The potential impact of #brexit upon the Totality of Relationships

Recently, in a conversation with an old school friend, who is very much a nationalist and supports a united Ireland, told me that while he was voting for remain, if he were of a more cynical bent he’d be voting tactically for Leave, and speculated that there would be nationalists who would do so. I’ve noticed a lot of other people making similar comments, here on Slugger, on social media and in social circles. This led me to do something I haven’t done for a long time; think seriously about the union, and what the impact would be upon it if the UK left the EU.

On Northern Ireland’s interminable constitutional question I’ve been perched up here on the fence for around 15 years now, having vacillated a little in each direction before then. At the moment I see the respective cases for both the union and for reunification are very finely balanced, each with different pros and cons, and differing degrees of risk. The status quo sits easily as a comfortable default, creating space for us to sort out more serious problems.

I have to confess that I’m a little bit of a West-Brit. This is not a term used favourably by most nationalists, which reflects that there are probably more of us than they’d like to admit, and maybe suggests that they feel a certain degree of empathy for this perspective that they’re unwilling to confront. Historical events, and some not so historical, unpleasant and serious in many cases, cannot be denied, and nationalists are well rehearsed at rhyming them off. But when you look past these things you may conclude that we’re neighbours with a country that has a lot of positive aspects.

If you ask people, at home or abroad, to name the things that positively define the UK, many of them will mention the NHS and the BBC. The NHS needs no introduction; no politician dare be seen to express anything less than a desire to reinforce and strengthen it. I could spend all day talking about the BBC. When I think back to my earliest memories, snapshots I can remember of life before nursery school, I recall most prominently the sounds, music and characters of the BBC’s preschool television programmes at the time. Later, at school, the BBC took it upon itself to try to push forward computer literacy in the UK, specifying its own computer, encouraging its uptake in schools, and providing television programmes, books and magazines to help people learn how to use it. The BBC would later aggressively embrace the internet during its nascent period in the mid-90s. Far from a stolid, slow-moving state institution, it has embraced technology ever since it was established to try to find new ways of meeting its remit to educate, inform and entertain the public. It interprets this remit zealously, spreading the UK’s wide and deep culture in the arts and music, through events like the Proms, so that it is available to everyone.

Many of us did not have RTÉ and grew up reading British newspapers, listening to UK radio, watching UK television programmes, and following the UK political culture. The minimalist political system in the UK, a system which has been in a state of more or less continuous improvement for 800 years, which acknowledges its own imperfections and provides the political class and the public with the tools to reshape it, is something I feel instinctively drawn to. When I think of statesmen (and women) I think of people like Clem Attlee, Hugh Gaitskell, Jim Callaghan, Harold Wilson, Shirley Williams, Paddy Ashdown, John Smith and Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Clare Short, and even on the Tory side of the bench there are people like John Major, Michael Heseltine, Douglas Hurd  and of course Chris Patten. On both sides of the argument, it’s a political culture that embraces reform, sometimes incremental, sometimes radical, on the back of a reasonable and fair debate.

The UK Parliamentary system is the original, and still perfectly good, way of representing people, discussing reforms, and appointing the Government. Reporting of local and international events is balanced by fine newspapers which themselves have histories stretching back a century or more, some for profit, others by trusts, such a CP Scott’s Guardian. I think of publications like The Economist, The New Statesman and the Spectator, and of the satirists at Private Eye – the British capacity to lampoon and send themselves up in print and on screen, masterfully blending satire, dry wit and sarcasm, all the while making a serious point, is something which must be fairly unique.

It is the outward facing, internationalist side of UK politics and the UK public that led the country to embrace EU membership four decades ago. The Conservatives were, as many of us know, torn apart under John Major over Europe, but then Tony Blair won an overwhelming mandate at the election in 1997 – the first I voted in – promising to sign the social chapter of the Maastricht Treaty and put the UK “at the heart of Europe”; Blair was returned to office three successive times.

