Editorial: The Irish wonder: What is the Brexit madness going to cost us?

BALLYCONNEELY, Co. Galway, Ireland— “Bomb delivers deadly wake-up call on Brexit” was the lead headline on Tuesday in the Irish Independent.

It takes some effort to knock the All-Ireland hurling finals off the front pages of newspapers in the Republic of Ireland. Sports-crazed Bostonians have nothing on their Irish cousins, who live and die by the fortunes of their county amateur teams.

Sunday’s championship match in Dublin’s Croke Park dominated the news for the week run-up and the nation pretty much stopped everything else to watch the lads from Tipperary get the better of their Kilkenny countryman to win the coveted Liam McCarthy Cup. 

But there’s an undercurrent of mounting anxiety on this divided island and Monday brought news that tapped deep into a fresh vein of worry. A bomb exploded just over the “border” in Co. Fermanagh, in the North. Police were lured to a bridge for what turned out to be a hoax device, only to have another actual explosive detonate meters away.

It was designed as a warning, experts here say; but it certainly could have resulted in death or injury to either police or unlucky civilians. And it underscores the tension that is tightening as Irish men and women watch the countdown clock to “Brexit” tick down to an uncertain denouement. The bombing came just hours after unwelcome revelations in the press that the new British government, led by the buffoonish Boris Johnson, seems to be girding itself for what is known here as a “hard Brexit”— the re-installation of a “hard” border between the Republic and the North, which was eliminated two decades ago in a bilateral agreement aimed at ending the “Troubles” and creating a roadmap for a lasting peace.

If the British do withdraw from the European Union — a decision now just 72 days off— that choice will threaten to upend the fragile peace that has — for the most part— stuck since 1998.

There’s a mix of opinions on the subject here in Ireland’s West and, in some ways, it feels much like the calm before the storm. Whether that storm will be a real gale or a tempest in a teapot is the question of the day.

There can be no question that opportunists on either side of the sectarian divide in the North seem primed to seize the moment to advance their own narrow agendas— to settle scores that may have little to do with the day-to-day lives of regular people on this island. 

My maternal grandfather, Martin Casey, left his family farm near the small village of Barroe in Co. Mayo in the 1920s when the violence of the Irish Civil War was still bubbling. I visited his old home with my own family this week. The farm is still a going concern, run now by his nephew — also named Martin Casey— and his wife and children. They raise cattle and they generously let my four children pet the calves that they will eventually butcher and sell off.

The British market is a big part of their trade and they are alarmed by word that the Johnson government may soon begin to import Brazilian goods. The Caseys are anxious about the economic impacts of a hard Brexit.

But, they tell me, they are more worried about the potential for a return to the violence of the 1970s and 1980s that was once routine in the North. The scars of the Troubles are most visible in places like Fermanagh and Derry and Belfast, of course. But in the heart of the Republic — places like the sleepy farm that my grandfather left in the rearview a century ago— they are no less alarmed by its potential impacts on their sons and daughters.

In the Irish Times on Tuesday, just above a brilliant cartoon depicting Boris Johnson as a circus clown, the columnist Fintan O’Toole cautioned that the looming political crisis could be an existential one for this island.

“The political architecture that has broadly held for a  century since the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921 and independent Ireland in 1922, is now deeply unstable. It may well be that that unhappy settlement will have to be hauled down more rapidly than any of us is prepared for.”

It all seems so absurd and unnecessary, a throwback to a time before the Internet and global interconnectedness. Why are we throwing up new borders and creating obstacles for what is clearly a world that wants to be linked up— and not just digitally.

A young man we met while traveling here in Connemara is a good example. A native of Clifden who now lives in London and is busy starting up his own successful high-tech company, David Mitchell, 31, had to leave Ireland to find the opportunity for career growth. Like generations before him, he believes his path will eventually lead to America and, quite possibly, Boston.

Over a pint in a noisy Clifden pub, he told us that the anxieties of the “crash Brexit” are even more pronounced here in Ireland than in London. People are worried and for good reason. For centuries, Ireland has paid a dear price for the excesses of its neighbors across the Irish Sea.

As Irish Times opinion columnist Katy Howard writes this week, it could well be that the biggest toll of the high-stakes Brexit madness will be paid by the Irish people, who had no say in the matter.

“...[A]s in 1690, English and European governments are shaping up to use the island of Ireland as an ideological battleground,” Howard writes. “And possibly...they will leave the locals to live with the consequences for generations to come.”

– Bill Forry