ONE of the highlights of my political year so far was the local St Patrick’s Day dinner.
The warmth of the reception went beyond the expected conviviality reflecting, I think, the strong feelings in the Irish community about Brexit and an appreciation of the role my party and I have played in opposing it.
If we turn back the clock two years, relations between Britain and Ireland were better than they had been for over a century. In my visits to Ireland as Business Secretary in the Coalition and as a tourist, I encountered nothing but goodwill and optimism about the deepening economic and political ties, within the framework of the EU.
Even in the fractious North there had been very little sectarian violence since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the improbable DUP-Sinn Féin Executive functioned, after a fashion.
Then two totally unexpected electoral events threw all of this back into the melting pot. First, there was the referendum won by a narrow Brexit majority (52 per cent) despite a clear majority for Remain in Northern Ireland (56 per cent).
Theresa May then rushed, rashly and motivated primarily by party management concerns, into a commitment to a ‘hard’ form of Brexit: leaving the Single Market and Customs Union.
The practical implications, not least for the island of Ireland, were not thought through and, perhaps, not even considered.
The other unexpected event was the June 2017 General Election which, instead of the predicted Conservative landslide, produced a hung parliament, albeit with the Conservatives the largest party.
The Conservatives turned for support to the DUP and its 10, pro-Brexit, Westminster MPs, cynically offering them £1billion extra funding for the province and effectively giving DUP a veto over key aspects of policy, notably Brexit.
After the first rounds of Brexit negotiations – the financial settlement; agreement on citizenship rights; and the transitional arrangements – it is clear that the problem created by the Irish border is the biggest obstacle to an amicable divorce.
If Britain were to leave the Customs Union, and the common external trade policy, border checks would be necessary to apply ‘rules of origin’ to goods from third countries. And diverging standards within the Single Market would also require checks.
There is now a set of horrible options. Border controls would breach the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, which has precariously kept the peace in the North.
Border controls across the Irish Sea to avoid a land frontier would inflame Ulster Unionists. There is no obvious solution.
The British Government has taken refuge in miraculous new technology, which has yet to be demonstrated. All the evidence from the real world, and even from countries which are friendly – as with US/Canada and Norway/Sweden – is that disruptive border controls are unavoidable.
On my recent visit to Dublin it was clear that the leaders of the two main Irish parties (Fianna Fáil is our sister party) want a constructive solution, not a return to conflict. But the omens are not good. The prolonged hiatus in the North after the breakdown of power sharing reminds us of the deep, underlying, divisions.
Even such a moderate and respected figure as David Trimble, the former unionist leader, warns that Protestant paramilitaries will be back on the streets if unionist sensitivities on sovereignty are not respected. No doubt there are nationalists also spoiling for a fight.
All of this could be dealt with if the British Government dropped its insistence on leaving the Customs Union and settled for a close alignment of regulations, post-Brexit, within the Single Market.
The House of Commons could, within the next few weeks, make this happen. All the opposition parties, including the pro-Brexit leadership of the Labour Party, are united and aligned with Conservative rebels in demanding that Britain remains with a customs union.
Beyond that, there is a growing movement supporting the idea of a popular vote, a referendum, on the final deal with the option of an Exit from Brexit.
Irish voters in the UK will have an opportunity to express their views in the local government elections on May 3 when Brexit will loom large as an issue.
Brexit is not yet a done deal. It can be stopped.