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As Brexit Drags On, People In Ireland Wait To Learn Their Border Fate


Who could've thought that the United Kingdom would come this close to leaving the European Union with no idea how it will happen? A Brexit deadline is days away. Parliament has repeatedly rejected a plan for an exit. And now Prime Minister Theresa May is asking the European Union for a little extra time. NPR London correspondent Frank Langfitt is on the line. Good morning, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What is the prime minister trying to do now?

LANGFITT: Right now she's in Brussels. She's asking for a short extension. The EU has said if she can get her deal through Parliament next week, they would grant it. Or, at least, Donald Tusk has said that, one of the officials at the EU. If it fails, it's really uncertain. There's the risk, as you said, risk of crashing out. The EU might offer a two-year delay. Possibly, Brexit then could wither, maybe never happen at all. But right now nobody really knows how this is going to play out.

INSKEEP: Well, what did Theresa May say when she spoke to her nation last night?

LANGFITT: Steve, she basically blamed Parliament for all this political paralysis. This is what she said.


PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: You, the public, have had enough. You're tired of the infighting, tired of MPs talking about nothing else but Brexit. I am on your side. It is now time for MPs to decide.

INSKEEP: How'd that go over, Frank?

LANGFITT: Very badly, Steve. Parliament, of course, had defeated her deal by massive margins in the past. She actually has to persuade them to pass it next week, and this didn't win over anybody. Instead, she was playing this populist card, kind of insulting the House of Commons yesterday when she was speaking to them and also on national TV. Dominic Grieve, he's a member of Parliament in May's own conservative party, he said he'd never been more ashamed of being a member of that party. And he added this.


DOMINIC GRIEVE: She spent most of her time castigating the House for its misconduct. I have great sympathy for her. I've known her for many years. But I have to say, I could have wept.

INSKEEP: Wow. That's quite a response there, Frank.

LANGFITT: Yeah, and not atypical. People were very disappointed with this, roundly criticizing her. And she needs their help next week to get this thing through.

INSKEEP: NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Thanks so much. Really appreciate it.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Steve.

INSKEEP: And now in our studios is Daniel Mulhall. He is Ireland's ambassador to the United States. Ambassador, welcome to the program.

DANIEL MULHALL: Good morning. Good to be here.

INSKEEP: I just want to remind people of a little political geography. Your country is in the European Union, right, but attached to Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K. So what happens if the U.K. crashes out?

MULHALL: Well, my government, of course, has said all along that it didn't want to see Brexit happening. We've had a very good relationship with the U.K. within the EU for the last 45 years. We'd like it to continue like that. We recognize, of course, that the U.K. has a referendum result that will require to leave, and we are looking now for the best possible relationship between the U.K. and the European Union for the future because that's the best way to minimize disruption for Ireland, for the European Union, for the U.K., but also the best way to ensure that Brexit does not disrupt the peace process in Northern Ireland, which is our leading political concern.

INSKEEP: You said the best possible relationship between the U.K. and the EU because that keeps the two parts of the island of Ireland connected, right, if they have a good relationship?

MULHALL: Yes. If there's a good relationship, it will mean that there'll be no difficulties with regard to the border on the island of Ireland. The border on the island of Ireland is an open border at the moment. It has been for the last 20 years since the successful peace process in the 1990s and the coming of the single market. And people have become accustomed to moving across that border freely on a daily basis for work, business, tourism, family visits and so forth. And any change to the status of that border would be detrimental to the interests of people on both sides of the border in Ireland.

INSKEEP: Ambassador, I understand you're a diplomat. You have to speak diplomatically. But on some level, as an Irishman, aren't you enraged that your neighboring country has come now, just about a week from the deadline, and they haven't figured out what to do?

MULHALL: Well, I'm saddened and disappointed because when I was in London as ambassador, our relations with the U.K. went through the best possible phase of harmony and friendship and...

INSKEEP: That was surely all you, right?

MULHALL: Well, it wasn't all to do with me...


MULHALL: ...But there was a lot of things happening at that time. For example, our president came there first. There was (unintelligible). But things were going very, very well. And part of the reason for that was because we had been 45 years together as members of the European Union. We had built up an understanding between us. Remember, the European Union is a wonderful peace project. It has presided over 70 years of peace and prosperity in Europe. Now, of course, it's not the only factor that's ensured peace and prosperity in Europe, but it's certainly a contributing factor.

And that's why Britain leaving the EU is a blow to Ireland. It's a blow to the European Union. And frankly, we believe it's also something that will damage Britain in various ways. But that's a matter for them, of course, to decide.

INSKEEP: Because you say it's a peace project, I'm reminded of the fear that's been expressed that a hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland would reignite troubles there, would reignite violence there. I'm not sure that people quite understand, though. Why would some border checkpoints cause people to start shooting each other again or bombing each other again?

MULHALL: Well, I don't think - want you to put it, you know, in those dramatic terms. But I think we've had 20 years of peace now on the island of Ireland. Relation between North and South have been transformed. It's become a more normal relationship on the island of Ireland, which is the way it should be. British-Irish relations have been improved. The risk is that Brexit and any sort of hard border on the island of Ireland would simply introduce an additional element of stability into that already fragile political process. Remember, there hasn't been a government in Northern Ireland for the last two years. So and therefore, while peace has held, the political process is not delivering in the way it was meant to deliver under the Good Friday Agreement.

So our fear is that a complication introduced by a hard border the island of Ireland would further undermine, would undermine the peace process and could lead to a resumption of tensions which we are determined to prevent. And our European partners are fully onside with us on this one. And the British government is, also. British government doesn't want a hard border on the island of Ireland. Nobody wants a hard border on the island of Ireland. The question is how to achieve that. The withdrawal agreement provides a guarantee that there will be no hard border on the island of Ireland, and that's why we're so keen on the...

INSKEEP: The withdrawal agreement that's been rejected by Parliament a couple of times by big margins. Frank Langfitt just mentioned three possible options - crash out of the EU in a few days, maybe a 90-day delay, maybe a two-year delay and this whole thing goes away eventually. Which, in a few seconds, would be most preferable to your country?

MULHALL: Well, we don't want Britain to crash out. That's the one we want to avoid. Everyone needs to avoid that. That would be catastrophic. A short extension - our prime minister said yesterday we would be in favor of giving the British government some slack, and therefore a short extension would be acceptable to us. A longer extension, if that's what the British government wants. But of course, the key problem here is that the British government hasn't been able to say precisely what it wants because there's no agreement in Parliament on what option is favored by the British Parliament.

INSKEEP: Ambassador Daniel Mulhall of Ireland, thanks very much for coming by.

MULHALL: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.