Sailing in unchartable waters
One of the few things Bishop Noel Treanor is sure of about Brexit is that a hard border would be unthinkable, Greg Daly writes

More than a year on from the Brexit referendum, we’re still in unchartable waters, according to Down and Connor’s Bishop Noel Treanor, who hopes that the crash-course in global and European realities Britain has been receiving since the vote is not coming too late.

Across the rest of Europe, though, “the mood seems to have changed”, he observes, pointing to the Dutch and French elections, with the caveat that “it’s very difficult to generalise and one has to be very careful and recognise that coalescence of all kinds of factors can change the public setting and opinion”.

“The growth in the Eurozone is the trigger for all of this but no other single country has decided to take the same route,” he says, saying that this suggests that things have settled somewhat, although given how referendums can so often be about issues that aren’t on the ballot, “that’s not to say if you had a referendum in the morning and people were dissatisfied with something or other in the country you don’t know what would happen.”

Ireland’s representative to the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community (COMECE), Bishop Treanor has a vast amount of experience on the European coalface, having served as General Secretary to COMECE from 1989 until 2008.

Explaining how COMECE itself had come about, the bishop details how from its beginning the European project had been a deeply Catholic enterprise, one which had seen Catholic political and ecclesiastical leaders and thinkers grappling from the 1940s on – he cites as an example radio addresses by Pope Pius XII – with how Europe’s constant warring could be brought to end through the pooling of sovereignty between countries in order to establish and work for peace.


From an Irish perspective, he cites the gathering in the French town of Luxeuil-Les-Bains in July 1950, intended to celebrate the 1400th anniversary of the birth of St Columbanus, and to provide an opportunity for the French foreign minister, Robert Schuman, to meet with like-minded others to discuss his great idea for the coming together of the countries of Europe. Among those present was the then papal nuncio to France, the future Pope – now St – John XXIII.

The meeting at Luxeuil came just two months after the famous ‘Schuman Declaration’, in which the French minister recognised that “World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it,” and said, “The contribution which an organized and living Europe can bring to civilization is indispensable to the maintenance of peaceful relations.”

Such a Europe, Schuman said, “will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan” but would have to be built through concrete achievements creating a practical solidarity, starting by neutralising the old opposition between France and Germany by placing under a common authority the production of coal and steel – the principle materials of war – in those countries. 

This, he said, would be “a first step in the federation of Europe, and will change the destinies of those regions which have long been devoted to the manufacture of munitions of war, of which they have been the most constant victims”.

Schuman saw this as something that would make war between France and Germany “materially impossible”, and a platform for the economic unification for further countries, all with the intention of building peace and enabling Europe to help others – he described the development of Africa as an essential task of Europe.

“But anyway to make a long story short,” Dr Treanor says, “slowly but surely the inspiration for this project coming from people like Schuman and Alcide De Gasperi and Konrad Adenauer coalesced round the idea of a project that had a spiritual impetus, spiritual source, a call to reconciliation, a call to building peace.

“And you can see in the memories, diaries of Adenauer, the memories of Schuman, of Monnet, the writing of Schuman, this sense of Christian commitment to a project for building a new kind of political model,” he continues, explaining how the fathers of the European project envisaged the replacement of ‘balance of power’ politics with a new model, expressed in treaties and according to agreed rules and principles, countries would pool aspects of their national sovereignty for the common good of the member states and their people.

Against the background of the development of the European Coal and Steel Community and the subsequent European Economic Community (EEC), various Christian thinkers and groups would meet to discuss the political changes that were afoot, with Churches and religious bodies setting up institutions in Brussels to engage with developments, leading eventually, following the first direct elections to the European Parliament to the foundation of COMECE, with Essen’s Bishop Franz Hengsbach being appointed its first president in 1980.

Dr Treanor’s involvement with COMECE began in the mid-1980s, a period when Jacques Delors, as president of the European Commission, was looking back to the founding principles of the project to build on the concrete achievements of the EEC.


“I think that he was saying ‘Look we have achieved this, now we have a framework in which people can effect commerce on this even playing field’,” Dr Treanor says, stressing that we should remember that trade and commerce have always been carriers of ideas, and “were in fact, as far as European evangelisation is concerned, key vectors of the transmission of the Christian Faith”.

Institutions have always been essential to the European project, Dr Treanor says, noting how Pius XII had foreseen this and how Pope Francis in recent years has spoken of this. Mapping out how the European commission, councils, and parliament are intended to balance each other out by speaking for the common good of Europe, the individual states, and the people themselves, he describes the project as a noble one with a spiritual origin and drive, but one that’s in need of recalibration especially in light of how the world has changed with globalisation being a reality that must be faced.

The attempt by Jacques Delors to renew the project through revisiting its sources and the creation of the European Union is often seen in Britain and elsewhere as the point at which the project lost its way – as though it had only ever been meant to be an economic enterprise. The obvious question is whether the project somehow lost the capacity to communicate what it was about.

Somewhere along the way, the feeling among some net contributors that their contributions to the project were intended to bind Europe together in peace began to be forgotten, as the Cold War’s bipolar world faded away and war was felt to have been excised beyond Europe’s borders, Dr Treanor concedes, while pointing out that as he was in Brussels when this was happening, he wouldn’t have felt this.


