Brexit, Ireland, and the revenge of history

Either Theresa May’s government falls, or Britain crashes out of the EU with no trade deal. May’s squalid deal with Northern Irish hardliners allows no alternative.

Mary Fitzgerald headshot in circle, small
Mary Fitzgerald
7 December 2017
uvf mural.jpg

Image: UVF mural in Belfast, E. Asterion/WikiCommons.

My colleague Adam Ramsay has written persuasively about how – far from the myth of an insurgent victory over the elites – Brexit was led by “Establishment England”. It was connived, he says, by the powers that have run the country for centuries, combining an “anguished cry of imperial nostalgia, and a home-coming for disaster capitalism”.

Yet those same English elites could not, in their wildest dreams, have imagined the true outcome of their campaign to Make Britain Great Again. 

There is only one thing that is certain now, amid so many other swirling uncertainties. Brexit has for the first time in hundreds of years made Ireland, once a colonised subordinate, far more powerful than its British neighbour.

Brexit has for the first time in hundreds of years made Ireland, once a colonised subordinate, far more powerful than its British neighbour.

After decades of strife, the border which separates Ireland and the UK is now barely noticeable – discreet signposts, no checkpoints, people and goods flowing back and forth unimpeded. The government of the Republic of Ireland, as an EU member, has made it clear they will block any British proposal for the impending EU divorce which changes this arrangement, and imposes any kind of ‘hard border’. It would be catastrophic for the economy on both sides, and risks stoking sectarian tensions in a region which has only in recent history found peace after decades of violence, and where urban communities are still separated by large so-called ‘peace walls’.

Given all this, any pragmatist faced with Brexit would offer a ‘special status’ for the Northern Ireland, allowing it to stay in some form of customs union or looser arrangement with the EU, enabling movement and trade over the border to continue largely unimpeded. (Northern Ireland, after all, voted to Remain in the EU by a majority of 56-44). May’s government was set this week to announce just such a measure, after striking an agreement from her Irish counterparts.

But it didn’t happen. Here's why.

After Theresa May’s disastrous decision to call an election earlier this year, she now barely clings to power, relying upon the votes of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in order to govern. Without the support of the DUP’s tiny group of 10 MPs in parliament, May’s government falls, triggering fresh elections – and the Labour Party has recently pushed ahead in the polls.

Angering this small number of hardline DUP MPs, therefore, is not an option for May – and unfortunately any ‘special status’ for Ireland would do just that. The DUP, which draws its support from Northern Ireland’s Loyalist (Protestant) community, has repeatedly stated they will not countenance any move which could be perceived as making Northern Ireland distinct from the rest of the UK – or moving it closer to any form of ‘union’ with the Republic.

“If there is any hint that, in order to placate Dublin and the EU they’re prepared to have Northern Ireland treated differently than the rest of the UK, then they can’t rely on our vote,” DUP MP Sammy Wilson warned last week. He said the DUP would be “making clear to the government we have a confidence and supply arrangement with them” – a barely veiled threat to the stability of the £1bn DUP-Tory pact that keeps May in power.

Over the weekend, there were signals that May had secured some form of compromise from the DUP – but those were scuppered on Monday. Apparently after a last minute phone call from the DUP’s leader Arlene Foster, May was forced into a humiliating backtrack on her offer to the EU, and the Brexit negotiations remain in stasis.

The reality is that Theresa May now has two choices. She can either risk the collapse of her own government. Or she can pave the way for a ‘hard Brexit’ – that’s Britain crashing out of the EU in April 2019 without a trade deal, and all the disastrous consequences that follow.

To muddy the picture still further, her position is compromised in another, special way – again by this small group of DUP MPs.

Earlier this year, openDemocracy revealed that the DUP received £435,000 from a mystery donor to campaign for Brexit. The secret donation – three times as much as the DUP has ever spent on an electoral campaign in its history – attracted particular controversy because almost none of the cash was spent in Northern Ireland. Yet a little-known law which applies to Northern Ireland, and not the rest of the UK, allowed the donors(s) to remain anonymous. Clearly, this was a flagrant abuse of the outdated ‘security’ reasons for donor secrecy in Northern Ireland. The upshot? Theresa May’s government is being propped up, as it negotiates Brexit, by a party funded by secret Brexit donors.

Theresa May’s government is being propped up, as it negotiates Brexit, by a party funded by secret Brexit donors.

It is a squalid situation. The UK government makes a grubby £1bn deal with one side of Northern Ireland’s sectarian faultline in order to cling to power – abandoning any semblance of acting as an ‘honest broker’ in the divided region, where talks on forming a government are deadlocked. The UK government then promptly looks the other way over a secret £435,000 donation to its hardline partners – a cynical manipulation of laws that were designed to protect people from harm. The situation is so brazenly corrupt that it would be funny if it weren’t so dangerous.

The conflict in Northern Ireland killed some 3,600 people in the latter half of the twentieth century. The region has been at peace for much less time than was, for example, Yugoslavia before old scars were re-opened and the country erupted into internecine violence and a bloody civil war. The rhetoric by Northern Ireland’s politicians on all sides has, so far, been measured. There is no appetite to return to the dark days of history. But that the UK government would be so careless, so casual about this highly sensitive situation – where so much is at stake – is unforgivable.

Iain Duncan Smith was a leading Conservative figurehead for the Brexit campaign.It is not only May’s government that comes out of this looking weak and, frankly, stupid. Throughout the EU referendum campaign, the question of what would happen to Ireland’s enormous, open border was barely addressed. It was clear that leading Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson, now the UK’s gaffe-prone Foreign Secretary, had given it not a moment’s thought. But neither, it seemed, had the Remain camp. As part of ex-PM David Cameron’s ill-fated ‘Project Fear’, British voters were served a daily diet of warnings about economic armageddon and little else. The British press, for the most part, did little to probe the question of Ireland further either – perhaps most unforgivable of all, given the supposed role of the fourth estate.

It all speaks to the same blinding arrogance that led so much of the English establishment to get behind Brexit in the first place. The irony is that, in Taking Back Control, they are fast ceding it to a smaller neighbour they once subjugated.

Do you know something about the DUP’s secret Brexit donation? Or do you know others who might? It’s vital for democracy that we know who bankrolls our politics. Find out more about how you can share information anonymously here – and share this widely. Thank you.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


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