In late 2010, I sat in a discreet space in the lounge of a Dublin hotel with two British diplomats who were planning the first state visit of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland the following May and were consulting widely. The questions were the basic ones: What should she say? What should she not say? Where should she go? Where should she not go?

When I said she should visit a stud farm and get to see some horses, the diplomats were uneasy. Would that not seem too posh? I explained that following horses in Ireland was part of ordinary life. And also, if she didn’t see some horses, people would think that she was not enjoying herself, and, oddly enough, despite 700 years of strife, most people in Ireland would want the Queen to enjoy her visit.

There was one word, I said, that, no matter what, she should not utter. The word was not Cromwell or paratrooper or Paddy or Mick or potato; the word was sorry. The Queen should not say that she or her government or her people were sorry, even for the plantation of Ulster or the penal laws or the famine or the Black and Tans. The word “sorry” was debased. Everyone was always sorry. Very few people who said they were sorry really meant it. Nor should the Queen express remorse or apology. The Queen in Ireland should not say anything that she did not mean.

I did not know at that time that Tony Blair had not, in 1997, personally seen his own statement of remorse for the Great Irish Famine before it was released. It “was hastily written by aides because they could not reach him to approve it, newly released classified documents reveal,” according to the Guardian report. What we believed were the prime minister’s words were read out by the actor Gabriel Byrne at a televised commemoration event in County Cork.

“In all the circumstances events could not have turned out better,” the British ambassador to Ireland, Veronica Sutherland, cabled at the time. “The statement, which focuses on undeniable facts, is widely perceived as the apology long sought by many Irish people.”

At the time, I found what I believed were the prime minister’s words to be disheartening. The speech felt formulaic, manufactured, insincere. But there was, nonetheless, something sweet behind Blair’s intention and those of his officials and his ambassador who seemed to believe that “many Irish people” had “long sought” this “apology”. It seemed to me that many Irish people had many other things on their minds in 1997, one of the early years of the Celtic Tiger, when many Irish people were busy paying mad prices for property.

The diplomats who were preparing the Queen’s visit, unlike Tony Blair, planned things carefully; they put an immense amount of thought into every word the Queen would say in Ireland and every image of her that would be shown. It wasn’t as though such close attention to Ireland was new, but it had been sporadic. It was there during the negotiations for the Sunningdale agreement in 1973, but not in the aftermath. It was there too in the run-up to the Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985. It was there in the negotiations, perhaps Tony Blair’s finest hour, that led to the Good Friday agreement in 1998. It was not there during Brexit and its aftermath.

On 18 May 2011 the Queen spoke with great delicacy and tact in Dublin Castle. She did not apologise for anything. She merely said something that happens to be true: “With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all.”

The body of the Queen’s speech made clear something that might be important for anyone thinking about Anglo-Irish relations after Brexit. The Queen described the closeness between the two islands that prevailed despite political problems. “Many British families,” she said, “have members who live in this country, as many Irish families have close relatives in the United Kingdom. These families share the two islands; they have visited each other and have come home to each other over the years.”

None of this was ever going to change after Brexit. Irish soccer fans will still support English teams; Irish people still have cousins in England and go to England looking for work; Northern Irish people will still see Scotland as close to home. England still represents freedom for many Irish people.

But there has been an interesting change. Up to now, there was an image spread of the former colonies including Ireland. It suggested that we were somehow hot-headed and given to soft patriotism and nationalist sentimentality, that we could not be trusted in negotiation, that we spoke with a forked tongue. Now, all of these qualities have been taken over by Whitehall itself. But it is worse on this occasion. We, at least, were actually colonised. The United Kingdom, such as it is, was only ever colonised in its dreams, and by the EU, of all things. Dealing with the UK now, as Lloyd George said about Eamon de Valera, is like trying to pick up mercury with a fork.

In Ireland now, Brexit is still viewed with disbelief. It is hard to think of any real advantage that has been gained from it. Slowly, its implications are becoming clear in the most ordinary ways. There is a feeling in the Republic that someday soon Britain will wake up from this bad dream and benefit from some daylight.