It is within the context of EU membership that the Good Friday Agreement was signed. As David McCann noted earlier, the European dimension is central to the Agreement. EU structural funding has been spent upgrading cross border roads and trains; while the absence of an effective border has encouraged co-operation and friendly relations between the two jurisdictions on the island – with Unionist hostility being notably absent. Aside from the peace, the renewed strength and dynamism in Anglo-Irish relations is something to behold; millions of Irish or Irish descendants work and make their home in Britain; and the two countries have settled into comfortable sense of mutual respect with plenty of co-operation and goodwill, underscored most recently by the Queen’s visit to Ireland, when she stopped to pay her respects at the Cenotaph, and offered a few words in Irish.

All of this has left us in a place where, for unionists, the union is very much a no brainer; where for nationalists, benefiting from the best of both worlds – a veto in power in a well-funded NI under an effectively neutral British government – they can’t quite work up the enthusiasm to really agitate or vote for Irish reunification; and where those of us in the centre find the case finely balanced. Maybe not British as Finchley, but British a bit like Finchley ? “‘spose it isn’t too bad .. ”

Enter, stage right, the campaign to leave Europe. Leave are a hodge-podge coalition of Flag and Family Tories – many of whom, in fairness, have a reasonable and relatively rational perspective on leaving – accompanied by an unruly rabble of ex-BNPcreationists, climate change deniers, chauvinists, people who vigorously resist gay equality (DUP, UKIP) people who want to bring back the death penalty (DUP, UKIP) and people who just don’t like those foreigners telling us what to do. But their hostility is not only directed across the sea; it’s facing inward as well, and directed against many of the rich aspects of UK culture and society as I briefly outlined above. The UKIP leader has gone on record supporting a two-thirds slashing of the license fee (the DUP have voiced similar views) and has spoken in favour of dismantling the NHS. Far from encouraging a reasonable, fair and measured debate, UKIP have suggested that violence is the next step and – perhaps unknowingly – used campaign messaging resembling Nazi propaganda.

Closer to home, Farage has also gone on record to propose scrapping the Barnett formula to introduce “fairer funding for England“; his characterisation of the existing funding arrangements as unfair could only mean that he envisages distributing less to the regions. Northern Ireland’s public finances are in delicate condition; the last thing they need are the UKIP leader’s bull-in-a-china-shop shock therapy.

The referendum debate has been characterised by unfriendly exchanges, claim and counter claim, misleading facts and sometimes, outright lies. But the aspect that really bothers me is the anti-intellectualism. With a few exceptions, the experts, academics and leaders right across British education, science, industry, business and finance are all in favour of remaining in the EU. This has presented a difficulty for Leave, which it has responded to by attacking the entire notion of expertise itself. This, for me, is tantamount to book-burning. It marked what may turn out, in the future, to be the turning point in British politics where we embraced the Gut, in the way that American politics did under the tutelage of Karl Rove, George W Bush and now Donald Trump.

The debate around Europe and the UK’s role in it that we are presently having is not just about free trade, money going to Brussels or the kinds of laws that come back. It’s about competing visions for what the UK is actually about; what its values are. One side of the debate is based around asserting and renewing, and hopefully expanding upon, the diversified, outward looking, participative kind of UK that enjoys broad national and international support. The other side of the argument proposes lobotomising the UK that many of us remember fondly growing up with, to see it retreat into a perpetually angry, fist shaking, one-dimensioned, self-satisified but ultimately weakened and unfriendly shell of a country.

If that happens, and the UK redefines itself and its relationship with the wider world by voting for brexit, suddenly the factors that make the case for the union start to become less clear-cut. If there is an economic downturn, as most economists and financial experts are predicting as a consequence of brexit, there will be less money to fund the regions. If Scotland leaves the UK, as is almost inevitable, the constitutional and practical arrangements for Northern Ireland become more difficult, not least because of the shifting balance of power in the House of Commons. This would come on top of uncertainly about the nature of border controls between us and the Irish republic.

If British divisions of global firms, especially financial companies, take the easy step of relocating to the nearest English-speaking EU member, namely Ireland, Northern Ireland could find itself tethered to a country which does not want it, while looking enviously past the customs posts across the border to where life is continuing much as it did before. Signs of this envy were fleetingly beginning to show during the RoI’s economic miracle during the mid-2000s. Its recovery from the serious mistakes it made looks not only more sustainable, but well positioned to benefit from bad decisions across the Irish sea.

