Saturday 21 September 2019

Eoghan Harris: 'Boris and his Brexiteers are false friends of unionists'

Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Brexit has put a big strain on friendships I have forged with British and Irish unionists over the past 30 years.

Studies suggest that arguments seldom change minds. But you can plant the seeds that might flower into a change of heart.

Accordingly, I have simply set out my position in separate emails and left them to be mulled over.

I began my email to my English friends by saying Brexit is about politics, the rule of states and peoples.

Politics can be the noblest or the nastiest profession. At its best we get an Angela Merkel, at its worst a Hitler.

But 'best' and 'worst' are moral judgments, and politics is always engaged with good and evil.

Given my belief that politics has moral meaning I regard Brexit as ethically evil for two reasons.

First, it is evidently evil in that its tree has borne nothing but bitter fruit.

Second, it is ethically evil because its dirty engine runs on a dark fuel: fear of the foreigner, of the outsider, of the immigrant.

Now, of course, 90pc of any country can be worked up against immigrants. It's just old-fashioned tribalism on the road to racism.

But I believe it's the duty of decent people to oppose majority fears and to fight for a larger project than Ourselves Alone.

Europe is such a project, and for all its faults, it is a nobler one than that of Boris Johnson and the Tory Ultras.

Yes, the EU is a big bureaucracy in need of reform, which possibly has the potential to be a supra-national power, albeit a benign one, subject to democratic direction.

But let's not forget the Roman, Hapsburg and Ottoman empires were essentially more progressive, liberal and tolerant of minorities than the blood and soil nationalisms that replaced them, and that we see growing like a cancer in eastern and central Europe.

Naturally, those who voted for Brexit in good faith were not behaving badly because they acted in ignorance of outcome.

But the Tory Pied Pipers did not discharge their duty of care to their country, and cannot credibly claim ignorance in defence.

Aristotle says if we harm others, we can't claim ignorance as an excuse if we made no attempt to educate ourselves in advance.

Tory Brexiteers made no attempt to do so. They acted irresponsibly with a moral indifference to the fate of their followers.

Did these Big Beast Brexiteers really believe Britain could break with the EU without a massive loss of political, economic and moral treasure?

Common sense tells us most of them knew deep down the break would come with a heavy price. They just didn't care.

They preferred to indulge themselves in slaying a mythical European monster that existed only in their own minds.

Remember the Tory leaders were not the kind of poorly educated working people who bear the first brunt of immigration.

They were public-school toffs, whose plummy accents concealed the same primitive prejudices as the proletarians they manipulated with legitimate, but luridly exaggerated, fears of being swamped by immigrants.

That fear was first fomented by Enoch Powell in his rabble-rousing 1968 'rivers of blood' speech.

Margaret Thatcher, his admirer, re-branded his racism as Euroscepticism in her 1988 Bruges speech - bequeathing a poisoned chalice to John Major and David Cameron.

To my mind it is a moral evil to take a country on an epic march into the unknown without a map.

Turning to Northern Ireland, the DUP should have had more sense than to sail on that ship of fools.

Brexit has poisoned Irish politics, north and south. Bad as things are, the DUP seems determined to make them worse for unionists.

Unless the DUP has a death wish it should take stock before voting down May's Brexit deal.

If the DUP opens the door to Labour it will be doing a Lundy and live to rue it - in the Irish Republic.

If it forces the UK to crash out, the resulting economic decline will also eventually land unionists in the Irish Republic.

Until now the DUP has been putting the politics of the union ahead of the economics of the union - but it's economics which will decide whether or not we have a united Ireland.

Right now there is no real passion for unity in the Republic - and I can prove it.

In the Republic's recent presidential election, the Sinn Fein contender, Liadh Ni Riada, the daughter of Ireland's premier composer Sean O Riada, calling for a united Ireland, got a miserable 6.5pc of the poll.

Given that only 43pc voted, Ni Riada really polled only around 3pc, meaning that half the Sinn Fein voters could not be bothered turning out to vote for the united Ireland runner.

Aside from the principle of consent in the Good Friday Agreement, the DUP should stop obsessing about the union because there is not the tiniest threat to it in the Irish Republic.

The only way that could change is if the Republic moved swiftly ahead of Northern Ireland.

But, as Micheal Martin pointed out in the Dail, the May deal (possibly with some amendments - and let's have no nonsense that it's non-negotiable) gives Northern Ireland the best of both worlds and will enable it to move out of its current economic stagnation.

Surely unionists can see that a healthy Northern Ireland economy offering a good life to all - including contented Catholic nationalists - will give the union granite foundations?

A hard Brexit, on the other hand, will almost certainly lead to serious economic disadvantages for the UK in the long term.

In that likely scenario, Northern Ireland will slip behind the Republic and the EU in economic terms.

A booming Republic and a stagnant sectarian Northern Ireland makes a united Ireland more likely, probably within 25 years.

Ironically, the party doing its best to bring about this state of affairs is the party with most to lose - the DUP, and with it the wider unionist community.

Naturally we are baffled by the DUP preferring a psychological union with Tory Ultras rather than a real, permanent economic future with Theresa May.

Yet the Republic continues to cherish its dream of a unity of minds and hearts. Last week, the Irish Examiner editorial eulogised: "Rory Best, a farmer from Craigavon, led the Irish team that beat the All Blacks. Jacob Stockdale, a clergyman's son from Newtownstewart, scored the winning try."

Last week, too, in the Dail debate on the May plan, Mick Barry, a Cork socialist TD, made a major speech, defending the rights of Northern Protestant workers and opposing calls for a Border poll.

Finally, to cap the week, Bertie Ahern, speaking at a peace conference in Dublin, refused to demonise the DUP, preferring to defend Arlene Foster with affection and empathy.

"I understand Arlene's position and I always try to defend her. If someone tried to kill my father and shot my favourite uncle, I am not sure I would want to put my arms around them either."

Ahern has no time for talk of Armageddon. A master negotiator himself, he mordantly predicted that while the British might like to believe they were out of the EU, in reality they would retain strong links with the bloc. Bet on Bertie.

Sunday Independent

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