Opinion Comment

Saturday 23 February 2019

Colette Browne: 'May is now starting to run out of options, and as time ticks down we still hear no answer to Border question'

British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Getty Images
British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Getty Images
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

Theresa May travelled to Northern Ireland yesterday to deliver a set-piece speech, reiterating her commitment to avoiding a hard Border, and she will leave today with no one any the wiser about how she plans to achieve this.

In Edgar Allan Poe's classic 'The Tell-Tale Heart', the narrator assures readers he is not mad as he recounts how he murdered a harmless old man and dismembered his body, before revealing he confessed to the crime as he couldn't bear the sound of his victim's heart beating beneath the floorboards where he had buried him.

One wonders if Mrs May, too, as she delivers speech after speech which offer nothing but vapid assurances on how she intends to secure a Brexit deal, is haunted by a sound that grows increasingly deafening - "tick, tock, tick, tock".

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There are just 51 days to Brexit and, by Mrs May's own admission, she has no concrete plan on how she will deliver her "unshakeable" commitment to preventing a hard Border in the absence of the backstop.

She has done a good job, thus far, of putting on a brave face and publicly attempting to mask this uncertainty with cheery optimism - although her voice betrays a fraught intonation whenever she is grilled on specifics.

Yesterday, she told an audience in Northern Ireland that "technology could play a part" and she intends to "look at alternative arrangements", before stressing these "must be ones that can be made to work for the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland".

What she failed to mention was that EU and British negotiators have already spent two years examining all of these alternative arrangements in detail before discounting them as unworkable.

The inherent madness of the British position is that, publicly at least, the government continues to insist that there is some magical solution to the most intractable problem posed by Brexit - and that it can be found in under two months.

But, instead of producing any silver bullet that can kill the bitter division that exists in the House of Commons, MPs continue to stagger around bleating inanities prefaced by gibberish like "Canada plus", "max fac" and "Malthouse compromise".

The level of blind panic and naked desperation that exists within the British government is manifest in the appointment on Monday of an "alternative arrangements working group" to chart a coherent route out of this morass.

A sombre press release from Downing Street, announcing the creation of this crack team, stated the group would be meeting regularly. However, it then transpired that just three meetings have been pencilled in this week.

Appointing a working group of MPs who have almost no time to consider this vexed issue is manifestly bizarre, but the composition of the group makes the entire effort even more difficult to understand.

Among their illustrious number are arch-Brexiteer Marcus Fysh, whose sole contribution to the debate, thus far, was to respond "ya da ya da gravity ya da ya da meaningless graphs, supposition and cod economics ya da ya da ya" in response to someone on Twitter who had the temerity to suggest the example of the Canadian-US border was unworkable in an Irish context.

Given the man can't even spell 'yada', one shouldn't hold out too much hope that his fingerprints will be anywhere near a solution. Another member, fellow Brexiteer Steve Baker, is on record as recently as Sunday as stating Mrs May's deal can only attract the support of the House of Commons if it contains the so-called 'Malthouse compromise' - described by another member, remainer Nicky Morgan, as "a free-trade agreement lite".

Meanwhile, pledging to "battle for Britain" in her self-styled ongoing war with the EU, Mrs May was still suggesting in a column at the weekend "a time limit or unilateral exit mechanism" from the backstop as potential solutions - despite these notions having been repeatedly and trenchantly rejected by the Irish Government for rendering any backstop functionally useless.

Confused yet? You're not alone. And you can rest assured that, however minimal your comprehension, you are nowhere near as confused as the stream-of-consciousness blather that now constitutes debate in the House of Commons.

As if the situation was not deranged enough, former Northern Ireland first minister David Trimble popped up yesterday to threaten court proceedings against the British government over the backstop.

According to Mr Trimble, the backstop undermines the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) by imposing "a number of top-down structures", although he was coy about giving any more detail. Predictably, this news got a whole host of Brexiteers deliriously excited, as upholding the Good Friday Agreement has always been one of the overriding aims of those on the other side of the argument, with virtually no thought given to it by those intent on leaving.

Their excitement will be short-lived. The text of the Withdrawal Agreement, if anyone bothered to read it, unequivocally states it "respects the essential state functions and territorial integrity of the United Kingdom" and "is without prejudice to the provisions of the 1998 Agreement regarding the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and the principle of consent".

Further, the notion that the Withdrawal Agreement contravenes the "principle of consent" enshrined in the GFA - that the constitutional fate of Northern Ireland is the preserve of the people of Northern Ireland - has already been adjudicated on by the UK Supreme Court, which roundly rejected it. According to the Supreme Court, the Withdrawal Agreement "neither regulated any other change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland nor required the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland to the withdrawal of the UK from the EU".

It should also be noted that those who assume Mr Trimble possesses some sort of insight into this debacle should recall an interview he gave to RTÉ last year in which he expressed confidence that the challenges posed by Brexit could be resolved in "half an hour".

"The Taoiseach, the prime minister and somebody from Brussels who is in a position to take decisions, if those three people sat down around a table I suspect it wouldn't take them more than half an hour to sort things out," he said.

As the UK hurtles towards its self-imposed March 29 deadline, the only certainty that exists is that it will crash out of the EU unless a deal is in place. That deal, today, looks as far away as when the Article 50 process was first triggered. Tick, tock, tick, tock.

Irish Independent

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