Sunday 20 October 2019

Martina Devlin: 'Politics across United Kingdom has now become dangerously 'Ulsterised' as tribal loyalties and incendiary language make compromise almost impossible'

Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo credit: Christopher Furlong/PA Wire
Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo credit: Christopher Furlong/PA Wire
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Amid the heat of incendiary language, violence chills the air. Those of us who grew familiar with it, throughout the Troubles, can sense its presence crouching in Westminster as people are incited towards a point of no return.

Yes, violence is waiting in the shadows, strengthened by the rhetoric of demonisation which turns political rivals into enemies. It grows bolder at the reckless use of inflammatory terms such as "betrayal" and Britain becoming "a vassal state" to the EU.

Events at Westminster this week expose a political climate that's febrile - on the brink of explosion. Boris Johnson's dangerous oratory, as part of his people-versus-parliament strategy, is escalating public anger against MPs.

His goads are a polarising tool - such as calling the recent law which seeks to prevent Britain from tipping into a no-deal Brexit "the Surrender Act".

And we in Ireland are familiar with the places where no-surrender speechifying can lead. It is poisonous. Schismatic. A zero-sum game. But no-surrender is where Mr Johnson is staking his colours.

From various quarters, we now hear about the "Ulsterisation" of British politics - implying a siege mentality where to give ground is capitulating, tribal loyalties hold sway, and binary divisions are irreconcilable. It is not entirely coincidental that the DUP has been part of the lethal mix through which the Conservative and Unionist Party turned cannibal and fell to gorging on one another. But the political system is also being eaten alive.

In Westminster, polemicists gain more traction than pragmatists. Their words are weapons and Mr Johnson's tone may well endanger lives. Increasingly, MPs are receiving death threats. They are under unprecedented levels of bombardment - in Parliament Square, where protesters line up daily, I have heard some of the abuse directed at them.

Decent people are aghast. The Church of England's archbishops and bishops, more than 100 of them, yesterday signed a joint public statement calling the tone of the Brexit debate "unacceptable" and urging people inside and outside Westminster to treat one another with respect.

Once, such an intervention would have defused tension but unfortunately it will be water off the duck's back of the current administration. Mr Johnson told the UK's supreme court it was "wrong" in its unanimous judgment that his government acted illegally by proroguing Parliament. His government doesn't hold the rule of law in high regard, let alone the requirement for decency in political discourse.

This lack of commitment to what's lawful, this constant search for dodgy loopholes, is an added difficulty for EU negotiators dealing with him. His administration has mud-grey ethics. Its senior officers don't care what they smash as they pursue their course, nor the long-term consequences. Sledgehammer politics is their chosen path. Do not the corruptions of men in power "eat your flesh and exhaust your spirits", as Jonathan Swift asked a friend?

No wonder there is widespread unease, not just in Britain but in Ireland and within the EU where negotiators are downbeat about the prospects of reaching agreement with Mr Johnson - whose demeanour shows a determination to push things right to the wire and force a conclusion, whatever it might be.

He was reminded of the potential for violence by Labour MPs in the Commons, citing the murder of their colleague Jo Cox, shot and stabbed just before the referendum by a hard-right fundamentalist reportedly shouting "Britain first".

How did Mr Johnson respond to their well-founded fears? "Humbug," he said, implying they were shroud-waving for their own ends.

Not everyone enjoys his level of security detail. There is no doubt that MPs are scared for themselves and their families - it is negligent to shrug off the risks.

The best way to honour Ms Cox is to get Brexit done, said Mr Johnson, a message echoed in public by his chief advisor Dominic Cummings. It must be horrible for her widower to hear her name drop with such cynicism from their mouths.

Mr Johnson's language is encouraging people to behave in a threatening way to public figures, according to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. MPs are highlighting specific incidents. A stranger arrived at a politician's home while he was away, causing fear to his wife and three-year-old daughter. An attempt was made to kick down a constituency office door by someone shouting "fascist". Support our version of Brexit and these episodes will stop, is the response of Mr Johnson, Mr Cummings and their cohort.

Theirs is a world in which insults are not just routine but acceptable. In which emotion overwhelms common sense. In which political hyperbole matters more than political will to reach agreement. Their veneer is democratic - they claim to be delivering the people's will, fulminate against the "undemocratic backstop" and are convinced the electorate is ready to back them in a general election. But it's all part of a might-is-right approach - provided it's their might expressed.

The DUP has played that game too, pushing for a return to majority rule in Stormont. Speaking of which, Sammy Wilson has popped up again to call for tariffs and checks north of the Border. Is his party actively trying to sink the state it claims to love?

What now? Realistically, the UK cannot leave the EU at Halloween and an extension must happen. Some people are starting to wonder if the only safe way to avoid no deal is to replace the prime minister. But he won't let go easily - Nietzche references the will to power as the natural drive for humans and it is highly developed in Mr Johnson.

A general election is a given, although not until no deal is off the table, and will be a de facto re-run of the referendum. Almost three and half years on, a somewhat different electorate will be casting ballots - a proportion of older voters will have died and a swathe of young people will be eligible who lacked the vote previously. Efforts have been stepped up to ensure the youth vote is on the register.

Depending on the election result, the likelihood of a second referendum is increasing. But supposing a second ballot overturned the 2016 result, what's to stop a future government having a third plebiscite? Brexit's toxins won't dissolve easily.

Meanwhile, Brussels is still waiting for workable alternatives to the backstop, with little of substance emerging from Britain. The mood is downbeat. Brexit has taught us to expect the unexpected - all that can be said with absolute certainty is there's trouble ahead.

In the interim, more parliamentary suspension, court challenges, disorder and general bad temper appear probable. Perhaps a national unity government is the answer if MPs can agree to it. But if Ulsterisation has taken hold they won't be able to deliver that. We must hope, despite the DUP's best efforts, it hasn't.

Irish Independent

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