Anglo-Irish relations are at their worst in decades after a senior British Tory MP suggested using the possibility of food shortages in Ireland to coerce negotiators into dropping their opposition to the remilitarisation of the border area after Brexit.
A leaked British government report indicated that the economic impact on Ireland of a crash Brexit could be worse than in Britain, and that food supplies to Ireland would be heavily impacted.
More than half of the total food imported to the 26 Counties comes from Britain or the north of Ireland, and this could be cut off, it was suggested, if new trade rules are not agreed.
The threat of a food embargo, voiced by former Tory Cabinet Minister Priti Patel, recalled memories of the Great Hunger, when a million Irish people starved to death when food was withheld by the British government to fuel their industrial revolution despite the failure of the potato crop.
Patel, who has an Indian background and a reputation as a Thatcherite, urged the British government to exploit what she saw as “leverage”.
The comments brought a tsunami of outrage on social media.
“This proposal from Priti Patel really exposes the Brexiteer attitude to Ireland as nothing more than a colonial irritant whose rights really shouldn’t be taken into account,” Sinn Fein’s Chris Hazzard said.
“They know the history of the Irish famine and Britain’s role in it and the very fact that they would seek to inject that into the Brexit debate is crass and offensive.
“The Tories couldn’t care less about the impact of their reckless Brexit agenda on the people and economy of Ireland. We are simply collateral damage.”
Hard-right British MPs are demanding a renegotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement reached by the EU and the British government last month.
British Prime Minister Theresa May is facing an uphill battle to win the support of the Westminster Parliament for the deal. A vote on Tuesday has little prospect of success, despite efforts in recent days to unilaterally water down the ‘backstop’ to appeal to unionists and the hard right.
Few have attempted to predict what the next steps will be, and the odds of a chaotic crash Brexit, or no Brexit at all have both increased, as have the chances of May’s resignation or a general election.
But Patel saw an opportunity in the scenario of mutually assured destruction after an official report for the British government found that a chaotic Brexit would see Ireland suffer a 7 per cent drop in economic activity, even greater than the predicted 5 per cent hit for Britain.
Some 80 per cent of goods transported from Ireland to the EU via road passes through Britain, according to the report, meaning a hard Brexit would cause “political and social damage” to Ireland.
Ms Patel said the British government should exploit the possibility as a tactic during negotiations with the EU.
She said: “This paper appears to show the government were well aware Ireland will face significant issues in a no-deal scenario. Why hasn’t this point been pressed home during the negotiations? There is still time to go back to Brussels and get a better deal.”
Her comments were condemned by Westminster MPs, particularly the threat to food supplies.
Labour’s Lisa Nandy said: “Threatening Ireland in this way is as morally reprehensible as it is futile.
“Britain should be showing itself to be a dependable neighbour and friend in the future, and it is frightening that Brexiteers are even contemplating a move which could see stopping trade, including food supplies, being weaponised in this way, particularly given the uncomfortable historical echoes.”
SNP MP Stewart McDonald said: “It’s a particularly cruel and historically illiterate type that would think to threaten a friendly neighbouring country that saw 1 million of its citizens die as a result of famine - and a further 1 million to emigrate - with modern day food shortages.”
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the statement showed the “sheer moral bankruptcy of the Tory Brexiteers”.
Sinn Fein MEP Liadh Ni Riada said the comments were “despicable” and “reek of desperation”
“It’s a despicable comment to make and indicative of how desperate the Tories are getting as their aimless Brexit blundering continues to implode,” she said.
“The mask has well and truly slipped here. We’re all used to hearing Theresa May’s contrived over-earnestness as she stresses over and over how she doesn’t want to see a hard border but this is exactly what they think of Ireland.
“The government and the EU would do well to remember that when dealing with the Tories on Brexit.”
There have been concerns in Ireland over the lack of preparation for a crash Brexit. While Ireland, unlike Britain, could expect an immediate increase in direct trade with other EU nations, problems could across due to the lengthy sea voyage to France and Spain. Ironically, another issue which has been raised is the reliance of the 26 County state on potatoes grown in Britain.
But Ireland’s EU commissioner for agriculture, Phil Hogan, turned the tables when he suggested a food trade war could lead to severe shortages across the sea. He pointed out that 43 per cent of the food consumed by the British comes from the 26 County state.
“So if she [Patel] wants to advocate a policy that brings about starvation of the British people this is a good way of going about it,” he declared.