The odd thing about the Brexit stuff is how almost every side of the whole debate seems to have lost track of reality some way back up the road. What we have here is a transcontextual failure to communicate.
The English are a funny lot. And I mean funny in both senses of the word. They are by instinct both class-ridden and deeply non-conformist. Almost every radical idea that’s hit Ireland in the last Millenium first passed through England before it hit our shore.
In the case of Cromwell’s “republicanism” that came with drastic long term consequences. The odd thing is that the more conformist countries of Europe seem to treat much European regulation with the degree of contempt that it often deserves.
Even when in compliance, Germans and Danes find ingenious ways to get around knotty problems. Like re-writing local public sector contracts in ways that only local companies and workforces could effectively service it (without ever explicitly saying so).
Those Brexiteers who say the UK can weigh HMS Blighty’s anchor and sail for new horizons far from the Single Market without massive economic and social consequences seem to have lost touch with the practical reasons the nation-state came about in the first place.
To the English (and let’s face it – with the exception of the Valleys and depressed parts of South Wales, this was largely their response) even the bus queue is a sacred right of British values and fair play. It means sticking to rules and not breaking them.
How many Leave voters (of all ethnic backgrounds) were just annoyed to the bone by eastern Europe immigrants who had never heard of the concept never mind understood its importance to the stability of the English public mind.
These small incivilities matter a lot more than our lawmakers generally understand. The road to hell (as we know from the slow slide into our own tragic conflict) is paved with the thoughtlessness of unintended trifles.
It takes a butterfly to make a hurricane, as the old saw goes.
John Harris’s latest meditation on England and Brexit points in exactly this direction in terms of feeding the smaller anecdotal evidence of a more generous Englishness that’s been buried in the more toxic narrative of recent years:
I know what a modern, open, accepting, diverse vision of my country [England] looks like: I see it not just in Bristol, Manchester, Leicester, Leeds, and Birmingham, but in endless small kindnesses in places that are too often either ignored or reduced to a Brexit-supporting caricature. We need to seize on such examples and make the case for a new England.
When backbencher Rees Mogg decries the EU as a protection racket, he might be asked who he thinks it’s there to protect other than the British farmers of North East Somerset (and Donacloney). US beef is cheaper because hormone treatments make US cattle twice the size.
The truth is that the final solution if it is not to damage either side in the long term, sits in a small box delineated by the complex treaties (and domestic laws) that bind the EU countries together into one single market. It’s such limitation which drives Ireland’s objections.
Whatever happens, whether there is a deal or a no deal, it is likely that the UK will end up operating somewhere within the parameters that this box can allow. A no deal simply kicks the can further down the road and escalates the opportunity costs on both sides.
The statement signed off on December twelve months ago was a joint commitment not to allow any regulatory differences grow between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK or Ireland north and south: ie, no border anywhere on the Irish Sea.
Brexiteers say this was a flanker by Ollie Robbins and the Civil Service to keep the UK in the Customs Union (and tie the UK’s hands in terms of signing trade deals elsewhere). But for the DUP it is a lesser evil to the proposal to cut a watery border down the Irish Sea.
If the negotiations were to be pursued in good faith, the intention is to move to that larger space. But the Irish on both sides of the border know that any ambiguity on the deal at this stage risks a re-run of the provisional border of 1920-25 became the permanent one.
Neither the DUP nor the main parties in Dáil Éireann want to be on the wrong side of the curtain if a macro compromise is never agreed. Irish politicians make a fair point when they look at the chaos in Westminister and ask why would they take chance on that?
What I would say is that despite much high-fevered speculation to the contrary, negotiation over a trade border in itself is unlikely to trigger another conflict like the last one. Or indeed a border poll.
As Paul Bew notes in this week’s Times Literary Supplement, the numbers for either is simply not there:
…despite much-fevered speculation and polling, the general election result a year after the Brexit referendum showed no political realignment in favour of Irish unity.
It is also unlikely, under any dispensation including a no-deal Brexit, that there would be a hard border on the British side. The difficulty lies elsewhere.
Brexit has put everyone in a muddle. It was good to hear Colum Eastwood play the let’s all calm down and think this whole thing through from basics all over again card on Saturday. For now and for the foreseeable future, Northern Ireland has only one home to go to…
Sooner our politicians clamber back up to their chambers on Stormont hill to clear up the mess the better.
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Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty