Thursday 19 September 2019

Dan O'Brien: 'Yes, the Brexiteers are lashing out like drunks - but that doesn't mean we haven't made mistakes too'

Britain's prime minister Boris Johnson. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Britain's prime minister Boris Johnson. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

The Brexit blame game is escalating rapidly. A central question is: how does Brexit affect the Good Friday Agreement?

A great deal is the answer.

Brexit means dismantling big parts of the invisible infrastructure that allows the millions of daily interactions on and between these islands to happen as simply as they do today.

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That, among other things, will hinder interactions across the Border on this island, thereby damaging the North-south strand of the Good Friday Agreement.

Perhaps more fundamental is that Brexit undermines the principle that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland cannot change without the agreement of its people. The 'principle of consent' was and is central to the 1998 settlement.

In the 2016 referendum on leaving the EU, 56pc of those who voted in the North backed remaining in the EU.

It is completely valid to claim that a hard Brexit breaches the principle of consent.

This point and the point about damage to North-south interactions are both frequently made in this jurisdiction and have been central to the Government's overall strategy and tactical manoeuvrings on Brexit.

But an equally valid claim is not often heard south of the Border. That claim is that the backstop solution, which is an effective technical fix to avoid any change in the way the Border on this island functions, also breaches the principle of consent.

If the backstop as it currently exists were to come into effect, new laws that affect many aspects of the daily lives of people in Northern Ireland would come from the EU.

That would happen without the North's voters sending representatives to the parliament which makes those laws - the European Parliament.

This disenfranchisement would occur because Northern Ireland would leave the UK's market so that it could remain in the EU's market.

We in the Republic know better than most that markets and constitutional status issues are intimately connected.

When Ireland joined the European common market in the 1970s we needed a constitutional referendum, such were the implications for the making and application of laws.

In the 1980s when Ireland joined the EU's single market project there was a constitutional referendum for the same reason.

If our own recent history shows how intimately connected markets are with constitutions, then we should be at least willing to listen to voices from the minority tradition on this island which overwhelmingly believes that their status in the UK would be changed under the backstop.

Genuine inclusivity means listening to arguments and points of all sides, particularly when they are made by minorities.

A Lucidtalk opinion poll last week highlighted how strongly opposed unionists are to the backstop.

Among supporters of the second largest unionist party, the UUP, which opposed Brexit but believes that the backstop breaches the Good Friday Agreement, 69pc said they would vote against a backstop if there was a referendum in Northern Ireland. Among DUP supporters opposition was even stronger.

The poll does not augur well for any sort of calming of tensions in the North.

It also showed that support among nationalists for the backstop is almost total, reflecting justified fears about the direction the Brexiting state in which they live is going, and the deepening of partition that Brexit entails.

For a place as polarised and fragile as Northern Ireland to have this new division to add to the old ones, and other new ones such as social issues, is cause for real concern.

If the backstop has been a cause of division in the North, it is central to the deterioration in Dublin-London relations.

Since it was put on the table, the position of the Irish Government has been to ignore or dismiss claims that the backstop breaches the principle of consent.

When you have weaknesses in your argument and a debate hots up, the other side will eventually start focusing on those weaknesses.

That is what is happening under the new administration in London led by Boris Johnson.

This week, among other things, he focused in on the principle of consent issue in the Good Friday Agreement.

The backstop "affords the people of Northern Ireland no influence over the legislation which applies to them", he wrote in a letter to Brussels, escalating the rhetoric by concluding "that is why the backstop is anti-democratic".

There is no doubt that this is cynical opportunism, not least because Johnson voted for the backstop on the third occasion it was put to Westminster earlier this year.

But the British are now playing extreme hardball. The days of Theresa May's softly-softly dithering are over.

This puts everyone on a collision course.

There has been much talk of matters now resembling a game of chicken in which two vehicles drive towards each other to see who will be the first to swerve.

This is a good analogy, but not in the way it is usually presented - a British mini hurtling towards an EU truck.

Because the impact of a no-deal Brexit will be very different across the EU, the ongoing game of chicken is more akin to Britain as a medium-sized truck careering towards a fleet of 27 vehicles of varying sizes coming in the other direction.

Ireland is a small car. It is at the front of the fleet. It will take the full force of the impact.

It goes without saying that the UK decision to leave the EU and both of its free-market mechanisms is the root cause of this ever-worsening fiasco.

Dealing with Brexiting Britain has been like dealing with a drunk. Drunks are not rational. They are prone to lashing out. The damage they cause is to be blamed squarely on them.

But that doesn't mean those who are sober cannot mishandle the situation and contribute to letting the situation get out of control.

Alas, that is where we are now at with the disaster that is Brexit.

Irish Independent

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