Duncan Morrow: 'Fix North first, then we can find a way to avoid a hard Brexit'
At this stage, living in Brexit-land is not that far from a scene in one of Kafka's more bizarre stories. Every effort to escape its web makes matters more complicated. Every attempt at repair is treated as a deliberate conspiratorial play. And Northern Ireland is currently its very heart.
It is ironic that most of the action has been out-of-area. The streets of Belfast and Derry are calm, though with occasional reminders that paramilitarism has not gone away you know. Our largest parties have been so obsessed with Brexit that they have fled the joint and set up shop in London and Dublin, doing their best to win allies to help resolve 21st-century complexities with doctrines of sovereignty from the Empire.
The referees, aka the governments, who negotiated the constitutional frameworks, and who in recent years arrived late from other duties on a retainer, have become unavailable. The secretary of state re-announced that restoring devolution was her top priority. So what was her top priority before this announcement?
The cost, however, is a political landscape that is moribund in a way that wouldn't be allowed in a functioning democracy: it is approaching 750 days since Northern Ireland had a government and the responsible parties seem to think that there is nothing that should or can be done. Underneath the surface, visible to the naked eye in the Twittersphere, is despair, anger and confusion that is coming close to the end of its collective tether.
For anyone who is not a Unionist, the problem is Brexit itself: not only the drive to leave the EU but the presumption that leaving requires everyone else to scramble out of the road and let the truck crush everything regardless of cost - including the flimsy edifice that is the peace process, political institutions and the Good Friday Agreement. In this world, and it is mine, the essential thing is to limit the damage - and the desirable thing is to stop the vehicle.
To ensure this, we need a guarantee of no change until we have worked it through - the backstop - and for those who broke the deal to fix it.
But a massive social media ding-dong tells me that even moderate Unionists reject attempts to stop the juggernaut, seeing it as an affront to Britishness and the principle of consent. In this world, a backstop to prevent damage is transformed into subjugation to the EU, and the insistence of everyone else that the status quo is the backstop intensifies Unionist fears of abandonment. In this world, Unionists are still victims of a conspiracy which fails to address their demand for no hard Border in the Irish Sea. And bridging the gap of emotion and assumption is becoming more frantic and ever harder.
In Northern Ireland, as in Kafka, both backstop and no backstop are conspiring to achieve the same end - the collapse of any basis for sharing or co-operation in a space that is defined by division. The capacity to set peace and reconciliation aside while larger battles are fought out, and treat it as some separate sphere immune to the megaphone contempt that has become our everyday, is a short-term expedient with very long-term risks. Any return to talks will now take place on a morning after a politically catastrophic night before. A chaotic exit from the EU will only escalate the dynamic of recrimination and mutual loathing.
The removal of the EU as a common space of values, trade and law for these islands matters so much more than its detractors are willing to admit - and certainly more than trade. We are losing by far our most important framework of formal equality - vital to states struggling from of a history of domination, subjugation and rebellion - within which to resolve disputes without humiliation and undertake unexpected joint enterprises as allies. The Good Friday Agreement was not constructed by Brussels, but it is unthinkable without its frameworks and instruments enabling open borders to be treated as a development of shared principle, not a matter of losing control. It allowed an Irish President to travel North as if in their own jurisdiction without causing diplomatic crises or a snowball fight at Stormont and underpinned an open-handed approach to citizenship which enabled equality to the shared commitment of two sides of imperial conflict without rancour.
Everywhere you look, European values, laws and institutions were a real presence, implied in most of the radical achievements of peace.
If not in the EU, Northern Ireland must retain this 'enabling environment'. If, miraculously, there is either a Withdrawal Agreement or more time by extending Article 50, we should consider radically revising the negotiations. Instead of trying to reconcile the Good Friday Agreement to Brexit, Brexit should first be reconciled with the Good Friday Agreement. Instead of setting talks aside, talks should be in permanent session, and not about 'restoring Stormont' or even 'saving the agreement', but about agreeing a basis for interdependence that can survive the new world and even enable Brexit.
Counter-intuitively, Northern Ireland must be resolved first, not last. Instead of treating it as a pawn in a game, a petty codicil to be sorted out when time in important diaries allows, we are forced to face an unpalatable truth that deals which destroy Northern Ireland's fissures are toxic for the rest.
It is enormously irritating, no doubt, that something so small exposes something so enormous: that the primary challenge for Europe, inside the EU or out, is still to resolve its historic conflicts differently, not just to trade.
Hope seems forlorn at this stage. But if we have learned one thing, it is that these negotiations are failing. Diverting to sort Northern Ireland may be unpalatable, but the alternatives look increasingly disastrous.
Duncan Morrow is a Professor in Politics and Director of Community Engagement at Ulster University