It would silly to suggest that a brexit vote on Friday morning will see the creation of hordes of newly-minted nationalists desperate to leave the UK. What is not so silly is the beginning of an unravelling of what the Good Friday Agreement called “the totality of relationships” and the potential for Northern Ireland to do disproportionately badly as a result of any economic decline that the UK faces. It creates the circumstances for a step change in the way people think about what country they want to be part of.

I’m voting remain because while I’m neutral on the Union, I’m not neutral about the EU and how it benefits both the UK and Ireland, and I care about being part of it. Apart from all the usual reasons to like the EU, I believe I’m voting for the path which will keep the relationships between these islands, and between our communities, as stable as possible so that we can complete the difficult work of solving our deep seated problems in this place. Why put all of this at risk ?


  • Msiegnaro

    The old threat to Unionists, vote in or NI will be out of the UK – project fear at its best.

  • Sharpie

    We’ll all be experts in hindsight – wait for the “told you so” postings. I can’t help think that this whole exercise has been divisive with no winners, no matter the decision. Something ugly and very un-British has been unleashed and will not be put away easily.

    The rancour, the nationalistic rhetoric, the lies, the suspicion, the negativity, the xenophobia. These have damaged the UK and only time will tell what impact it will have had. My feeling is that this is the start of something rather than the conclusion and together with the radical movements – left and right, across the developed world there is something of the tinderbox about it all.

    History will record it as a response to the insane wealth inequality that occurs inside countries as well as across the world – when many many more people have nothing to lose so that any scale of action they take is of no consequence to their quality of life – ergo middle class Syrians prepared to die on a boat or to walk for two years to escape violence.

  • Chingford Man

    I see Markus Kerber, the head of Germany’s answer to the CBI, is already looking to the future.

    “Imposing trade barriers, imposing protectionist measures between our two countries – or between the two political centres, the European Union on the one hand and the UK on the other – would be a very, very foolish thing in the 21st century. The BDI would urge politicians on both sides to come up with a trade regime that enables us to uphold and maintain the levels of trade we have.”

    So here we have an influential voice in one of the EU’s most important member states urging that the EU comes to terms with Brexit Britain. That goes against the nonsense currently circulating that the UK would be hammered in a trade war if it left the EU. As Farage has been saying for ages: after Brexit, people will sit down and make a trade deal that benefits everyone.

    I wonder if the usual suspects on Slugger will now admit that they have been wrong? That’s you, Heading, Anglo Irish, Kevin Breslin, AndyB et al.

  • Ciaran74

    A ship load of global experts begging the UK to stay and one German dude of some stature urging a Plan B, and they are all wrong….trust is the biggest issue for Leave Chingford. I don’t trust anyone in the Leave leadership camp on looking after the environment, workers rights, the NHS, or looking after the provinces of the U.K. if it’s Leave……

  • Ciaran74

    I missed that bit. Where was the threat to NI?

  • AndyB

    Why, what have I said that contradicts Kerber?

  • Ciaran74

    I’m not for the Union but I accept the principle of consent. I grew up in NI with no RTE and plenty of Coronation Street but its relevance to my aspirations is zero. Nationalism’s lack of current energy is cyclical but the lack of courage inherent in some sections of the Irish expressed in neutrality all over Ireland is lazy at best, and a lack of evolution from the flip flopping peasant at worst. The U.K. is a fine developed nation, which has given the world allot of positives, that’s cool with me never mind the past.

    It’s strange that so many views merge on the EU debate. The reality is that all of Ireland needs to recognise that working the EU relationship, whilst improving north-south relations to increase investment from the US, and closer relations in the British Isles is the best future for us all. Brexit is a narrow English Waterloo project and should not be blurred by politicians expressing improved integrity and accountability. None of this will improve our lot in the north as we will be firmly at the end of the food chain if they Leave.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Thank you Sharpie, this has to be one of the most accurate assessments of present geo-politics I’ve read recently. The resentment towards EU power is a distraction from the greater powers that are concentrated globally.