Nonetheless, he says, while European issues were often reported in Ireland and elsewhere, dots were all too rarely properly joined. “Journalists reported them but the political narrative in the country somehow failed to include the European dimension as a formative element of political awareness and discussions,” he observes, continuing, “Europe was pretty much spoken simply of in terms of a source for money and a source for grants. To that extent, as has often been said, it’s been something of a victim of its own success.”

That there is a gap between the European peoples and the European institutions is clear, he says, saying that this is probably due to a failure to embed European dimensions into national political discourses. 

“Some tried to do this, there is no doubt about this, some political leaders and representatives did, but the main thrust was determined by the fact that the project necessarily involved establishing the infrastructure for the market, which became the framework of understanding, with this idea of the European institutions being kind of a source of finance,” he says.

In addition, he notes, it was easy for domestic politicians to blame ‘Europe’ for decisions they had been party to. “And then when some decisions were taken which were, for one reason or another, not very popular back home, Brussels was blamed when in fact the decisions were being taken together by national ministers,” he says.

Easily forgotten or missed in all of this, he says, is how partnership in the European project has transformed relations between Britain and Ireland, the leaders of which found themselves after 1973 regularly sitting together and dealing with each other as equal partners.

“You found the representatives in the European Parliament, there with equal voice, and this European framework and context no doubt further transformed the British-Irish relationship, and in terms of Northern Ireland, it created a context in a space in which those who were elected MEPs from Northern Ireland were working together with members of the parliament from other countries,” he says.

Primary aims

Such parliamentarians, he says, included French and Germans who learned to deal with each other in an institutional setting “one of whose primary aims was reconciliation, peace building, sharing of resources, exercising solidarity for the purposes set out by the treaties, and set out fairly clearly and aspirationally in the preambles to the founding treaties”.

For people like John Hume and indeed Ian Paisley, this had a profound effect, he says. “That did bring about massive changes and it’s on that basis of course, then, that after the ‘94 ceasefires, the European peace programmes were established, which have brought significant financial resources into Northern Ireland and into the counties on both sides of the border, precisely to promote and deeply consolidate reconciliation through concrete societal projects.”

Where Brexit will leave this, he says, as almost impossible to say, not least as there is still no real sense of what this might mean: “They’re talking about a soft Brexit now, what in name of heavens does this mean in terms of the single market and the customs union? What does it mean concretely?”

Soft border

It is certainly hard to see how a soft border between the UK and the EU in Ireland could be squared with the British government’s oft-proclaimed determination to leave the single market and the customs union, he says.

“A soft border there: does that mean a hard border between Ulster and Britain somewhere out in the sea of Moyle and down the Irish Sea? If it does, what does that mean in terms of the future? What internal impact will this entail in terms of the constitutionality of the United Kingdom?”

Right now it is impossible to say, he says, pointing to the unexpected results of Britain’s recent elections.   “We are in very uncharted waters and at the moment I would say unchartable waters,” he says.

 “At this point in time on this day,” he says, “I don’t know that one can say other than that there is confusion in the air.”

Pointing out that the British government’s plan and purpose are still not clear, he says that at least the European position is clear, noting how it was mapped out in March, with numerous papers having since been produced for all to see.

“I think that’s really important as well,” he says, continuing, “It is vital that the negotiations of Brexit become very transparent. Citizens need to know and if they don’t know the democratic deficit is created, particularly in the knowledge society. And such a deficit will always engender disenchantment and reaction.”

The visit of the EU’s chief negotiator Mark Barnier to Ireland in May was a clear pointer of how important the Irish angle is to the EU, Dr Treanor says, noting how this has been acknowledged and stressed as one of the key priorities for the Brexit negotiations.

“The level of the economic interdependence and enwebment of the economy of the Republic of Ireland and the economy of Northern Ireland is such that any kind of hard border cannot but have a profound negative impact a) on the economy, b) socioeconomically and c) on the stability of Northern Ireland’s peace process and indeed on the future of, I would say, body politic in Northern Ireland,” he says.

The North, he says, is a society where the private sector remains radically underdeveloped, such that a hard border would make it much more challenging to attract foreign direct investment, and would do so at a time when that is desperately needed.

“We need here to further develop the society to further deepen the process of reconciliation and deal with the past,” he says, continuing, “We need employment. We need growth and promotion and skills. We need new and inventive ways of preparing our youngsters for a society where both cognitive and emotional intelligence have developed, preparing them to operate and live in a society where artificial intelligence – and the economic possibilities for the economy that that will open up – are developed.”


This challenge cannot be understated, he says.

“Let’s not forget what are we dealing with here: we are dealing with that region of the United Kingdom with the highest level of child poverty, which entails low numeracy and high levels of illiteracy and high levels of drop out in certainly socially difficult areas of society,” he says, continuing, “so bring all that together with the European scenario and bring it together with the current difficulties attached to all the Executive, link it with the wider European, British and Irish contexts in the global village in which we live. 

“And you basically come back to the point that, those who shape and weave the political narrative of our political parties are confronted with a significant challenge to develop a new discourse about the future of this part of the world. And we need to prepare people for a world that is changing very rapidly.”

Given the needs of the North and the extent to which there’s a growing and vibrant interconnectivity between the two parts of Ireland, he says a hard border is unthinkable.

“A hard border is really inconceivable and no longer viable and would be detrimental in so many different levels and arenas of life,” he says.