I met pleased and gloomy people in the first half of last year when I travelled around the UK writing about the potential impact of Brexit. But by far the happiest of those I interviewed were veteran Irish republicans in Belfast, mostly present or past members of Sinn Fein, who had devoted their lives to opposing British rule.
They grasped that Brexit had made the question of the Irish border a live political issue by turning it into an international frontier. This was no longer just a 310-mile-long dividing line between the UK and the Irish Republic but the border between the UK and the EU.
Irish nationalists had been trying to interest the rest of the world in the partition of Ireland since it happened in 1921 but had failed dismally. Now the British government was self-destructively doing their work for them, significantly eroding the status of Northern Ireland as part of the UK.
Unionist fears that they would be sold out have been amply fulfilled, an outcome confirmed this week by the EU-UK government deal on the Irish Sea border, which is complicated and confusing – perhaps deliberately so – but means in practice that there will be trade barriers between Northern Ireland and Britain, though not between the Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Unionist papers now refer to an “Irish Sea border” as a done deal. At the same time, Boris Johnson dropped the much-criticised clauses in the Internal Market Bill that would have enabled his government to renege on the sea border.
Former leaders of the Brexiteers, propelled into power by claiming to be “taking back control”, are coy about what they have done, but the British state is ceding a large measure of authority over part of the UK. Northern Ireland will in future abide by EU customs regulations and “single market” rules and the rest of the UK will not. Unsurprisingly, the pro-Brexit British media that has been booming defiance towards Brussels in the last few days and telling Johnson to stand firm is largely mute about this diminution in the real power of the British government.
The unionists in Northern Ireland are not so shy in expressing their sense of betrayal. “The prime minister will always do what is right for him personally, then for his party, then for England,” says a bitter editorial in the unionist News Letter quoted by The Irish Times. “He showed pure cynicism when he came to Northern Ireland to denounce Theresa May’s border backstop … Within months he had the premiership he had spent a lifetime coveting, and within weeks of achieving that goal he was cutting the province adrift.”