  • Chingford Man

    “Remember, those who unilaterally withdraw from a treaty are always on the losing side. The other side controls what they are willing to offer to the unilateral withdrawer – and while the EU will want to make sure they have access to the UK market and vice versa (probably because of fears for European companies, especially car manufacturers, with manufacturing bases in the UK), we need their imports far more than they need our exports… They will have us over a barrel, and we will find it difficult to negotiate a deal to our advantage in the two years which would be available. The EU hold all the aces, and they know it.

    “Short version, I expect a deal will be done, but not necessarily the
    one you want.”

    Your point was that a deal would be done but only one disadvantageous to the UK. That can only involve protectionist measures of some kind. Kerber is warning against any such barriers that interfere with the present levels of trade, because they would hurt German industry. If the EU genuinely did have Brexit Britain “over a barrel”, that would suit German industry perfectly well and he would not feel the need to speak out as he has just done.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Challenges to black & white viewpoints aren’t axiomatically threats. Nuanced and subtly shaded views aren’t either. Cautionary theses aren’t either and nor is postulating on the uncertainties of the future. I could go on but consider for a moment Hamlet’s advice on the limits of human knowledge: There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

    While scoffing at fear mongering is healthy, labelling food for thought as a threat calls one’s confidence into question.

  • Chingford Man

    “The House will forgive me for quoting five democratic questions that I have developed during my life… what power do you have; where did you get it; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and, how can we get rid of you? Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system.”

    Tony Benn, 1998.

  • AndyB

    That’s not what I meant at all. You are putting words in my mouth.

    My point was that a Britain expecting a cheap and easy free trade deal would be sorely disappointed. The EU will be well placed to set its own terms for access to the single market, including free movement of people, compliance with EU law, and whatever annual contribution to the EU budget by way of access fee it wishes, because the UK will be desperate to protect against inflation and especially to protect its exports.

    If no deal is reached, the UK will be the bigger losers. It’s still in the EU’s interests to reach a deal, and I’ve never said different, but UK consumer demand is such that damage to EU exporters would be less than damage to UK consumers and exporters.

  • Chingford Man

    I’ve not misquoted you at all. Your words speak for themselves.

    The fact that Kerber made those comments is a strong indication that he does not expect or want any eventual trade deal between Brexit Britain and the EU to be so to the disadvantage of the UK as to impede trade. Why? Because reciprocal tariffs by the UK would surely hurt German industry for which he speaks. You have argued to the contrary.

    His comments add weight to the Brexit analysis – rejected by you – that:

    (a) the UK is in a perfectly strong negotiating position wth the EU in a post-Brexit scenario, and

    (b) the parties will eventually come to a deal that maintains the existing level of trade without the protectionist measures you’ve just listed again that you expect to find in any trade deal.

    The detail of Kerber’s comments and the fact that he made them in the first place blow a big hole in the economic argument of Remain: that Britain’s trade with the EU will be at huge financial cost. Kerber is indicating that German industry does not want that to happen.

  • AndyB

    That is the definition of a straw man. Instead of dealing with what I write, you attack me for saying something I didn’t – in this case, I tell you have misinterpreted what I have said and that you are putting words in my mouth that I did not say (or mean), and you tell me that you did not misquote me.

    Your problem here is that you are putting meanings onto statements that are not there to be read in, and Mick has already warned you about trying to read my mind.

    Kerber says it is in the EU’s interests to reach a trade deal. He and I agree. Simple as that.

    I have never suggested that the EU would force a protectionist trade deal with the UK. In fact, EEA membership would ensure free trade in both directions, but that comes with compulsory free movement of people, compulsory compliance with EU law, and compulsory membership fees. Switzerland’s various bilaterals, even though outside the EEA, include all of the above.

    The precise terms of that membership are in the hands of the stronger negotiator, and the UK will be far more desperate to reach a deal than you are prepared to admit.

    If Kerber has a view on who would come off worse in a trade war, you haven’t quoted him, and until you do, you cannot appropriate his words to support your analysis – you might as well say that because I think a trade deal is in the EU’s interests that I agree with your analysis!

  • LiamÓhÉ

    Though apathy may win it for Brexit, the odds are that the UK will continue to be a member State of the European Union provided the last minute cautious status quo votes comes out in force. The question will then be on how to reconcile the fact that (guess) 47% of UK voters wanted out with the necessary evolution of the EU.

