A quote to begin:

Gladstone “spent his declining years trying to guess the answer to the Irish Question; unfortunately, whenever he was getting warm, the Irish secretly changed the Question.”

It comes from a marvellously satirical spoof history of England, “1066 and All That” published in 1930 and aimed at debunking British imperial pretensions, mind-set and history as it was then taught in British schools. The quote  suggests that essentially the Irish Problem, which dominated late 19th Century British politics, was not Britain’s fault but rather that of the dastardly Irish who kept moving the goalposts, frustrating Britain’s good intentions whenever a solution seemed close. It’s as good an introduction as any to the Brexiteer view of where the Brexit negotiations are now at.

October’s Brussels Summit failed to make progress on the so-called “Irish Backstop,” the last perceived major obstacle to the divorce negotiations between Britain and the European Union. Discussions are continuing, with the end March 2019 date for Britain’s EU exit looming.

To recap. Britain voted by a narrow majority (less than 4%) in 2016 to leave the EU after a referendum campaign marked (and marred) by basic ignorance and a failure by the Cameron government to educate as to the issues and  complexities involved. The Leave campaign, spearheaded by Nigel Farage of UKIP together with a coterie of wealthy Tories, was to the fore in misrepresentation, and played cleverly on enough working and lower middle class fears over recent and threatened immigration, with its perceived accompanying erosion of living standards and threats to the British Welfare State. After a decade of austerity the vote was a chance to protest about the way society was going.  Subsequent attempts to question the Referendum’s legitimacy have been shouted down on the grounds that “the People have spoken.”

The EU Treaty provided for a two year exit process, inadequate for unravelling and sorting the many strands of British membership. Accordingly, following negotiations, there is now agreement on an additional two year “transition” period to sort out remaining technical issues. This has not sat well with the gung ho Brexiteers in and out of the British Cabinet, since it involves Britain paying extra money to Brussels without a say in how it is spent, but they appear to have accepted the practical reasons for it.

Cue the “Irish Backstop.” In the simple “Yes/ No” Referendum vote, no thought or attention had been given to Ireland, to all intents and purposes no longer on  the British political landscape. Yet what to do about the Border in the North – the only land frontier between the UK and the EU? This rapidly mushroomed into an early hurdle in the negotiations.

Last December the EU and Britain agreed that there would be regulatory alignment between both parts of the island of Ireland in the event of no deal being reached between the EU and Britain. This to ensure that the frictionless open border in Ireland, the central element of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and critical to underpinning the fragile peace in the North, remained completely open to trade, people and services, whatever else happened. Britain had little choice in practice but to agree, to resolve an impasse and allow the divorce negotiations to proceed.

Since then, under pressure from the DUP, which is shoring up the May Government, and the hard line Tory Brexiteers, Teresa May has been thrashing about to find a way to square an impossible circle by sticking to this commitment, which essentially requires some special arrangement for Northern Ireland, without obliging Britain to remain in the EU Single Market and Customs Union, something which would negate the whole decision to leave. Various formulae have been explored and found wanting.

The latest idea being floated is that the transition period be extended somewhat to allow more time to find a solution acceptable to all, with Britain sticking to the mantra that “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” a phrase included in December’s agreement document. This useful negotiating device has been employed in various fora in recent decades where negotiations were deadlocked and bean-counters were holding up progress. It could, however, have a downside on occasion, by putting a metaphorical gun to the head of a recalcitrant party where only one relatively minor point remains outstanding.

While discussions are ongoing, the notion of a longer transition period is anathema to hard line Brexiteers. An extra year would take Britain’s effective exit to the end of 2021, over five years since the Referendum and costing Britain billions extra in payments into the EU budget. It would also, of course, encompass another general election – due at the latest in June 2021 – with who knows what outcome, perhaps even a Labour government!  As I write it is by no means certain that May will get agreement to an extra year transition from her Cabinet, let alone her Party, let alone Parliament! Yet if it worked, a comprehensive deal on all issues would render the need for any backstop unnecessary. The European Union regularly resolves the insoluble through some type of fudge. This may prove more difficult this time around since Britain’s exit must be clear and definitive and in a legally binding document.

For even the most intransigent Brexiteer the penny must have long since dropped that the Brave New World after Brexit is a chimera and that even achieving Brexit is more arduous and expensive than they thought.  Put simply, there are no magic new trade deals with third countries that are likely to yield very much over what has already been achieved through EU membership, and nothing to match what could potentially be lost in terms of existing trade with EU member states. The Irish economist and columnist, Colm McCarthy brilliantly exposed the grim realities of this following Teresa May’s August dancing tour of Africa and Boris Johnson’s earlier visit to Latin America. His articles in recent issues of the Irish Sunday Independent should be required reading for all British politicians, not just Brexiteers. Put simply also, the alarm signals from British industry and from every reliable think tank on Brexit have been negative. As the former top civil servant in Britain’s Trade Department put it some months ago, Brexit is like trading a lavish dinner now for a packet of potato chips later.

Faced with this whiff of reality, Brexiteer reaction has been a mixture of hunkering down, circling the wagons and finding suitable scapegoats, whether the EU Commission, the Puppet Masters in Berlin and Paris, or, most visibly, Ireland and the “Irish Border.”  The rhetoric from certain Brexiteers, and in the tabloid press, has been to attack the Irish government, and politicians, as unreasonable and to downplay and ridicule the Border’s significance. Some of the comments have been denigrating, derogatory and blatantly offensive in ways reminiscent of British anti -Irish rhetoric of earlier times.

One thing is certain. When wealthy Tories sneer at Ireland, watch out. The Irish comedian, Daragh O Briain, probably spoke for most Irish people home and abroad when he commented recently that UK references to the “Irish Border” are simply inaccurate. It is rather the British Border in Ireland. The Irish Border is the beach!







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