The neighbour pays a call

The Guardian, 10 September 2019

Yesterday morning, on the way to the garage where I buy my newspapers, I saw the tail end of the motorcade carrying Boris Johnson disappearing fast along the canal road towards his appointment with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Government buildings. By the time I got home the TV showed that his car was drawing up, so they had made good time.

Johnson was pretty restrained during his brief press conference, but the contrast between his demeanour and the calmness displayed by Varadkar is well exemplified by the lovely quartet of photographs used today by The Guardian. You can imagine the little whoop of joy from the picture editor working on the spread when he or she came across this sequence, and realised what a nice combination image they would make.

There was also a great remark from a commenter in yesterday’s rolling coverage: “For the Irish, Brexit is like having a neighbour smash the fence between your adjoining properties, and then come to your door demanding that you pay the bill to have it rebuilt.”

Exactly the sort of people you want living next door.

How the UK has put Ireland in a catastrophic situation, by ex-Tory

RTE’s shoestring budget just about stretches to the excellent Audrey Carville being flown to London to co-present the Morning Ireland radio programme from Westminster.

I am not a Tory, and normally I would be happy to see the party mired in even more confusion than it finds itself in at the present time. But I have much respect for those of its members who espouse what is usually called ‘old-fashioned One Nation Conservatism’. They love their country, they respect other traditions and, above all, they are democrats. So it has been shocking to see so many of them turfed out of the Conservative Party after daring to vote for the anti-no deal bill on Tuesday night. One such was junior minister Alistair Burt, who was first elected as an MP in 1983. In Wednesday’s debate he spoke as ‘the proud but slightly bemused independent Member for North East Bedfordshire’, In his excellent speech, which you can read in full here, he said:

Many in the UK have failed to grasp that it is we who are leaving the EU. That means that it is a negotiation between us. We have never really understood the EU or its arguments, believing that a negotiation was a series of demands from the United Kingdom, not a negotiation. That and the language that we have used—built on 20-odd years of the drip, drip of poison about the EU—has made sure that we did not get a deal.
… [W]hy do we want to avoid no deal? I will not repeat all the things that the right hon. Member for Leeds Central said, which are obvious; the economics are clear. For me, there are three reasons. The first is the threat to the Union. I am a Scot, my mother and father from Scotland. I am a proud Scot. I am also British through and through. I could not believe a recent poll of Conservative members that said they would abandon almost anything, including the Union, providing they left the EU. I regard that as a terrible threat. We should not risk it.
My second reason is Ireland, which is treated by some here as some sort of irrelevance and a place that has made up the border issue to prevent us from leaving the EU. With our history in relation to Ireland and everything that happened there, it became our best friend in the European Union. Our choice to leave—our Brexit—has put Ireland in the most catastrophic situation of any country, and we now expect it to accept another English demand that it should do something. Have we no understanding of what that relationship means and the damage done?
My third reason for wanting to avoid no deal is the damage to Europe and the relationship with Europe itself. I grew up as part of the first generation to avoid war in Europe for countless hundreds of years. I arrived in the House of Commons when there were giants here such as Denis Healey, Willie Whitelaw and Ted Heath—people for whom Europe was the place where they and their friends had fought and died—and they wanted something different. That has always motivated me in my sense of Europe. Whether we are in the European Union or not, that relationship with Europe is clouded by the sort of language that the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) mentioned. I do not want to see that relationship threatened by a no deal.
Thirdly, let me end where I began, as the Independent Member for North East Bedfordshire. I do not complain at the removal of the Whip—voting on an issue of confidence, I accept the rules—but I say to my colleagues: just think how this looks. Last week, the Conservative party lost Ruth Davidson and George Young in the House of Lords resigned the Whip. This morning, we lost my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond) —who made the economy we were cheering just a few minutes ago. What are people going to think about what we have left and what we have lost? Some will have been very happy at the fact that some have been purged—purged. A few weeks ago, one of our colleagues retweeted an article in The Daily Telegraph that looked forward to the purging of remoaners in the Conservative party. That was disgraceful. I say to my colleagues, if we are being purged now, who is next? Watch a film called “Good Night, and Good Luck”, and you will take my point.
This may be the last substantive speech I make here as I am not standing again—and who knows when the election will come? I will leave with the best of memories of this place, friends and colleagues on all sides. The obsession that my party has developed may have sought to devalue my past as a friend of the EU, of our sister centre-right parties, and of many friends, and it may have curtailed my future, but it will not rob me of what I believe. I will walk out of here looking up at the sky, not down at my shoes. [Applause.]

Burt went further in a compelling interview on today’s Morning Ireland programme on RTE radio. You can hear the piece in full on the programme website but here is an extract:

The obsession with leaving the European Union which has grown in the Conservative Party over the past 20 years has now reached an almost irrational position. Your listeners may have seen the polling which was done a couple of months ago where they asked Conservative voters in the UK what they were prepared to sacrifice just to leave and it was virtually everything. If the economy and agriculture collapses but we leave the EU is it OK? The majority said Yes. If we lose the Union, are you happy with this as long as we leave the EU? They said Yes. It’s become almost irrational. …
My particular hurt on behalf of Ireland is that I am aware of how this affects Ireland. I think my colleagues have been incredibly careless and have felt that the issues surrounding the border, whether it’s trade or the fear of the troubles returning, have been seen as part of a political game being played by the European Union and by Irish politicians instead of something fundamental which affects people because of decisions that we have made which Ireland had no say on. That’s made me particularly upset, which is why I mentioned it yesterday.

