Warning: You might need a dram to swallow this one…
When I was young, many years ago, I was heavily involved with student politics in the United Kingdom. Part of that involvement was representing the National Union of Students in Northern Ireland. This was during the period now known as the Troubles, when armed British Troops and armored cars were regular features of my trips to Belfast and on the road down to Dublin. Friends would open up bags to be searched for bombs when they went into shops. Helicopters would fly overhead. Unlike on the mainland the political discourse in the student bars was conducted with a quiet intensity, because losing your temper may have serious or even fatal consequences.
Luckily those days are passed. The Good Friday Agreement, twenty-years old this year, has allowed a sense of peace and trust to develop on the Island of Ireland as guns and bombs made way for debate and the ballot box. The EU played a vital part in smoothing over the waters. The issue was (foolishly) swept under the rug during the Brexit vote. It’s like England was busy fixing the roof and ignored the flooding in the basement, assuming the foundation would remain solid.
One of the key levers of this peace, the open and seamless border between the North and the South, is now in jeopardy thanks to the collective insanity that has overtaken arguably the oldest political party in Western history: The Conservative and Unionist Party of the United Kingdom, aka The Tory Party.
Theresa May and the rest of her beleaguered crew are engaged in a most precarious act of double think, that brilliant Orwellian construct, of holding two opposing ideas in your head at the same time and believing in both as the absolute truth. The idea is that the United Kingdom, through Brexit, can leave the EU’s Single Market (tariff free services) and the Customs Union (tariff free trade) and still maintain a soft border (no customs barriers) with the Irish Republic. Something not even the Norwegians and the Swedish have managed.
If the border were to move to the Irish Sea, if Northern Ireland was to leave the rump of the UK behind and move into the Customs Union and Single Market, an EU suggestion, then the Unionists in Northern Ireland, who keep Theresa May in power, would say ‘No!’ The Scots would go crazy too, they want the benefits such membership brings.
A new hard border on the Island of Ireland will cause massive distrust and consternation on both sides and may even threaten a resumption of violence. Such an outcome would persuade the members of the EU to support the Irish Republic and veto any such final deal with the UK.
There is no way to square the circle.
Well there is, but only if the whole of the UK remains in the Single Market and the Customs Union, but that does not have the support of the Tory Party or (at the moment) the leadership of the opposition Labour Party. It might also beg the question... why the bleep are we leaving?!
This isn’t the first time that the “Irish Question” threatened to rip the politics of the United Kingdom asunder.
When the United Kingdom was formed in 1801 by joining the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland into a single United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the Irish parliament was subsumed into the Westminster Parliament. This was not popular with a large section of the Irish and lead to a century of wrangling over Irish Home Rule.
Gladstone, the Liberal Prime Minister at the end of the 19th Century, supported Irish Home Rule and tried to bring it about. He failed, and in doing so split the Liberal Party in half. What remained was the Liberal Party (pro-Irish home rule) and the Liberal Unionist Party (anti-Irish home rule). The Liberal Unionist merged over time with the Conservative Party to become the Conservative and Unionist Party, the party of Theresa May that currently runs (ahem) the UK Government and finds itself in such a mess.
The Liberal Party faded into oblivion, a possible fate for the modern Conservatives too.
The EU position in all this will be agreed using what is called Qualified Majority voting. Meaning that 55% of countries representing 65% of the EU population need to agree. This is similar to the requirements needed to change the Canadian or US constitutions. The crazy thing is, if similar rules had been applied within the UK, and they should have been, Brexit would not have happened. Only 50% of the Countries of the UK voted for Brexit (England and Wales). Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU.
The great opening line from Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, published in 1852 is now something of a cliché:
“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
For once, Marx is right. We are well into farcical territory. As the Liberals foundered on the anvil of Ireland, so may the Tory Party too.
In fact the whole of UK politics may face realignment, unless we get this foundation right.