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The ridiculous things UK politicians have said about Ireland and Brexit

“The Irish living in the UK have a great civic duty to educate the English.”

IT’S BEEN A long road to Brexit – one made even more trying by the inaccurate statements made by British politicians about Ireland, politics, and the border with Northern Ireland.

There’s a lot of things in the Brexit process that are up for debate: whether the backstop is needed and what exactly it entails, being just one. But some things we’re quite sure of – like that Leo Varadkar and the Sinn Féin party are most definitely not in cahoots.

And let’s be clear: we’re not expecting British politicians to know every aspect of Ireland’s history – or any other country’s history.

But if you’re going to try to offer a solution to the Irish border issue or comment on Irish politics with an ounce of authority, you should be informed on the issues.

Here are some of the gems we’ve had since the process began.

No one uses the Irish border

Easter Banquet - London Source: Empics Entertainment

While still in the role as British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson was recorded talking about Brexit and foreign affairs at a private gathering. The audio was obtained by Buzzfeed News, who then published it in an article on 8 June, detailing all the questionable things he’d said about a whole spectrum of nations.

Among his comments, were that the UK government’s concerns about customs arrangements post-Brexit was “pure millenium bug” stuff. On Northern Ireland, he added:

[Northern Ireland] is so small and there are so few firms that actually use that border regularly, it’s just beyond belief that we’re allowing the tail to wag the dog in this way. We’re allowing the whole of our agenda to be dictated by this folly.

“So few” is obviously a subjective term, so we’ll give you the figures here and let you decide on whether they’re worthy of the UK government’s attention.

There are around 208 road border crossings between the Republic and Northern Ireland: at least 30,000 people cross the border everyday. Trucks in the drinks industry alone make 23,000 border crossings a year.

The farming community has been repeatedly described as an “all-island” economy, meaning firms have assets both north and south of the border, and would be wiped out, in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Added to that are fears that young people in Donegal will have their options for accessing third level education limited if a hard border was put up, as many students live at home and commute to Derry to study at the University of Ulster.

Let’s go back to the Troubles

Conservative Party annual conference 2018 Source: Empics Entertainment

Usually when the phrase “just like the Troubles” is used, it’s in the sense that we shouldn’t go back to that era.

But not with Jacob Rees Mogg. On 25 August, the Conservative MP for north-east Somerset said that we should replicate the custom posts, officers and police we had along the border during the Troubles after Brexit:

It would be possible to continue with historic arrangements to ensure there wasn’t a great loophole in the way people could get into the UK to leave us in just as bad a position as we are in.
There would be our ability, as we had during the Troubles, to have people inspected. It’s not a border that everyone has to go through every day. But of course for security reasons during the Troubles we kept a very close eye on the border to try stop gun running and things like that.
It’s not inconsistent to have a border that people pass through that you’re keeping an eye on.

Speaking of loopholes, here’s a few in that suggestion. Not everyone would be checked, says Rees Mogg, so how would you decide who to check? By how they’re dressed, or the colour of their skin?

Boris Johnson suggested in the audio mentioned above that there would be a system like an Oyster card or a Leap card, where you tagged in and out to get across the border. But there are at least two big problems with that: that isn’t a frictionless border, it’s just friction-lite, and the second being one or Leap card can be used by anyone freely, as there’s no name or photo ID on them.

When a border first went up in Ireland in 1924, it only had customs checks. But extremists saw it as a symbol of UK occupation in Ireland, a symbol of division, and began targeting custom posts. This led to police protection, and armed guards at the border.

Brexit is all about the Irish presidential election

Conservative Party annual conference 2018 Source: JONATHAN BRADY

In November 2017, a few days before the backstop was first mentioned, Conservative MP Iain Duncan Smith appeared on Channel 4 News and said that Ireland was being tough in Brexit negotiations because of the presidential election.

A lot of things are in the making on this one. There’s an election going on in Ireland…

It was then pointed out that an election was now off the table due to political developments (Frances Fitzgerald had just resigned as Justice Minister of the scandal unearthed bty garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe).

Duncan Smith continued:

Now it’s suddenly become an issue because the Irish, for political reasons internally, presidential elections, disputes between the two elements of the same party, they suddenly laid this on.

Unionists don’t actually vote for nationalist politicians

Brexit Source: Victora Jones

This one is a little different in that it’s an admission of ignorance, rather than an assertion that is later proved to be incorrect.

In an interview with The House, Karen Bradley said that she hadn’t realised how elections were fought in Northern Ireland prior to her appointment, and that her understanding of the region was from 1990s.

I had no idea how wonderful Northern Ireland was. I was slightly scared of Northern Ireland because of my impression and images from 20 years ago. That is not the place that it is today. 

She also said that she didn’t fully understand the political climate in the North. At the time of her appointment, the Stormont Assembly had been absent for over a year.

“I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought for example in Northern Ireland, people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice-versa.

So, the parties fight for the election within their own community. Actually, the unionist parties fight the elections against each other in unionist communities and nationalists in nationalist communities. That’s a very different world from the world I came from.

English people get Irish passports

Conservative Party annual conference 2018 Andrew Bridgen, Zak Goldsmith and John Redwood in the audience of Boris Johnson's Tory party speech. Source: Empics Entertainment

Speaking to Stephen Nolan’s show in October this year, Andrew Bridgen showed that he didn’t understand the difference between the Common Travel Area and citizenship.

The Conservative MP (there’s a pattern here) got confused when trying to explain how they would ensure that Northern Ireland wouldn’t be treated differently to the rest of the UK, but also allow them to apply for Irish citizenship, which would be EU citizenship.

“That’s the Common Travel Area,” Bridgen said.

We do have the right to go to Ireland, don’t we? As an English person I’ve the right to go to Ireland and ask for a passport, can’t I?
There’s a reciprocal agreement where I can go to Ireland and ask for an Irish passport, and someone from Ireland can come to the UK and ask for a British passport. We have that system, that’s the system we have, isn’t it?

When asked if he thought he was entitled to an Irish passport because he is English, he said yes, and when asked where that right comes from, he answered the Common Travel Area.

Nolan said that there was still a lot to be done before MPs vote on a final Brexit deal. His guest on the same show Ulster Unionist Party’s Steve Aiken, replied:

“The level of knowledge among MPs about Northern Ireland is shockingly low. I have to spend a lot of time doing, and it’s very unfortunate, is briefing UK government civil servants who should be much more aware of what happens in Northern Ireland.”

Speaking at a Hibernian Law Journal lecture about the legal implications of Brexit, Professor of Human Rights Law in London School of Economics Conor Gearty said that there was a “tremendous civic duty” on the Irish living in the UK to “educate the English”.

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