THE legacy of Brexit will be the damage caused to North-South relations, according to an Irish politician who was a minister during the Good Friday Agreement process.
As it currently stands the UK is due to exit the European Union on October 31.
Galway West TD Éamon Ó Cuív, who was responsible for the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands between 1997 and 2002, warned that if Brexit occurs: “We would have a legacy in Northern Ireland of worse relationships between the Irish government and the DUP, and between nationalists in the North and the DUP than we started with.”
Mr Ó Cuív made the comments on the latest edition of The Brexit Club: North and South, a podcast by The Detail. Also joining presenter Ruth Sanderson is historian Dr Éamon Phoenix who looked back to the events of 100 years ago and the similarities to the politics of today.
Veteran Fianna Fáil politician Éamon Ó Cuív said the lack of dialogue on the island of Ireland – given the unique relationship between North and South - has been a failure of the Brexit process to date.
He was particularly critical of the Irish government, a key player in negotiating the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which paved the way for the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly and the North/South Ministerial Council.
“Basically, it’s been very binary i.e. European Union is good and we let Europe negotiate on our behalf…..the whole thing is much more complex.
“What I found over the years is if you sit down with people, keep talking and first of all look for common ground, you’ve a much better chance of moving forward in a coherent and balanced fashion.
“Therefore, I think the present phase has been very, very divisive.
“The DUP is the biggest party in Northern Ireland and represents pro-Brexit unionism. Instead of talking to them and talking to the British [we] have negotiated through Brussels. We have, in my view, driven a wedge not only between nationalism and unionism here, particularly Sinn Féin and unionism, but between nationalism in the South.
“The Irish government are not in my view as close to the DUP and to official elected unionism as it should be.
“If we forget Brexit for a while but look at the outworking of this, I think we have deepened division rather than ameliorate division.”
During the in-depth discussion on the impact of Brexit on the island of Ireland, Mr Ó Cuív said the rights afforded to people in Northern Ireland to be British, Irish or both have not been recognised.
“The process should have been much more negotiation, much more discussion.
“We won’t call it negotiation because we were forbidden – let’s call it discussion.
“Now what I am saying is that no other European country is in the historically unusual situation we’re in and I think the Irish government should have said ‘look this is one island, a lot of people in Northern Ireland believe they’re Irish by birth – it’s recognised in international law. Others believe they are British by birth….therefore the rules of engagement for every other country do not apply here. We’re not accepting anybody putting any control on us talking to what we essentially see as our own people, co-islanders.’
“All of these subtleties, have not in my view, been recognised in the way that we’ve gone forward.”
In 1973 Ireland joined the EU, turning over time from a net beneficiary to a net contributor.
As Mr Ó Cuív explained it allowed a "small peripheral state on the very edge of Europe to make the best of the European Union”.
The EU also played a significant role in the peace process.
Dr Phoenix, an Irish historian, explained to The Brexit Club presenter Ruth Sanderson: “Nobody foresaw the European Union that Éamon is talking about, which would give independent Ireland a new place in a new kind of free trade empire, where it would thrive, get subventions, receive incentives and it would be a major player in Europe.
“Nobody saw that then and nobody saw the role Europe would play in the deliverance of peace here in the 1990s and all of that architecture of the peace process from the D’Hondt system to European peace funding, all of the things we’ve taken for granted.
“The people who forgot that of course are Whitehall, Westminster, the British government.
“There used to be a saying that every time Britain tried to solve the Irish question, the Irish changed the question – well maybe. But this time the British changed the question; suddenly the Good Friday Agreement became less important, became renegotiable although it had been set in stone after 3,500 deaths over 40 years and all the bitter divisions before that.
“That was forgotten so I think we are in crisis now. Echoes of those failures to negotiate a just agreement 100 years ago.
"I do think it's a watershed. I do think it's problematic for all the arrangements we've made in the last 25 years; peace on this island, putting the pike permanently in the thatch, decommissioning.
"I take community groups from unionist communities very often to Kilmainham Gaol and they cross that seamless border. There's nothing between Newry and Dundalk or Derry and Donegal and they're absolutely amazed. It opens up a new vista to people of the unionist tradition. That is certainly endangered we would both agree by where we are now."
The Boundary Commission's report of 1925 which decided the exact border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State has 100 years later and at a critical point in British/Irish relations intensified discussion on a border poll.
Dr Phoenix explained: “The Free State and Michael Collins' view publicly was, and William T Cosgrove afterwards, that the Boundary Commission would shear the North of so much territory that there would be a sword of Damocles over Lord Craigavon and his government and would force Irish unity by contraction.
"In fact you could argue it would have left a smaller more homogenous Protestant Northern Ireland with its industries intact that would have said forever farewell to the rest of Ireland.
"We have a convergence of the two communities at the very time when the UK is trying to leave the European Union, ignoring perhaps the complexities of our situation and our history."
He added: "The big thing is that demographically Northern Ireland is changing. We expect that by 2021, exactly a century after the partition of Ireland, there will at least be on paper a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean a nationalist majority but it has that potential and in a revived assembly, a large nationalist bloc has the potential to advance greater fusion with the Republic."
The full podcast interview with Éamon Ó Cuív and Dr Éamon Phoenix on The Brexit Club is available on Podbean, iTunes, Google Podcast, Pocketcasts, Spotify and youtube.
You can watch it below on vimeo.
- To access an interview Irish language website Meon Eile did with Éamon Ó Cuív on the Irish language click here.