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Martina Devlin: 'From Votegate to the Assembly and the never-ending horrors of Brexit, we've entered an era in which grown-up politicians are extremely thin on the ground'


'The best that can be said about Votegate was that it served as a respite from Brexit, which continues to bewitch, bother and bewilder.' Stock photo

'The best that can be said about Votegate was that it served as a respite from Brexit, which continues to bewitch, bother and bewilder.' Stock photo

hard brexit stock

'The best that can be said about Votegate was that it served as a respite from Brexit, which continues to bewitch, bother and bewilder.' Stock photo

IS Brexit nearly over yet? Afraid not. It's as though time itself must wait around while the Brexit organism takes a breather before the next chapter.

Getting the British Parliament to agree anything seems to be as ill-fated as driving out in a tractor to plough up the ocean. Consequently, the Boris Brexit has entered a sort of zwangspause phase.

That's a useful Brexity word I encountered recently. In German, there was no direct translation for prorogation so they cobbled together zwangspause, a compulsory break. For now, Boris Johnson is well and truly zwangspaused. Gridlocked to the hilt, he's taking an involuntary break from delivering Brexit while Westminster scrutinises his proposed legislation. That busts his October 31 deadline because parliamentary procedure - and many of us are becoming more familiar with it than we'd choose - grinds slowly.

It appears to be contagious, zwangspausing. The EU is indulging in some, too, postponing its decision on how long to delay Brexit following Mr Johnson's do-but-don't flurry of letters. An extension will be granted but, rather than risk being caught in parliamentary crossfire, the 27 are holding back until next week before confirming its duration.

Yet despite appearances to the contrary, headway has been made. A British prime minister accepts there should be no hard Border in Ireland. That's some achievement. Political unionism isn't yet prepared to accept his sea border but moderate unionists - people on the ground - have been more pragmatic about the solution.

While Ireland is relatively satisfied and prepared to watch and wait developments, Mr Johnson is choking with thwart. Not only have MPs rejected his three-day timetable for pushing through the Brexit bill, they are refusing him an election until no-deal is off the table.

A general election is inevitable. But the timing is out of his hands, although he has his strategy ready: running on the mutually exclusive platform of someone who got Brexit done and was foiled from getting Brexit done. Beastly Westminster forced the delay, denying the will of the people. Labour's response boils down to 'there'll be an election when we say so'. Jeremy Corbyn may never know such power again.

With a double-digit lead in the polls currently and the Remain vote split between Labour and the Lib Dems, the Conservatives are keen for an election. Equally, politicians know the British electorate is in a volatile mood and no one can predict quite how people will jump. The best guess is there'll be tactical voting, as happened earlier this year.

Almost three-and-a-half years on, the idea of Brexit appears remarkably resistant to intrusion from the cold light of day, it must be said. It's still uncertain whether or not this is a doomed enterprise. What we can see is that Brexit set up certain expectations and failure to deliver them is causing dismay. It's also clear that Northern Ireland is a political pawn in the debate.

Brexit is a story of us-and-them, although who counts as 'them' keeps being redefined. Once it was the EU. Then it became Remainiacs, Conservative rebels, John Bercow and others. To Nigel Farage, 'them' is now the Tories.

This notion of us-and-them is an identity concept which can be traced back to Ancient Greece (Greeks versus barbarians). Speaking of identity, it's in the frontline again in the North, with loyalists who identify as British feeling sold down the river. The PSNI chief constable has spoken out about the potential for loyalists to turn violent. Simon Byrne told the BBC's 'Newsnight' that loyalism "has at times shown it can mobilise quickly, bring large numbers of people on to the streets and engage in public disorder". The flags issue proves his point.

But it's worth remembering that when loyalism was at its most dangerous, it had access to weapons and training via the Ulster Defence Regiment, now disbanded, and was fed intelligence by people working for various arms of the British state. Furthermore, the PSNI today couldn't stand idly by during loyalist lawbreaking, if it should happen, as was the case in RUC times. This is not presented to discount the threat but put it in perspective. Obviously, loyalist concerns should be heard and addressed. But they can't constitute a veto on progress.

Loyalists are warning Mr Johnson they will "not tolerate an economic united Ireland" - but there is a limit to what they can do to stop that happening if London shakes them off.

Ulster loyalism now finds itself at odds with English nationalism. Loyalism regards the sea border as an act of betrayal - but the so-called betrayer is England. Any Brexit-related trouble in the North will only sharpen English nationalism's desire to cut the ties. And then what?

Some years ago, I interviewed three Red Hand Defenders, a loyalist grouping which killed solicitor Rosemary Nelson. When I put it to them that one day Britain would no longer want them, they said in that case Ulster would go it alone. Who'd finance their independent state, I asked? They had no credible answer. But they weren't inclined to ponder practicalities.

And so to the DUP, whose leaders should be preparing working-class loyalists for a changing geopolitical environment. But the party has been too busy hamming it up in Stormont, along with other unionist groups, in an exploit which backfired. In trying to reactivate the Assembly specifically to block abortion reform, unionism simply demonstrated how flabby its political muscles are. Unionism no longer rules the roost - it needs cross-party backing but hasn't bothered reaching out to build support.

The most interesting element in that half-baked exercise was the unity of purpose apparent between Sinn Féin and the Alliance Party. They refused to join in the Assembly charade and we saw, in effect, an alliance between those two parties to foil unionist majoritarianism. It ought to serve as a lesson to others.

Unfortunately for the SDLP, it continues to be sidelined. I'm unsure what Colum Eastwood thought he was doing marching his troops into Stormont on Monday and marching them out again. Perhaps it was a way of keeping his party together in the face of individual pro-life MLAs planning to turn up anyway.

Frankly, watching the bickering and posturing up there on the hill almost - almost - reconciled me to the lack of devolution. But Stormont is not the only political gathering where grown-up politics can be thin on the ground. At Leinster House, some TDs seem to be affronted at the requirement to actually sit in their correct seats and vote in their own names occasionally.

The best that can be said about Votegate was that it served as a respite from Brexit, which continues to bewitch, bother and bewilder. To misquote Evelyn Waugh, Brexit is a bit like abroad: would anybody have bothered going there if they hadn't been told about it?

Irish Independent