Brexit has been messy from the start. It was a messy campaign, and it could still have a messy end. Somewhere along the line Northern Ireland lost its democracy, and the sad laugh is that hardly anyone noticed. If there’s a lesson in it is that those who turn out, generally win.
Despite the closeness of the general election year before last, Mrs May got the numbers she needed. No amount of petitions to the contrary changes that fact. She’s in the cab and for now, it is just herself who’s driving.
Northern Ireland’s voiceless majority
We have a tendency to glaze over the complexities of our own Brexit vote. Sinn Féin’s collapse of the democratic institutions at Stormont means the majority (ie, anti or soft Brexit) opinion in Northern Ireland is locked out.
In fact, Unionist voters on both sides turned out in far greater numbers (and were far more ambivalent) than nationalists. It was the unionist vote which tipped both Fermanagh and South Tyrone and East Londonderry in favour of Remain.
North Down (where I grew up and the second most Protestant constituency in Northern Ireland last time I looked) put in a massive turnout (68%) compared to Foyle (57%): results which flipped over in the so-called Crocodile Assembly election just nine months later.
By implication, this suggests that Unionist voters took the question significantly more seriously than did Nationalists. And yet, with all the belated talk of hard borders, the outcome was surely more serious for nationalists. That ought to contain an important lesson.
The huge emotional backlash of March 2017 only missed defenestrating the DUP from the First Minister’s office by one seat. But as my dear old Donegal born and hyper-competitive dad used to say, no one remembers second place.
By June the DUP had reasserted their dominance. A dominance which their Sinn Féin rivals are still desperate to deny, but which is pretty self-evident even to observers who are genuinely no friends of the Brexit supporting DUP:
Michelle O’Neill suggesting SF influence has had any impact on Brexit is painfully delusional. The only show in town is Westminster – if you’re not voting, your voice is ignored. It’s that simple. #SundayPolitics
— ??????? ??????? (@BelfastBabs) February 3, 2019
So the people in Northern Ireland who now express the greatest concerns over Brexit (ie, political Nationalists) have elected to have the weakest possible democratic voice over how it is likely to be settled.
Even if the present deal fails or is not superseded by another talk of a security problem is a hideous conflation of trade issues with social unrest. Trade issues it must be said which at least begin in the first place from a point of absolute convergence.
Fear of a slide towards our past is far more rooted in our serial failure to make politics work since the restart of Stormont in 2007.
If all parties in Northern Ireland were prepared to renew their commitments to the Belfast Agreement post-Brexit (ie, return to work), there is no need to return to anything like the conflict of the past. If they aren’t, then not even the softest of borders will improve matters.
Leo braces for a backdraft on the backstop?
Wolfgang Munchau provides a useful counter to the too simple narratives of choice (£) surrounding the rather fraught late stage Brexit debate. It works pretty well if you understand that much of what really underlay the whole pro-Brexit move was an enormous gamble.
Which is why there was never a coherent plan for Brexit in the first place…
… many choices that appear to be binary are not. In the upcoming, final round of Brexit negotiations we will probably have to explore the grey areas between re-opening the withdrawal agreement, and not doing so.
In the case of Brexit, for example, there proved last week to be no majority for extending the deadline. Another important piece of information, often brushed aside in discussions, is that a no-deal Brexit constitutes the legal default position. [Emphasis added]
This is why the panic level in Dublin is rising. Although the consensus that the madness of the Brits means the backstop is more necessary than ever, the seamless consensus from heretofore is cracking. Stephen Collins in the Irish Times notes:
There is no room for further missteps, like the foolish speculation about the Army being required to guard a hard Border uttered by Leo Varadkar at Davos, or for knee-jerk nationalist reactions to provocative statements from right-wing Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party.
Being clever in negotiation (no matter how big your backers are) is not the same as actually securing a cast iron deal. The backstop, in its current form, is far from secure. Daniel McConnell in the Irish Examiner is more critical of the Irish government’s recent hardening:
By being so hardline, Varadkar forced the EU to back a deal that was never going to pass muster in Westminster. And it didn’t, rejected so overwhelmingly by MPs two weeks ago. Dublin’s victory was pyrrhic.
Now that May has reneged on her commitment to the Withdrawal Agreement and the backstop, Ireland and its border with the UK stand badly exposed.
No one knew beforehand what pressures the Article 50 process would produce in practice. The ticking clock was designed to deliver a timely outcome and put pressure on the side proposing to leave. The Westminster vote appears to have switched the direction of that pressure.
Henry Newman writing in the Daily Telegraph contrasts the current situations to Ireland’s own failure to ratify the Lisbon treaty:
…in 2009 Ireland itself had a protocol added to the Lisbon Treaty because it couldn’t complete domestic ratification, even though EU leaders had approved the Treaty in 2007.
When Parliament rejected the deal in December, Brussels declared it didn’t know what the UK’s objection was – nor how a Parliamentary majority could be found.
On Tuesday, MPs spelled that out, backing the deal if the backstop’s issues were addressed.
That, of course, was before Article 50 clarified and codified the exit process. However, last week Michel Barnier confirmed that if Article 50 ends without a conclusion, negotiations will have to continue:
“If there is no deal then we will have to find an operational way of carrying out checks and controls without putting back in place a border.”
It’s this belated realisation that’s may be behind a switching of minds in the south. In his Sunday Independent column this week, Eoghan Harris noted three things that should now be admitted (and properly internalised) on the Irish side of the negotiations:
- First, the British parliamentary crisis accurately reflects a referendum which divides Britain – and revealed the alienation of a large section of the working class.
- Second, most of the nationalist polemics about the problems of the hard border of the past, gloss the primary role played by the Provisional IRA.
- Finally, we are told the DUP are wreckers who won’t talk. On the contrary, they have a solid constitutional case, don’t want a hard border, and are willing to talk to us about a time limit to secure a “soft” backstop.
He then identifies the major sized elephant who has not so surreptitiously been painting its extra large toenails right from the beginning in the corner of the room:
We know the backstop is the primary reason May can’t get a consensus. We know if she doesn’t get one the UK could crash out. We know this would damage us.
This is a hinge point. Forget the terms hard and soft in relation to Brexit. They remain as undefined as any gambler’s promise. But what is becoming clear is that this is not some legalistic, binding contract in which the British beast can be caught and inevitably subdued.
Almost everyone that I’ve ever trusted in politics has got something momentous wrong on Brexit. That Article 50 would never be called, that the UK would never leave. May has set the default setting at Leave and appears to be set to leave the cab unless she gets a better offer.
As Pat Leahy has noted, “such pressure as is on Ireland (and it will be significant) will come from the reality of the situation…”
““Politically bulletproof” Brexit agreement – no hard border for Northern Ireland” by ““Politically bulletproof” Brexit agreement – no hard border for Northern Ireland” is licensed under ““Politically bulletproof” Brexit agreement – no hard border for Northern Ireland“
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