It’s refreshing to see a British politician, from any party, spell this out. It is not said often enough, which is what everyone this side of the Irish Sea finds so frustrating. Too few English Brexiteers have thought about the disaster they have inflicted on the rest of the UK and on Ireland, an independent country. But that’s all right. They just want to get on with it.

If I hear that said in a vox pop interview one more time, I think I might throw something at the screen.

Update
A 2 minute interview with another ex-Tory MP, Ed Vaizey, was heard later the same day on RTE Drivetime, where he also expressed sorrow for the fact that the Irish position has not been discussed. Link is here. Starts at about 4min 10sec.

They know whereof they speak

For over a year the most incisive comments on the whole Brexit fiasco have come from the wonderful Irish Border Twitter account. The anonymous writer (I am the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. I’m seamless & frictionless already, thanks. Bit scared of physical infrastructure) provides a running commentary on the absurd pronouncements of ‘experts’ and politicians in London, Brussels and elsewhere as they try to find yet another solution to the backstop conundrum. (The answer is, there isn’t one.)

Another person who understands all this is the comedian and TV presenter Patrick Kielty, who comes from Co Down. His analysis of the absurd situation was published in a terrific article in Tuesday’s Guardian, with his credentials summed up in a chilling three sentences at the foot of the page: “His father was killed by loyalist paramilitaries in 1988. Those responsible were later released under the Good Friday agreement. His documentary, My Dad, The Peace Deal and Me, exploring the legacy of the Belfast agreement won a 2018 Grierson award.”

Keilty writes eloquently how for the DUP (“the political wing of the Old Testament”) Brexit is about “proving they’re biologically British, not adopted. It means the party will always order what Johnson and Farage are having but, unlike them, actually eat it.” However, as he adds, the irony is that their hardline position could mean that they end up by jumping off the cliff, thereby causing a hard border, a border poll in Northern Ireland and the perfect economic storm where it might lose that vote.

It’s worth reading Kielty’s article in full, but here is a substantial quote:

As the prime minister Maybots her way through the charade of alternative arrangements, there’s only one thing you need to know – there are no workable alternative arrangements. If there were, you’d have heard of them by now. The details of this technological masterpiece would already be a double-page spread in the Daily Mail with Rees-Mogg mocked up as Alan Turing under the headline “Enigma cracks Enigma – spirit of Bletchley takes back control”. If an alternative arrangement that worked actually existed (or was likely to exist in the next couple of years) Brexiteers would have already accepted the backstop, knowing they could easily replace it with their idea during the transition. The fact that they won’t bet on themselves tells you all you need to know about what they have in the locker.
… All of this could have been avoided if the majority in Northern Ireland had been listened to during the referendum campaign. But as Nigel Farage and Johnson trumpeted their migrant-free magic kingdom, we were Kevin in Home Alone – only remembered at the baggage carousel after the plane had landed. It’s why the minutes of the first meeting between Michel Barnier and David Davis will never be released. “So, what do you propose for your land border with Europe?” Polite laughter. “We have a land border with you guys?”
Even at this late stage, it remains the unanswered question – how can you take back control of your borders when the only land border you have can’t be put back in place? The fact that more than 70% of people in Northern Ireland voted to give up control of that border via the Good Friday agreement so they could live in peace remains totally ignored.
When Conservatives say they care about Northern Ireland, they actually just mean the freehold. Like a stable block with planning permission, they know the extra square footage adds value but they’ve no intention of actually developing it. Just as long as they can see it from the big house, they’re happy. As for those who live in the stable? If Brexit has proved anything, it’s that many Tories don’t give a stuff about the people of Northern Ireland – not even the unionists. If they did, they wouldn’t dream of a hard Brexit because it only guarantees one thing – a border poll.
That’s one that will be decided not by Sinn Féin or DUP votes, but by the moderates in the middle – nationalists who once felt Irish enough post-Good Friday agreement and those pro-European unionists applying for Irish passports. The inevitable economic downturn and border circus of a hard Brexit might just be enough to swing those floating voters and Northern Ireland out of the union. So, why would any member of the Conservative and Unionist party take that risk? Because no matter what they say in public, they’ve never honestly believed Belfast is just like Finchley.

As a Brit who has lived in Dublin for twenty years, I completely agree. Most people in Britain have some vague notion that Ireland is that other island on the left hand side of the weather map – the bit where the temperature symbols only appear in the top corner. But they can’t tell the difference between the accents of Eamonn Holmes and Louis Walsh and if they work in a call centre or mail order firm they inevitably say “Is that in Southern Ireland?” when I give them my address.

These are the kind of people who couldn’t give a toss about the unintended consequences of the Brexit decision. They just want the politicians to “get on with it”. They voted to “take back control” and the fact that taking back control could well result in the break up of the whole United Kingdom is a consequence that they just haven’t thought through.

But we are not allowed to disagree with them because they represent “the democratic will of the people”. Never mind that the slim majority in 2016 was brought about by a perfect shit storm: lies and chicanery from the Leave camp and ineffective support from the Labour leadership for the Remain campaign. This has led to the terrible position of there being a small bunch of  Labour MPs who voted Remain themselves but, because a majority in their seats voted Leave, will probably support a Tory Brexit. It will be a sad, sad day if they are the ones who – along with the DUP – finally carry Theresa May’s disastrous deal over the line.