Tuesday 17 September 2019

John Downing: 'As English nationalism continues its EU convulsions: beware the backstop'


A view of the Palace of Westminster. Stock picture
A view of the Palace of Westminster. Stock picture
John Downing

John Downing

It was a sultry evening in June 1990 and the Irish were thronged into a great bar close to the Stadio Sant'Elia in Sardinia.

The Ireland international soccer team were about to face the "auld enemy" England, and the Irish nation was about to begin the delightful journey that was Italia 90.

In a corner of that bar, a motley group of Irish journalists was talking excitedly about the imperative of "beating the Brits".

The late, great legend of sports journalism, Con Houlihan, took just one of his hands off his chin and advised the company: "Lads, please stop this talk about 'Brits'. It is both racist and inaccurate. I mean, where does it leave our Celtic brothers and sisters, the Scottish, and the Welsh? And indeed, let's never forget our fellow Celts, the Manx and the Cornish," he asserted more loudly than he ever would normally do in company.

This advice from one of Kerry's finest scribes, a man who often asserted the wisdom of Ireland's EU involvement, passed over everyone's head amid the frenzy.

But it has resonance for our current political situation.

Because Brexit is about English - and rarely, if at all, about British - nationalism. So, when we hear Boris Johnson talking about the EU trying to usurp Northern Ireland, we must recall that this is a belated and brief awakening to the existence of that northern corner of what is officially part of the United Kingdom. Let's not labour the Irish Border comparison he tried to make with borough boundaries in London.

UK MPs in Westminster are dragging their heels towards the Brexit deal vote next Tuesday. The draft deal Mrs May is trying to sell, signed off by EU leaders last Sunday week, November 25, is expected to be beaten - literally "by a ton" - with a majority of some 100 out of the 650 Westminster MPs voting against it.

Looking back, it took months, after the UK voters' 52:48 decision to quit the EU, for the Irish Border to figure in mainstream British politics and media. All credit to the Irish political leaders, and even more so the Irish officials, who put it on the agenda and managed to keep it there.

Kudos to the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier for keeping faith with Ireland.

Yes, Ireland's needs suited the EU imperative of preserving the integrity of the single market and customs union.

But Mr Barnier has played this one very straight and we believe he will not change now.

As things approach the Brexit date with fate, that stretch of ground between Dundalk and Derry has suddenly taken centre-stage in London.

Yesterday Mrs May's arguments for her deal focused on that backstop to keep the UK in a customs union with the EU if the two sides cannot agree on another way to prevent a hard Border in Ireland.

The proposal has by now met sustained opposition from all sides because of concerns it would drive a wedge between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK while leaving the country tied to the EU indefinitely. Mrs May told the BBC it would be up to the UK to decide whether to trigger the backstop in the absence of the widely hoped-for better outcome. She suggested that one way to ease the concerns of lawmakers would be to let parliament make this decision.

"There would be arguments on different sides at that point in time. I think people are concerned about the role of the UK in making these decisions, and in terms of the role of the UK is for it to be parliament that makes these decisions," she said.

Ireland won the backstop - in a worst-case scenario it keeps the North in the customs union and close to the single market. But that war will continue.

Irish Independent

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