Brexit negotiations - May could learn lessons from Collins

It is not generally known whether British prime minister Theresa May is a student of Irish history. Whether or not, she could do worse than reflect on the attempt by Michael Collins to persuade the Dáil to accept the 1922 Anglo-Irish Treaty.

“It gives us the freedom to achieve freedom,” declared Collins.

Freedom has been the war cry of Brexiteers from the start. Freedom from a perceived domination by a growing EU superstate and “freedom to control our own borders and our own money”, as DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds put it.

Ms May will need all her political skills to get the final Brexit deal over the line. There is no doubt she was handed a poisoned chalice by her predecessor, David Cameron, but instead of handling it delicately, she filled it to the brim by calling a general election that decimated the Conservative Party and left her hostage to the DUP. Domestic policy decisions on the so-called dementia tax didn’t help either.

She made a robust defence of the draft agreement in talks with her cabinet yesterday, getting its support. It will be a far harder task to persuade the rest of her fellow parliamentarians in the House of Commons to allow her press ahead with concluding a deal that many within the Conservative Party consider a betrayal.

But, at the end of the day, it may not be the politicians who finally decide on the final text of the Brexit deal as it relates to the border issue. Communities matter, social interaction matters, and so does trade. Five local authorities in Northern Ireland participate in the Cross-Border Area Network with five councils from the Republic. There are many cross-border organisations that meet to foster better relations into the future. We have an all-Ireland rugby team and all-Ireland GAA championships. In many ways, we have an all-Ireland economy.

Business people from all traditions in the North have made it clear that they want to continue to trade with the Republic, while still being part of the UK. The British-Irish Chamber of Commerce welcomed news of a breakthrough. “The certainty that will come from having an agreed withdrawal treaty will encourage these businesses to continue to trade and invest in each other’s economies,” said director general John McGrane.

Politicians talk, but money talks louder. The International Monetary Fund believes Britain could grow faster than expected next year (currently 1.5%) if it gets a deal that guarantees frictionless trade with the EU. Sterling hit a seven-month high against the euro and rocketed beyond $1.30 yesterday after the text for Brexit was agreed.

Michael Collins did not have economics in mind when he signed what he called his death warrant and it will hardly be of any consolation to Ms May to learn how it all ended for him.

Nevertheless, the words he spoke on June 15, 1922, are pertinent. He told a gathering in Clonakilty, Co Cork: “Let us not waste our energies brooding over the more we might have got. Let us look upon what it is we have got.”

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