spain in casting off English rule. His lines are familiar to all Irish schoolchildren:

There’s wine from the royal Pope,
Upon the ocean green;
And Spanish ale shall give you hope,
My Dark Rosaleen

However, the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 destroyed that dream. The Irish next turned to Catholic France, where the Irish rebel leader Wolfe Tone successfully lobbied the French Revolutionary Directorate to try attacking England via Ireland. The theory was that sympathetic Irish rebels would join the French invaders. However, the invasion fleet, comprising 43 ships and carrying more than 14,000 men with a large supply of war material for the rebels, inexplicably set sail in winter weather in 1796 and, not surprisingly, was unable to land in Ireland because of high seas.

Tone later appealed to Napoleon, who made the mistake of invading Egypt instead, contributing to his ruin, and therefore sending an inadequate force to Ireland for the futile rebellion of 1798. The general of the French army in Ireland used stirring words that were not backed by sufficient military force: “The complaints of your suffering country are heard in all parts of the world, but your cause is more particularly that of the French people.”

In his novel “Ulysses,” James Joyce voiced the general despair of many Irish nationals regarding the promise of French aid in the voice of one character in a pub: “The French,” says the citizen: “Set of dancing masters! They were never worth a roasted fart to Ireland!”

Well, all was changed this month when Ireland’s fellow members in the European Union decided to stand firm with Ireland against Britain in opposing a post-Brexit reinstatement of a hard border dividing the island. Foremost among Ireland’s allies was the French politician and Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier (who is doubtless a great dancer).

Ireland’s politicians and diplomats, led by Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, had vigorously opposed a hard border, which would have isolated Northern Ireland from the Republic and reawakened pre-peace animosities. In a stunning upset to British isolationists, all the member states of the EU agreed that Britain and Northern Ireland would maintain “full alignment” with the rules and regulations of the EU’s internal market and customs union, thus obviating the need for an Irish border.

The president of the European Council, former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, stated bluntly that “if the UK’s offer is unacceptable for Ireland, it will also be unacceptable for the EU. I realize that for some British politicians this may be hard to understand.”

Mr. Tusk is a master of understatement; it was indeed hard for British politicians “to understand” after centuries of having no other countries much concerned about how the British treated the Irish, except for those interfering Irish-Americans. After then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher signed the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement giving the Irish government a say in the running of Northern Ireland, she said to one of her closest associates, Lord McAlpine, “It was the Americans who made me do it.”

To underline Europe’s commitment to the Irish now, Mr. Tusk tweeted in Gaelic, “Ni neart go cur le cheile” ( “There is no strength without unity”). Attempts two days later by one British minister to belittle the agreement as merely a “statement of intent” were quickly condemned by European leaders who said they would place the language in a legally binding document, if necessary.

Let’s be clear — the Irish are not seeking a fight with Britain, which is its largest trading partner and where up to a million Irish-born people live. But neither can Ireland allow a hard border with Northern Ireland to jeopardize peace.

For now, the Irish peace process is protected by Ireland’s 26 allies in the EU and the last word can go to the Irish prime minister: “What we want to continue on the island of Ireland is exactly what we’ve had for the last 20 years — which is peace and freedom of movement and free trade between Northern Ireland and Ireland and indeed between Ireland and Britain.”