Just before lunchtime on Monday, European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted: “Tell me why I like Mondays!” He had just gotten off the phone with the Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar. Varadkar told Tusk that Ireland was happy with a formula of words the British government had already agreed to: that, after Brexit, there will be “continued regulatory alignment” between both parts of Ireland. Behind this technocratic phrase, there was a great retreat by the British.
They had previously insisted that Northern Ireland is as British as Yorkshire and thus could have no special status after Brexit. The Irish government, with the full support of the European Union, had argued that this would mean the reimposition of a hard border on the island of Ireland and a real danger of undermining the Belfast Agreement of 1998 that ended the Troubles. This was always going to be the most difficult of all the problems posed by Brexit. While the British concession to the Irish position was no more than the beginning of a solution, it was “sufficient progress” for the EU to conclude when its leaders meet on December 14 and 15 that they could at last open trade talks with the British.
Yet Tusk’s tweet was inadvertently ominous. It was a play on “I Don’t Like Mondays,” a hit song in 1979 by the Irish rock band the Boomtown Rats. The song in turn was inspired by a mass shooting in a US school playground. Asked why she did it, the shooter, a sixteen-year-old girl, replied, “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.” The lyrics, written and sung by Bob Geldof, now a prominent campaigner against Brexit, had her adding that “I wanna shoot that whole day down.”
Within hours of Tusk’s playfully optimistic tweet, Monday’s hopes would indeed be shot down. The shots came from Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a right-wing Evangelical party in Northern Ireland, whose ten members of the Westminster Parliament are keeping Theresa May’s minority government in office.
For Prime Minister May, this was a double humiliation. First, she had conceded what she had promised never to concede—a special deal for Northern Ireland. This is itself hugely problematic for the whole Brexit project: as soon as word of the deal got out, the leaders of the devolved parliaments of Scotland and Wales and the mayor of London were asking why they couldn’t have special deals, too. May’s famous tautology—“Brexit means Brexit”—falls apart if Brexit means many different things in different parts of the UK.
Yet she found herself entirely outmaneuvered. The British had assumed that the Irish could be relied on to agree that “sufficient progress” had been made even when there was nothing on the table but bland assurances of “no return to the borders of the past.” This was a serious miscalculation, though an understandable one. Britain has always had the upper hand in its relations with Ireland. It was completely unprepared for the reality that Brexit is creating: a rapid waning of British diplomatic power. The Irish government knew that it had all of the other twenty-six EU member states, and the European Parliament, on its side. Since the negotiation process got under way in April, the Europeans have made it clear that their position is Ireland’s position. Britain is isolated; Ireland has powerful allies.
The reasons for this European solidarity with Ireland are a mixture of idealism and realpolitik. On the one hand, the EU genuinely wants to protect the Belfast Agreement and the Irish peace process. For all its problems, that process is a great reminder of the EU’s own primary purpose, which is to end the threat of war in Europe. On the other hand, siding so strongly with Ireland is a very effective way of admonishing the British about what they are abandoning with Brexit—the protection and support of a large multinational institution. There is a simple message: Ireland is one of us and Britain is not. We look after our own.
Britain’s agreement to accept Ireland’s demands is an expression of its weakness: it can’t even bully little Ireland anymore. And this would have been bad enough for one day. But there was another humiliation in store. Having backed down, May was then peremptorily informed that she was not even allowed to back down. She left her lunch with the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, to take a phone call from the DUP’s Arlene Foster, who told her that the deal she had just made was unacceptable. May then had to go back in and tell Juncker that she could not agree to what she had just agreed to. It is a scarcely credible position for a once great state to find itself in: its leader does not even have the power to conduct a dignified retreat.
In September, I suggested here that the Irish Question was like the Sphinx on the road to Thebes: its riddle must be solved before a final deal on Brexit can be approached. On Monday, the Sphinx seemed to be in a good mood, willing to allow the traveler to mutter an interim formula and pass at least a few more steps along the road. But she was only toying with the hapless May, like a cat letting a mouse go with one paw, only to grab it back with the other.
For what is clear is that the Irish Question is more and more a British question: Does any British government have the authority to make a deal on Brexit? The reckless decision to leave the European Union, and the fantasies that fueled it, have destabilized the United Kingdom itself. There is a vacuum of authority, one that has been filled, most improbably, by the DUP, a party that received just 292,000 votes, or less than 1 percent of the total cast, in the UK’s general election in June. Before the Europeans can even think about a final deal with the British, they need to know whom exactly they are supposed to be dealing with. They can be forgiven for not understanding that it is the DUP.
There are forces outside the room, realities not represented at the negotiating table. Those are the unresolved realities of Britain’s long and complex entanglement with Ireland. Until they are honestly addressed, the Brexit project will struggle to articulate itself in a way that the Europeans can respond to. The song he evoked in his moment of misplaced optimism must still be going round in Donald Tusk’s head:
Now, it ain’t so neat to admit defeat
They can see no reasons
’Cause there are no reasons
What reason do you need, oh, whoah…
[Tell me why]
I don’t like Mondays.
Fintan O’Toole is a columnist with The Irish Times and Leonard L. Milberg visiting lecturer in Irish Letters at Princeton. His writings on Brexit have won both the European Press Prize and the Orwell Prize for journalism. (September 2017)