Sunday 17 February 2019

Martina Devlin: 'May did her best but chose the wrong strategy and can't deliver - now she must stand aside'

British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Reuters
British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Reuters
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Brexiteers said it would never happen. Some of them laughed at us for being silly sausages even to think such a thing was possible. But a disagreeable vision loomed into our sightlines this week - a hard Border on the island of Ireland.

It's becoming increasingly likely as a consequence of that cliff-face Brexit towards which Britain is lurching, and even without the barbed wire and watch towers of former years it is uninvited, undesirable and unwelcome.

The first proof of its arrival was signalled this week by the Motor Insurers' Bureau of Ireland - not a body we associate with political predictions, but the smoke signals are revealing. Motorists from the Republic are told a green card or proof of insurance will be required when driving in the North, while vice versa applies to Northern-registered vehicles passing beyond the Border.

Make no mistake, this will have cost implications - and not just financial, although that seems probable too. And it's just the beginning.

What about your pet dog in the back of the car? Will it need paperwork such as a vet's certificate?

That green card can only be interpreted as a hardening of the Border. Any unilateral change to its status represents a breach of the Good Friday Agreement, an international treaty. Ireland and Britain are already on negative terms over Brexit and pillaging the Good Friday Agreement will drive a poisonous wedge between us and our neighbours.

Inevitably, a hard Border will lead to a Border poll and nobody knows how such a plebiscite will play out or the repercussions from the vote. That shouldn't prevent us from having one, in due course, but the groundwork must be laid first.

On this island, we all know - even the DUP knows - what needs to be agreed for an orderly Brexit to proceed: Britain must remain in the customs union and the single market, allowing the North to be treated the same as Britain while minimising differences with the Irish Republic.

Such a course neuters the backstop as an issue. But the British Cabinet is so racked by division that consensus on anything seems an impossible ask - even on what kind of biscuits they'd prefer with their coffee.

Does Theresa May realise yet that the jig is up for her premiership? Without Jeremy Corbyn onside she cannot harness the numbers for cross-party support to smooth out the Brexit chaos. But the Labour leader won't support any revised version of her Withdrawal Agreement because he has prioritised a general election above all else. And so nothing can come of nothing.

She is a tenacious politician but, at a certain stage, persistence solidifies into obduracy. Despite winning a no-confidence vote, I think the point has now arrived at which she needs to resign as prime minister of Britain.

A dangerous drift has taken hold of the Brexit process. Mrs May can't deliver her version, which means crashing out without a transition period is the default. If she steps aside now, it has the advantage of being a time she chooses herself. A dignified departure, for the greater good, would benefit both the attempt to hammer out a cross-party Brexit solution - something she is ill-equipped to negotiate - and her reputation.

Regardless of what any politician says, if Britain topples out nose-first it will have to enforce its boundary with the EU at the Irish Border.

As for the EU, it will do likewise, meaning Ireland will be obliged to introduce some infrastructure along crossing points. Technology at some remote location cannot accomplish everything deemed necessary.

Signs of progress are thin on the ground in Westminster and it seems over-optimistic to anticipate all hurdles will be cleared by Monday, when Mrs May is due to return to the House of Commons with another version of her threadbare plan.

Nobody wants a hard Border, we hear time and time again. It's beginning to sound a lot like a meaningless incantation - the only word missing is 'abracadabra'. Nobody wants illness but it happens. Nobody wants to lose their job but it happens. Saying the words doesn't eliminate the spectre - it's as effective as three year olds insisting they won't go to bed when it's long past pyjama time.

Right now, Mrs May remains in office courtesy of the DUP Ten - the numbers were so tight that if they'd voted against her, she'd have been ousted. The party's "blood red" line has watered down a bit. Pinkish? Perhaps not a DUP colour, but the party of Nigel Dodds and Arlene Foster certainly wants a solution. Its MPs return home to anxious constituents at weekends.

The DUP's visceral identification with Britain doesn't prevent its members from recognising the potential damage from a no-deal Brexit. They are a pragmatic group of people. The party can live with a less hard Border than it once envisaged and wouldn't oppose customs union and single market alignment, so long as the rest of Britain had the same arrangements.

The DUP only voted for Mrs May to keep Labour out of government. Its MPs have some influence over her and instinctively are closer to the Tories - whose official title is the Conservative and Unionist Party - plus they're afraid if Mr Corbyn gets into 10 Downing Street he'll hand the North over to the Republic.

Speaking of which, Sinn Féin is now saying a no-deal Brexit should pave the way for a Border poll, while the Scottish National Party is calling for another independence referendum. Never rains but it pours. Britain is flailing around, caught fast in a net it fashioned itself.

Even if Mrs May keeps the DUP in humour, she has so many other groupings to placate that the Twelve Labours of Hercules look rather more manageable. A change of leader or a general election are possible ways past the deadlock.

But the situation cannot continue. A prime minister without control of her own party, let alone parliament, is disastrous for Britain - intensifying its problems at a vulnerable juncture. She did her best but chose the wrong strategy, seeking agreement from within the Conservatives rather than cross-party backing. Now, the clock against her, it's too late to change course. Before she stands down she has a duty to seek an extension to Article 50 because the time pressure is intolerable and heightens the panic.

As for Mr Corbyn, while he is no Remainiac (as protesters outside the Palace of Westminster are calling those who want to stay in the EU), he needs to take a step which will not meet with approval on all sides. But it is advisable before Britain takes an irretrievable step, despite the howls it will generate in some quarters.

He needs to commit to another referendum.

Irish Independent

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