When Bertie Ahern, the former prime minister of Ireland, was asked what the consequences of a hard border on the island of Ireland would be, he didn’t hesitate.
“The idea of going back to any kind of border would be a disaster,” he said. “you wouldn’t have to wait for the violence – the communities would come together and tear it down with their bare hands”
But if there is anybody in these islands or, indeed, Europe who knows and understands the border issue it is Ahern, one of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement and a politician with an intimate knowledge of Northern Ireland and its divisions.
For the past year Brexit negotiators in Brussels and London have been pondering the imponderable; how Britain and Europe can protects their boundaries without a hard border slicing across the North of the island of Ireland.
Late last year, the British and Irish governments, with the full support of Brussels, declared that there would be no hard border come what may. But neither side produced a plan. And as the clock ticks down to Brexit, the issue is becoming more critical by the hour, and is displaying the potential to deal serious damage to Theresa May’s plans.
Despite assertions to the contrary, one thing is certain: neither Theresa May, Leo Varadkar or Brussels lead negotiator Michel Barnier have the answer. If they had, the issue would have been dealt with by now and the Brexit talks would be set for relatively plain sailing to the departure of the UK from the EU next March.
Since the very start of the exit talks, Europe, Dublin and London have been grappling with the border crux without any measure of success.
Late last year, negotiators nodded through the concept of regulatory alignment which would effectively create a European economic zone on the island of Ireland, and push the border between Europe and the UK into the Irish Sea or, worse, into the ports and airports of Britain.
But even as the politicians were shaking hands and congratulating themselves on breaking the impasse, they knew that there was no possibility whatsoever that such a solution would ever be implemented unless Britain stayed in the Customs Union… And that has been ruled out, time and time again by London.
Irish Premier Leo Varadkar has insisted that he has the full support of European leaders for his stance on “no visible border”, but that could very well evaporate as the sands of time run out.
His relationship with Theresa May is said to be at a low ebb, which hardly points to a satisfactory outcome.
Late last year, when the border became the focus of all Europe attention, Bertie Ahern made his first significant entry into the debate in typical Ahern fashion, pointing out that there is no easy solution and that, in his opinion, the matter will have to be “fudged”.
Ahern is a past master of The Fudge, appearing to make an assertive political decision but at the same time enveloping himself in prevarication. And then getting on with it as if a decision had been made while knowing that it really had not.
It’s a complicated process but one very well understood by the person who is, arguably, Ireland’s most successful-ever prime minister. It’s a process which helped bring Ahern that success, and which served him very well when helping to bring peace to Northern Ireland.
So, when Bertie Ahern speaks on the Brexit border issue, he should be listened to.
“We have to find an alternative,” he said, referring to the possibility of a hard border.
Stressing the art of compromise – or The Fudge in Ahernspeak – he advised against leaving any negotiations to the last hour.
“The Government should try to conclude as much as they can in June. Running it down to October… That would be my fear. If you come down to the last few days, my fear is that our taoiseach would be called in by the French, Germans, the European Commission, and it would be put to him that the British are paying their £50 billion and ready to conclude of freedom of movement and ready to move on a number of issues such as trade agreement, and he would be told ‘we don’t think you should be pushing as hard and you should compromise’.”
“That’s the way it works”, he added knowingly.
“The Irish Government is doing well.. but it shouldn’t have a Hallowe’en/October party of that nature at two in the morning,” he said.
Effectively, what Ahern is saying here is that in order to avoid an autumn Brexit negotiating shambles, Dublin and London should produce between them the answer to the border crux before bringing it to the Europeans.
This process, he probably figures, would make it impossible for Michel Barnier and his negotiators to reject it.
What he is also saying is that Dublin and London must now abandon their stated positions, however wrapped up in jargon they are, and produce The Fudge.
What is worrying though is that while Ahern spoke eloquently of the need for compromise, he failed to use the forum of a Brexit conference in Dublin as the platform upon which he would set out The Fudge.
He knows what is not acceptable; a hard border which, as he put it, would be torn down by the people – but he doesn’t really know what would make it into the Brexit deal.
If he did, he would not have missed the opportunity to outline it and later claim the credit for his innovation.
And this, though appearing to be just another case of political uncertainty, is critical and should be noted by all those involved in the Brexit process.
If Bertie Ahern doesn’t have an answer, there probably isn’t one.