The Sunday Magazine

A disastrous hard border or a reunification? David Norris on Brexit's impact on Ireland

One of Ireland's most quotable political personalities shares his thoughts on Brexit and the upcoming British election.
Senator David Norris and Michael Enright share a laugh at the James Joyce Centre in Dublin in June 2016. (Chris Wodskou)

Senator David Norris is one of Ireland's most quotable political personalities. So it's not surprising that he has strong views on Brexit and the upcoming British election. After all, Ireland, along with Northern Ireland, stand to be profoundly affected and perhaps altered by whatever form Brexit takes. 

Norris argues it could mean a disastrous hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland — or perhaps, on the other hand, reunification.

David Norris' interview has been edited and condensed. To hear the full interview, click 'listen' above.

Senator, we have had four years of Brexit babble. What is the mood like in Ireland? Is it getting on people's nerves? 

I would say the mood is one of exasperation, and it's been that from the beginning. I think that Cameron was a bloody fool to give a referendum to the most politically illiterate population in Europe, on an item that was so sophisticated that it would need 2,000 pieces of parliamentary legislation to accomplish. It wasn't a legal requirement; the referendum result had no legal standing. If you had any guts, you could have said, "Now we've taken your opinion. You are equally divided. You're staying in. Next business." That's what he should have done.

The problem is that British politicians put their own political careers and ambitions and those of their party ahead of the national good.- Senator David Norris

Unfortunately, the problem is that British politicians put their own political careers and ambitions and those of their party ahead of the national good. That's a tragedy. It's also very shocking to see that politicians like Theresa May got into government and implemented policies with which they substantially disagreed. That is hypocrisy.

What is at stake for the Republic in the British election? 

It would have a very damaging effect on the Irish economy, particularly the agricultural sector. Now they have this idea of having a border down the middle of the Irish Sea, which is a bit daft, in my opinion. And of course, that completely aggravates the unionists. But the one thing I would say about the impact of Brexit is that, in my opinion, it has brought a united Ireland considerably closer. 

You mean the six counties of the north are now closer to a realignment or rejoining the Republic? 

Yes, I think so. I mean, there is a colleague of mine – Ian Marshall – in the Senate. He's an Ulster Unionist and he had an article in The Examiner newspaper where he talked about a united Ireland and appeared certainly to accepted with some degree of equanimity, although he asked certain questions about it. And in particular, business and agricultural, the leaders of those areas, have exhibited so much disquiet about Brexit, that it's clear that they are coming around to seeing their future with the Republic.

Seamus O'Reilly, a radio journalist writing in The New York Times, said that 'Brexit requires unbraiding a centuries deep history of entanglements.' Is it even possible to unbraid all of that? 

Well, I don't know. In Britain, you have Boris Johnson, who's a complete buffoon. Not only that, but he has absolutely no principle, whatever. As I'm sure you know, he had two articles ready for the Telegraph and it was only the night before they were published that he decided which one to publish. One of them was in favour of Brexit. The other was in favour of Remain. So that's the degree of principle that he has. 

Can Brexit damage or imperil the Good Friday Agreement?

Well, it certainly can. It's highly likely that there would be some kind of hard border with customs posts and all this kind of stuff. That's an open invitation to renegade Republican groups to attack them. The confidence after the Good Friday Agreement was perfectly justified. We have largely had peace on the island of Ireland since then, and that is something very much to be welcomed. 

Can you explain to what the backstop was and why it was such a sticking point to get Brexit deal passed? 

The backstop was really to ensure that there should be no border. That was an actual legal arrangement: there shall be no hard border. That was very important from the Irish point of view. 

Now, the British have come up with various things, including what they call technological advances to obviate the necessity for a hard border. But these have never been tried. Nobody knows anything about them. It's fantasyland. But the British are living in a fantasy.

We will be losing a major ally in Britain if Britain actually leaves.- Senator David Norris

From Ireland's point of view, we will be losing a major ally in Britain if Britain actually leaves. But I said three years ago that the British would dither and fart around and alienate 50 per cent of the population and then they'd alienate the other 50 per cent by staying in at the last minute. That's possibly what they'll do.

Do you think the members of the British government have even considered what the impact of Brexit would be on the Irish? 

No, I don't think they gave a damn. I don't think they considered it at all. But then I don't think they really considered Brexit. I don't think they considered what the implications of it were. They considered what the implications for their personal careers and for the political parties was. But they didn't consider the welfare of the people. 

I would say that Boris Johnson is considerably more intelligent, but he is exactly the same kind of unprincipled person who has very little close relationship to the truth. Same as Trump. ​​​​​​- Senator David Norris

Aside from their haircut, is there some kind of mystical or metaphysical connection between Boris Johnson and what Donald Trump is doing? 

Well, they're twins, basically. I would say that Boris Johnson is considerably more intelligent, but he is exactly the same kind of unprincipled person who has very little close relationship to the truth. Same as Trump. 

But he seems to act almost whimsically, out of whatever the caprice of the moment is. 

Absolutely. But I do understand why these people were elected, and those in the right wing swing all over Europe and the United States. People were so let down at the time of the financial crisis, when both American and European governments operated to rescue the financial industry and let the people go to hell. In my opinion, the first rule of good government is to serve the interests and welfare of the citizens. They did not do that. They let the citizens down very badly.

Senator, what would be the worst possible outcome for Ireland and to follow up, what would be the best outcome of the British election? 

The worst possible outcome would be a no deal Brexit, and the best outcome will be no Brexit at all. One other rather coincidental thing is, it may mean that English ceases to be an official language of the European Union, despite the fact that only a small minority of Irish people speak the Irish language. It is the first official tongue. We have a team of translators translating everything into the Irish language in the European Parliament. That would be a most extraordinary thing if you had everything done in Irish and no English. Would it be absolutely mad? But Brexit is mad. It's a kind of disease.

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview.


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