    For the EU to respond to a changing context and demands for more electoral accountability there will need to be continuous reform, but with so much toxicity exposed and whipped up in British (or English and Welsh) politics, how will that pan out for changes that are necessary for EU progression? These might include a directly elected EU president, harmonisation of taxation and social security policies in the Eurozone, and the creation of an EU borders corps (beyond Frontex) and a limited common defence policy.

    Basically, I fear that without the type of pan-European politics practiced by the Blair administrations that the EU will continue to falter and be overrun by set-back-the-clock nationalists (“I want my country back”). If the UK continues to be run by schizo-Tory governments that block every meaningful action in the EU, then what good is a Remain for those of us who are not resident in the UK?

  • Brendan Heading

    Nationalism’s lack of current energy is cyclical but the lack of courage inherent in some sections of the Irish expressed in neutrality all over Ireland is lazy at best, and a lack of evolution from the flip flopping peasant at worst.

    I agree with most of the rest of your comment but this is a bit unkind. It’s perfectly understandable why an SDLP voting civil servant with a safe job and a pension, along with a mortgage and a family to think about, is not manning the barricades every weekend in the struggle for Irish independence. This is a calculation that hasn’t changed much from the days of those newly minted freeholders who benefited from late 19th century land reform.

    The dynamic is not dissimilar with the brexit crowd, who express a similar sentiment : “screw the risks, we can handle it, national prestige is more important than financial security and safety”. Hmm, I’d rather have a cup of tea and a biscuit, thanks.

  • Brendan Heading

    Unionists have always confused me.

    On one hand, change the days a flag is flown on, suggest that a nationalist might become first minister, or block a few bands from going up a road, and it’s all hands to the plate to fight to the death to defend ourselves from total annihilation.

    On the other hand, fundamentally rewrite the foundations of the UK’s internal and external relationships, completely alter the balance of power within the country, and grant support to those who have publicly declared that their priorities lie exclusively with England, and the same people are “meh, stop your scare tactics”.

    You are welcome to debunk any aspect of my article that you wish.

  • Brendan Heading

    I wonder if the usual suspects on Slugger will now admit that they have been wrong?

    I’m wrong about things often enough, especially when it comes to trying to anticipate the future, and I will readily admit to being wrong when I’m shown evidence that suggests I am wrong.

    I agree with Kerber. I think that erecting trade barriers with the EU is extremely foolish. That is one of the main reasons why I support remain. I recognise that free trade requires a system of agreed regulations and a trading framework. I also agree that in the event of brexit, it is in everyone’s interests to try to keep trade as free as possible.

    However, the fact that it is foolish to erect trade barriers does not mean that it will not happen. Fundamentally, you cannot have a situation where anyone wishing to bypass the overhead of trading in the EU while retaining the benefits can simply route their trade into Europe through the UK. The EU, already under pressure following the UK’s departure, would simply disintegrate and we would return to having duties and import/export controls all the way across the continent.

  • Ciaran74

    You just described me Brendan!! – safe job, car, holidays, pension, portfolio, business owner, bills et al. I need to work on feeling more exciting.

    I voted for consent in the GFA, subscribed to peace, hoped for a little reconciliation quicker than we’ve achieved it, and some improvement in all our fortunes.

    Consent is enshrined, the union is safe but our fortunes seem precarious. A UI is distant but but my allegiance or tacit acknowledgement for NI hasn’t even seeded. Unionism seems happy to keep me at arms length unless I fling myself on the banner, and also seems happy for everyone north of the border to get a little poorer whilst the UK improves. We’re at the end of the food-chain and whilst I admit sentiment rises quickly, my family and people’s prospects are not served well by a flabby civil service, a selfish middle class, and a UK which is apathetic at best.

    The comfortable classes can sit back whilst the rest will slowly suffocate over the next 20 years. But hey, let’s not challenge, let’s not rock the boat. Enjoy your tea.

  • Msiegnaro

    Not quite seeing the problem, the first part are threats to our liberty and the second is necessary change.