Yet while we, in southern Ireland, take our easy relationship to England for granted, we do not have a similar relationship to Northern Ireland. In 1986, when I walked along the border in Ireland to write a book, I felt like a stranger much of the time in the north. Their hatreds were not mine, nor indeed their education system or their health service, not to speak of their police and the British army

In Fermanagh, I attended the funeral in a small, rural church of a part-time UDR man who had been murdered by the IRA, with the killers escaping across the border into southern Ireland. As I followed the ceremony, I realised that I had never been at a service in a Protestant church before. Then, when the sermon began, I heard a tone that was new to me. The clergyman read out the names of all those who had been murdered by the IRA in this border community since the Troubles began. He did this starkly, stopping briefly after each name. Many of those named were family, friends or neighbours of those in the congregation. As the clergyman wondered how many more names would be added to the list, the response was a stunned, troubled silence.

A wall facing the Republican area of Bogside, Derry, 2019. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

I wished that his sermon could have been used in full on southern Irish radio. When I went back to Dublin and told people about the sermon, they nodded in sympathy. But by that time the Republic of Ireland’s interest in the north was, like that of the British government, at most sporadic.

Like many in the south, I was puzzled at the vehemence of Protestant opposition to the Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985. One day the following year, when I had interviewed a Protestant survivor of a sectarian attack, I added a question about the agreement. He explained that his problem centred on the matter of arbitrary authority. The Dublin government suddenly had a say in the affairs of Northern Ireland, but no one in the north could vote to remove the Dublin government. This opposition to arbitrary authority was at the very heart of Protestant identity, he emphasised.

Now, after Brexit, Northern Ireland may become subject to EU regulations on medicine, to take just one example, but has no democratic relationship to the EU and is not represented in the European parliament. Thus, arbitrary authority approaches from two directions – Brussels and Dublin.

The problem Northern Ireland has is serious. It has become low on everyone’s priority list. The British government was prepared to negotiate a hard Brexit, despite the implications for Northern Ireland. It promised one thing and delivered another. While Dublin wants the Good Friday agreement, in all its ingenuity and sense of inclusion, to be preserved to the letter, there is no appetite in the Republic to take over Northern Ireland or become responsible for funding it or dealing daily with its factions. Dismantling partition would be a most dangerous process.

Over the past 50 years the policy of the Dublin government has been consistent. Dublin wants stability in Northern Ireland. It does not want territory, or trouble. Keeping the border open is a way to avoid strife at the border. Supporting parity of esteem for Catholics is a way to make Catholics more confident and more at home in Northern Ireland.

But just as the Tories had Ukip barking at their heels, there is a spectre haunting Ireland. It is the spectre of Sinn Féin. In an Irish Times column in June questioning proposed legislation for an increase in police power in the Republic, Michael McDowell, a former minister for justice, ended ominously with: “The constitutional privacy of the individual needs concrete expression and workable safeguards. You never know who may be directing police operations in the next few years.”

His readers would have known instantly that he was alluding to Sinn Féin.

The loud and looming presence of the party as the main opposition in the Dublin parliament brings with it discussion of a united Ireland. The three main politicians in government in the Republic – Micheál Martin, Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney – are not given to rhetorical flourishes. They tend to use language carefully, even thoughtfully.

It is thus depressing to find Simon Coveney in 2017 saying that he wants to see a united Ireland in his political lifetime, and adding this year that his party was “very ambitious” about Irish reunification. And Leo Varadkar, earlier this year, saying: “I believe in the unification of our island and I believe it can happen in my lifetime.” And Micheál Martin last October insisting that his party was still committed to a united Ireland.

In this united Ireland of theirs, that will occur in their lifetimes, do they intend to foist the dysfunctional health system and the appalling housing crisis that exist in the Republic on the people of Northern Ireland? Do they want to import sectarian hatred and the politics of perpetual grievance from the north into the south?

Their talk of a united Ireland “in my lifetime” is mystical blather, but it has the power to unsettle a fragile political environment. Also, it will do nothing to keep Sinn Féin at bay. It will do nothing either to solve the more pressing and immediate problem of sour relations at official level between Ireland and Britain after Brexit. It is another example of politicians saying something they don’t mean. When Tony Blair did it, his intentions were harmless, an example of bumbling goodwill. In Ireland now, however, stirring up emotion on the subject of a united Ireland in order to hold back the tide of Sinn Féin is what a speechwriter might call “dangerous and unhelpful”, or, as the Queen might put it, something that might be “done differently or not at all”.

The Magician by Colm Tóibín is published by Penguin (£18.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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