Memorial to the Irish famine in Dublin. Image, AlanMc
Theresa May’s decision to turn down an invitation to speak in the Irish parliament while sucking up to Trump as he tilts towards fascism reminds me of a story of my friend Dom’s. About a year ago, Al Jazeera got in touch and asked if I knew any Scots in Oxford. I had previously ticked that box, and had been invited to one of Mehdi Hassan’s shows, filmed in the Oxford Union. The format is simple: Hassan and an invited studio audience debate a prominent guest on a matter of the day, then everyone goes for drinks.
I put them in touch with Dom, whose anecdote about that night deserves repeating. The interviewee was Norman Lamont, and he was discussing the then forthcoming European referendum. Dom wandered along after work, watched the debate, and went to the drinks. Lamont was surrounded by suited sycophants, who seemed a little surprised when a young man in a holey T-shirt (“I admit, I was a wee bit scruffy”) and Glaswegian accent stepped forward and asked the former Chancellor a question about the referendum. If they stuttered at this audacity in challenging the great man, there was an audible gasp at Lamont’s response: “Oh... I… I hadn’t thought of that”.
The question Dom asked which stumped this prominent Brexiteer was always the most important one of the whole affair: what would leaving the EU mean for Northern Ireland? Doesn’t it mean tearing apart the Good Friday Agreement? How can you control migration from the EU if you don’t shut the border with Ireland? Or do you seriously propose closing it?
The implications of Brexit for politics in Northern Ireland are deeply worrying. The flag riots of 2012 should have warned anyone who thought that tension was in the past that this is a land struggling to wriggle free of its history. Wander around Belfast and you discover that you don’t need to go to Trumpland to find peoples divided by vast barriers. Some of the structures built to stop young Protestant and Catholic men from killing each other are taller than Israel’s apartheid wall. In East Belfast in 2015, on the interface between Republican and Loyalist areas, I knocked on the steel doors of houses with metal mesh over their windows to keep the rocks from breaking through – a design feature I’ve only previously found on the homes of drug dealers in Scotland’s most impoverished housing schemes.
Context matters. It was only a decade from the Good Friday Agreement to the financial crisis. And for the last six years, austerity has pulled at the wounds of this slow-healing society. A political crisis over cuts to social security risked the collapse of the cross-community government in 2015. Average weekly wages last year were lower than they were a decade earlier. The employment rate among young people is 12% lower than in Great Britain. And in the six months to May 2016, there were 52 bomb attacks in the North of Ireland – an average of one a week.
Then there was Brexit.
Much has been written about the question of borders, including here on openDemocracy. And that is, of course, key. But there’s another profound constitutional issue. The word “Europe” appears eight times in the text of the Good Friday Agreement, and the initials “ECHR” a further seven. The cloth used to bind the North of Ireland’s wounds was woven from European thread. And the most famous part of the agreement – which was confirmed by referendums in both the north and the Republic – proscribes that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland is for the people who live there, along with the people of Ireland, to determine. Specifically, the treaty commits both the British and Irish governments to “recognise the legitimacy of what ever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status, whether they prefer to continue to support the Union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland”.
The Agreement – which for the UK is both an international treaty and a domestic policy confirmed by referendum – wasn’t about the EU. But the Supreme Court ruling this week, which determined that the Northern Irish Assembly need not even be consulted before it is removed from the EU, clearly goes against much of its spirit, allowing a huge change to the constitution of Northern Ireland and its position vis-à-vis Ireland, despite the people of Northern Ireland voting against it. Theresa May’s pledge to leave the European Convention on Human Rights, meanwhile, is a direct attack on a treaty which commits Britain to membership.
Of course, all of this is before we even begin to talk about the head-desk of the Renewable Heat Incentive “cash for ash” scandal, the resulting collapse of the Assembly, and the possibility of an ongoing impasse resulting in direct rule from Westminster – or from London and Dublin in what’s known as a condominium arrangement.
And it’s not just the North of Ireland for whom Brexit is a profound worry. The Republic is facing the challenge of potentially no longer sharing a Customs Union or Free Trade Area with its closest neighbour and one of its biggest trading partners. Perhaps more than any other country outside the UK, they have a strong interest in Britain’s exit from the EU going smoothly.
And so when Theresa May was invited – apparently on the suggestion of the Irish Green Party – to become the second ever British prime minister, and the first Conservative, to address the Dáil, you’d think she would have jumped at the chance.
Ireland, after all, buys 5.1% of all of Britain’s exports, compared to the USA’s 11% and China’s 5.7%. Irish people make up the fourth biggest(xls) migrant group in the UK, and have the unique distinction of legally being defined in the UK as ‘not foreign’, according to the 1949 Ireland Act. While British prime ministers like to think they have a special relationship with the USA, that term should really be reserved for our nearest neighbour.
The second reason that May’s decision to snub Ireland’s parliament while sucking up to Trump is so significant is the insight it gives us. I’m not religious, but I think there’s sometimes something powerful about the idea of Original Sin. The clearest view you get of Britain is, after all, from across the Irish sea. The warped reflection you find in the sign in West Belfast which reads “welcome to the Shankhill Road, the heart of the British Empire” tells a more profound story about what Britain is than any attempt to revivify Cool Britannia. Britain/England’s historic treatment of its first colony is such that UK nationalists like May and Lamont cannot look the country in the eye and, with a straight face, declare the greatness of Britain. And so it is easier to pretend that it isn’t there. It’s easier, in the case of the latter and tens of thousands like him, to vote for Brexit without considering the consequences for your beloved Union. And in the case of the former, it’s easier to snub your nearest neighbour than to look too closely what you’ve done to them.
But that’s not an excuse. Theresa May was offered the chance to reach out to politicians in the only country with which the UK shares a land border; where recent events risk re-opening old wounds; one of our biggest trading partners and our closest ally in the Brexit negotiations. She told them she didn’t have time. Instead, she prefers to hold hands with a fascist and talk nonsense about how Britain and America can lead the world again. Lead it to where? we might ask.
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