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Séamus Nevin @SNevin1
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On this day, 97 years ago, impossibly difficult negotiations were taking place in London concerning a small island nation trying to leave a union with the worlds richest single market and in which, just like today, Northern Ireland was a key issue.

The Anglo Irish Treaty was signed at 10 Downing Street on 6th December 1921. The sticking-point the UK has to overcome to achieve freedom from the EU today is the same sticking-point Britain presented the Irish negotiators back then: Northern Ireland.
If Brexit is England’s Easter Rising (an unlikely revolt that saw a previously maligned and ignored fringe movement disrupt the establishment and change the course of their nation’s history) who, then, will be Michael Collins?
The Anglo Irish Treaty fell far short of the Irish separatists’ demands for full sovereignty. The Treaty Michael Collins negotiated meant Ireland (then known as the Irish Free State) would not be fully independent but “a self-governing dominion of the United Kingdom”.
Other restrictions on sovereignty applied too.

One of the biggest controversies concerned whether a Irish parliament should have the power to set its own customs duties. Then too, the unique circumstances of northern Ireland were the obstacle.
Leavers wanted the north to exit on the same terms as the rest of the country. Business interests argued that leaving the customs union would cause great damage to northern Irish industry. Just as the UK is finding now, leaving a customs union is not without political difficulty.
The deal, reached after long and hard rounds of talks, was imperfect. Hardline leavers like Éamon de Valera riled against Collins’ deal arguing instead for an “external association” with Britain, not dissimilar to some Brexiteers’ idea of a new kind of partnership with the EU.
Amusingly, just as for Collins, Theresa May too is being criticised from the sidelines by a tall, stubbornly obstinate, devoutly Catholic, hardline leaver with an unusual surname.
But as Collins argued back then to his frustrated and disappointed party colleagues, the deal “gives us freedom, not the ultimate freedom that all nations desire, but the freedom to achieve it”.
May, as with Collins, is entangled in a diplomatic quandary that will define her political career. Given the political realities in Brussels, and the parliamentary arithmetic in Westminster, she must endeavour, like Collins, to convince her colleagues...
that to reject the negotiated agreement risks jeopardising the very thing the Brexit leavers, like their Irish separatist predecessors, have fought so hard to achieve: freedom from that neighbouring union.
In Ireland, some hardline rebels went on to fight (and lose) a civil war that broke out over Collins’ deal. Eight months after signing it, Collins himself was killed. Yet, today, all but the most zealous of Irish nationalists now concede he was correct.
The idealistic quest for national self-determination is always, eventually, followed by a compromising reconciliation with the trade-offs of realpolitik. When the Irish leavers sought to take back control, it was no different.
Brexit divisions are, thankfully, a long way from civil war, but they too will require pragmatism, concessions and conciliation. Guiding a nation to that compromise is one of the greatest tests of political skill and courage for any leader.
But it is also necessary for the national best interest and is thus a demonstration of true patriotism.
The Irish border, when first created, was intended as a temporary but indefinite arrangement. The fact it essentially disappeared with the advent of the EU Customs Union and the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement is proof that flexible and imaginative solutions can develop over time
Almost a century after the Anglo Irish Treaty was signed, tensions within Parliament have dug up the past and put the Irish Question back on the table. Over the next few days we shall find out who has learned the lessons of that history.
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