Tag Archives: brexit

Brexit and Northern Ireland

You probably don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to either. But this is something of a climactic week for the act of supreme national self-harm/heroic crusade to restore national pride that’s been gripping the islands off the western coast of Europe. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is about to deliver her Brexit plan to the House of Commons, where it looks set to be defeated. And what then? No one knows. Everyone seems to know what they want to happen, but no one knows what actually will happen.

So what is Brexit? Well, “Brexit means Brexit,” as May herself famously said, which strikes close to the heart of the recursive absence at the heart of the whole project. For all the talk of restoring national sovereignty that Brexit supporters have spouted, none of the fine details have ever meant so much as the act of Brexit itself: removing the U.K. from the grip of the European project. To which end, they have clung to the slender referendum victory achieved in 2016 with the grim determination of a dying man.

Brexit, like Athena, was born out of the splitting headache that’s afflicted the Conservative (and Unionist) Party in the U.K. for decades. At least as far back as the regime of Margaret Thatcher, a rump of Eurosceptic MPs have made Conservative leaders’ lives hell by putting their anti-Europe views ahead of any other needs. David Cameron, in the manner of Prometheus, decided to resolve the problem by taking an axe to it: having promised a referendum on the subject, he duly delivered in the hope that it would resolve the matter. Unfortunately, what he delivered was not a goddess of wisdom but rather a goddess of discord, who has since spread the Conservative split to the nation at large and the continent of Europe. Cameron promptly departed for parts unknown, and we’ve been living in the world he created ever since.

If the Brexit victory had been a decisive one, delivered on a clear platform, this might not have turned out as bad as it did. Unfortunately, “Brexit means Brexit” was as clear as it ever got. Worse, infighting among the Brexiteers themselves delivered Theresa May as the successor to Cameron—having campaigned against Brexit, she now promised to deliver it, meaning that no one trusted her. Two years of inelegant negotiations have followed, with Europe patiently coaxing along a nation and a party at war with itself. All the details that were glossed over during the referendum campaign have come back to haunt the Conservatives—the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as perhaps the main one—with the result that May’s proposed Brexit solution is a fudge that makes no one happy and seems doomed to defeat.

Which is where I come in. I’ve been crossing that border on a regular basis for 24 years. In the early days, back in the waning years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, most of the border crossing points were closed, and the ones that were in use featured passport and security checks, with watchtowers on overwatch from nearby hills. While the end of the Troubles didn’t bring as much of a peace dividend as Northern Ireland might have hoped (a subject for another day), the border has all but disappeared. Those border crossings are wide open, with the only sign of the change being a switch in the road markings and the units used for speed limits (miles in Northern Ireland, kilometres in the Republic). Brexit’s threat to return this situation to the bad old days is part of the reason why May’s solution is such a fudge.

Part of the argument for Brexit in the first place was for the U.K. to recover control of its borders. Not that it didn’t have that control a few years ago, but in an age where immigrants get blamed for everything, it was a powerful emotional call. It’s certainly one that Brexiteers have harkened back to as their struggle to achieve their goal proceeded by stumbles and flops. Unfortunately, the Northern Ireland border is one stumbling block that refuses to go away, and boy does it make them mad.

There were those who saw this coming, and warned about it back during the Brexit referendum campaign, but their warnings weren’t plastered across the side of buses, so they went unnoticed. Accordingly, when the EU negotiations had to deal with the details glossed over during the campaign, there was a lot of disbelief, frustration, and plain anger. The whole thing is a knot of conflicting desires and promises, and unpicking it is far from easy. But let’s take a dive:

  1. The Northern Ireland border right now is open, as are all borders in the EU. Brexit would see it closed, but that would conflict with…
  2. The Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to the Troubles. Closing the border would breach the agreement, something that…
  3. The Irish Government really don’t want. In this desire they have the backing of the EU, frustrating the hell out of the Brexiteers. One suggested solution is to put the customs barrier in the Irish sea, between Britain and Ireland, but that would cause an explosion among…
  4. The DUP, who are currently taking a break from not running a government in Northern Ireland to spend time holding the whip hand over Theresa May’s minority Conservative government. The idea of closer ties to Ireland than the U.K. is pretty much anathema to everything the DUP stand for, so they’re now even willing to turn to…
  5. The Labour Party, led by old-school socialist Jeremy Corbyn. Strange times make for strange bedfellows, and there’s none stranger than the fundamentalist Free Presbyterian DUP and the red-or-dead Corbyn, whose suspicion of the EU project is long-held and has kept Labour from serving as a capable opposition during the entire Brexit imbroglio. Worse for the DUP, Corbyn has long been sympathetic to…
  6. Sinn Fein (Northern branch), who are taking a break from not running a government in Northern Ireland (with the DUP!) to continue not taking their seats in the U.K. parliament. Like the majority of people in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein are anti-Brexit, but they find themselves impotent on three fronts to do anything about it. They haven’t even been particularly vocal in support of a…
  7. People’s Vote. Essentially a re-run of the Brexit Referendum, this time with more clarity and detail, it’s the favoured option of most Remainers, though the success of any effort to remain in the EU is far from assured. And given the lack of time remaining, the absence of a plan for a new referendum and the poor odds of getting a negotiated Brexit deal through, we might end up with a…
  8. No-Deal Brexit. It’s the outcome that none but the hardest of Brexiteers are hoping for, but it still lurks on the fringes, waiting for its moment. The U.K. (including Northern Ireland) simply drops out of the EU next March, with no new trading agreements in place. Food and medicine shortages and travel barriers all await, and no one knows just how bad it might get.

The frustration among Brexiteers with what their slapdash approach to negotiating with the EU has delivered boiled over this week. Priti Patel, an emblematic figures for a government that’s big on rhetoric and small on detail, complained that Ireland too was likely to suffer from food shortages in the event of a No-Deal Brexit and that the Conservative negotiators should have used this as a lever to get a better deal from the EU. Not only was this wrong-headed on a factual basis—Ireland is more food-secure than the U.K. is—but the spectacle of a U.K. parliamentarian suggesting food shortages as a way of dealing politically with Ireland was historically inept to a staggering degree.

Yet this is where we are right now. Staring down the barrel of a process that began two years ago and has no more certain an outcome now than it did then. Those driving it in the U.K. are more wedded to the ideal than they are to any of the details. Those dealing with it from the outside are restricted to managing the fallout (the Irish government have spent a lot of money preparing for the worst case outcome), and there have been continual reminders that the EU would be happy if the U.K. just gave up on the idea and gave the EU another go.

I’d be happy to see that myself. Not only would it make crossing the border to Northern Ireland in future a less fraught affair and keep those of my family who live there more secure, but I like the fact that the U.K. are in the EU. As grumpy and unwilling a member as they’ve been, they’ve also served in some ways as a counterbalance to the centralising influence of France and Germany. The EU is not perfect, but its contribution to peace and prosperity across the continent has been a strong one. I’d rather see the U.K. inside, pushing for the changes it wants to see, than on the outside, lacking the power to push for changes and having to deal with it in a purely self-interested fashion. If there’s one big benefit that EU membership has brought, it’s confirming that nations, no less than people, are part of a society. Brexit would be a big step back from that understanding.

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