  • Brendan Heading

    my apologies Ciaran. We are very much on the same page.

    Neither unionists nor nationalists are interested in canvassing my vote. A lot of that is to do with the fact that opinions on the constitutional question are supposed to be factory-installed. On the other hand, though, by enthusiastically backing brexit Unionism is directly and deliberately taking a dump on my front lawn. They can’t expect a thing like that to happen without any consequences.

  • Ciaran74

    If it’s a tune for quotes…..’those whose who serve supreme causes must not consider what they can get but what they can give’.

    Whilst flawed, the EU is broadly positive, and means to be. Britain has barely attempted the pursuit of reform and Leave apears like a butterfly that has got all one flower can give and sees more elsewhere. The European project will be better off without Britains narrow, selfish approach to its neighbours.

  • Thomas Barber

    Its a threat to your liberty if a nationalist becomes first minister ?

  • Ciaran74

    Agree. The SDLP are clearly searching for a way back in and Eastwood may have found it on a broad level. However I think pulling the opposition lever is 5 years of purgatory and they should have sent the UU’s and Alliance there instead of joining them. The new message would have been better served up close, in a ministerial seat.

    I may seem unkind but the current outreach to Unionism from the Irish is flawed given its been rejected since the vote for the GFA. I can live with it but our energy is best served elsewhere, so why pursue it?

    Supporting Brexit is a a poorly presented show of cynical solidarity with the UK’s centre of gravity, with no real thought to what it means for all of us.

    I’m not sure Greenthumb could help with that dump.

  • Chingford Man

    No, I’ve represented you quite correctly and have shown why your view of what might happen after Brexit is at variance with what the German industrialist would like to see happen. The gentleman goes a bit further than just saying it is in the EU’s best interests to do a trade deal. He says he is against trade barriers. The things that you have listed above are barriers to trade.

    I think he is right and you are wrong.

    If you disagree, you are entitled to do so. Just don’t whinge about it and pretend to be the bullied kid in the playground. If you want to have the last word in this exchange, you’re welcome.

  • Chingford Man

    “the fact that it is foolish to erect trade barriers does not mean that it will not happen”

    France and Germany will be the two most important countries in the EU if hopefully the UK departs. There will be elections in both countries in the next 2 years. Herr Kerber is already indicating that, on behalf of German industry, he wants any UK departure to be as painless as possible. (His organisation is rather more important to the CDU than the CBI is to the Tories.) He knows that if the split is unpleasant, his sector will suffer. Angela Merkel and indeed the EU have enough problems without creating new ones for herself. I think the divorce will be amicable enough because it is so obviously in everyone’s interests.

  • AndyB

    I think you are a dishonest man who twists words for meanings which aren’t there.

    I’ve actually listened to Kerber’s comments to the BBC, and he is in favour of the UK remaining in the EU. Are you sure he is right?

    I repeat: he and I agree that a trade deal is in both our interests in the event of a Leave vote.

    He thinks it will be easier than I do, but it may surprise you to know that Germany is not in charge of negotiations. They can veto, but they are only one of 27 nations, and German government members have already indicated they don’t necessarily agree with Kerber.

  • AndyB

    I would cynically suggest the outreach from republicans to unionists is because they know it will be rejected, leaving them looking the statesman on the international stage (ie not even necessarily for domestic consumption!)

  • Ciaran74

    Yeah, sure, a fairly obvious tactic which could backfire. Although it’s public that SF have an outreach theory or policy, I wasn’t singling them out specifically.

  • Chingford Man

    Ha, ha. I wasn’t going to reply but I had to laugh at your hypocrisy in calling me a “dishonest man” when you whinged about me earlier. Better go and report yourself to Mick for playing the man.

  • Chingford Man

    I’ve listened to PMs since John Major saying the EU needs “reform”. The only continuous reform the EU does is more and more integration. A win for Remain simply pushes the EU’s incurable systemic problems a bit further down the line. Still, all the things you mention in your second paragraph will do nothing but good for UKIP if the UK does stay in.

    The Blair era of soft Eurocentric leftism is gone and replaced by a far right in the rest of Europe with ideal conditions for growth: economic chaos, third world migration and a blinkered and arrogant EU.