Can we manage the challenge to our identities created by Brexit?

There’s no doubt Brexit is creating fresh and unsought tensions over how to manage as well as express national identities. Two pieces today are vivid examples of the problems created by Brexit on these islands. Newton Emerson develops a theme raised here several times, but has  yet to reach  the top of the political agenda. How do Northern residents born and bred assert their continuing rights as EU and Irish citizens? Sinn Fein naturally want voting rights for Northerners in European and some southern elections, while  Newton believes he’s discovered British attempts to water those rights down.

Northern nationalists and possibly unionists are going to have to be promoted to a new category of Irish citizen, somewhere between resident and emigrant.

This week, Belfast-based lobby group the Committee for the Administration of Justice (CAJ) was reported to have complained to the EU Ombudsman that guarantees over the EU rights of Irish citizens in Northern Ireland that were promised in last December’s draft of the Withdrawal Agreement between the UK and EU have since been watered down.

The CAJ, sometimes attacked for being nationalist-leaning ( it goes with the territory of human rights)  argue for those rights  to be extended  to UK- affirming citizens in NI too.

In the Guardian Martin Kettle returns to the threat to the Union’s cohesion, an issue he argues convincingly Theresa May doesn’t really understand and is actually aggravating it.

The obvious union-defending solution in Ireland has always been for the UK to remain in the EU customs union. It still is. This may yet be in the package that may emerge later this month. And there would be a majority for it in parliament if she took that course. Yet the union is clearly not quite precious enough for May to take that step.

If anything, May has been even more churlish in her handling of the union with Scotland.

The post-Brexit horizon might not be so dark if May possessed more emotional intelligence and more inclusive political skills when she addresses both Ireland and Scotland. Those are skills Ruth Davidson possesses in abundance, and not just because she is a Scot. But May is not one of those politicians who have the skill to give themselves elbow room. And, in fact, the problem is worse than that.

May’s approach to Brexit has never had space for compromise with the 48% of the UK that voted remain. But she has consistently made compromises with a section of the Tory party that cultivates a particularly reactionary form of Anglo-Britishness, and which regards Brexit as much more important than the preservation of the union. Polling this week showed that 77% of English Tory members would rather see Scottish independence than abandon Brexit; much the same proportion of May’s party say they would sacrifice the Irish peace process too.

These are the people and the political culture by which May’s Brexit approach is now inextricably compromised. In addition to spurning Scottish concerns (not just nationalist ones) and as well as cleaving to the DUP’s very one-sided view of British-Irish relations, May’s approach to Brexit has empowered a deeply partisan version of Englishness. This has political consequences that will come back to haunt the country, perhaps very soon. They would deepen and darken if Boris Johnson were to replace her.

It is possible, perhaps even probable, that a fudged and messy Brexit will stop these issues from coming to a head for a while. But a lot of damage has been done and it goes on being done.

The DUP’s implacability  over anything that could be construed as a border down the Irish Sea may seem logical and is rehearsed more than once today by Sammy. In fact their professed aims  of no hard border in Ireland and no regulation of any kind between GB and NI are incompatible.  Their impossibilist line will have the effect of weakening the Union outside their own support.

As the topic of UK cohesion has been  so deeply submerged in Brexit wrangling, it’s unwise to reach hard and fast conclusions about the future of the Union  at this stage.  But the old sense of taking UK cohesion for granted has undoubtedly declined and not only because of devolution. The north-south divide has become more acute in Britain. Among the socially mobile young, cosmopolitan awareness transcends any identification with say, Rotherham. The legacy of Empire, once a source of modest  pride, has been replaced by shame stimulated by the Empire’s non White British grandchildren and the Corbynite Left.  It’s almost impossible now to make a simple statement of British patriotism. On the other side, fighting against the tide, the Brexiteers are a coalition of economically liberal little Englanders and the massed ranks of those left out of fragile prosperity without a cause.

The old Britain is deconstructing.  A new Ireland is in the making. Irish nationalism is evolving from patriotic fervour  to a gentler more outward looking shared experience.  However Ireland too has yet to face the problem of how to accommodate the outlier in the North.

Sharing the fuzzy notion of  “Europe”  is no longer available  as the safe house for  developing our relationships. To our surprise, we are more on our own than we thought.

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