Saturday 21 September 2019

Martina Devlin: 'We cannot let Ireland and the peace process be sacrificed on the altar of Brexit by a Johnson government that doesn't play by the rules'

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: PA
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: PA
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Welcome to terra incognita - unexplored territory traditionally labelled on ancient maps with the warning 'here be dragons'. Is it on this no man's land that the United Kingdom is destined to snap apart? With a naked power grab by an unscrupulous prime minister using the DUP as a battering ram to smash through to his goals?

The unionist party gives Boris Johnson the semblance of legitimacy with a majority of one. With it, he can attempt to break parliament. As for the DUP, its support for the Johnson administration - reiterated this week when it could have stayed silent - is an attempt to break the Good Friday Agreement. Its wilful blindness about Brexit's impact on the North has led to the DUP making a sacrifice of the place it claims to love.

It wants direct rule from Westminster, somehow imagining the North will become more British as a result. On the contrary, cracks are ringing out around the UK, with Scotland possibly breaking away first and Northern Ireland following. The Scottish independence movement can only have gained support from Johnson's move to suspend Parliament.

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As for Wales, although a majority voted for Brexit, people are concerned at what's now happening and the Welsh Parliament has been recalled. (Eamon Ryan of the Greens has called for an early return of the Dáil, too.) The evidence from Tory HQ is that all animals are equal, but English animals are more equal than others - constituent parts of the UK matter less.

The Guy Fawkes gunpowder plot at Westminster is woven through British history - what will history make of this explosive development?

Whatever happens, Ireland cannot allow itself to be sacrificed on the altar of Brexit. Currently, we have been reduced to bystander status by this devious move which has Dominic (middle name cunning) Cummings's fingerprints all over it. It's odds-on there are further wheezes afoot. Suspension was plotted with care. It was not an impulsive move.

Proroguing is constitutionally correct, but politically poisonous because it denies parliament the opportunity to scrutinise legislation. And if Mr Johnson can play fast and loose with parliament, he is well capable of playing fast and loose with the Good Friday Agreement. Who can possibly believe him when he urges Ireland and the EU to give way on the backstop, trusting him to find an alternative?

Rather than build bridges within the North or between North and south at this fraught time, Arlene Foster shows her political limitations, insisting "we will continue our work with the prime minister to strengthen the union" - even as her party's support for this out-of-control government undermines it. Reason has fled. In fact, the union's break-up will be hastened as a result of that dash to Balmoral by three members of the privy council to gain royal consent to prorogue.

Compare Ms Foster's response with Ruth Davidson, who has stepped down as leader of the Conservatives in Scotland for personal reasons, but also because she can't support current developments.

History never fails to turn and it is turning now, with constitutional change in the air for the North. A snap general election can't be ruled out and the DUP will not emerge stronger from it.

To date, the British public's reaction has been relatively subdued despite the dangers of bypassing Parliament - if accepted, it will be normalised. Divisions are paramount, the Brexit message has gained power from repetition and some people are too sunk in apathy to care.

It would not be unreasonable to expect Parliament's suspension to have triggered a surge of activity: a general strike, public buildings occupied, streets blocked. Instead, Remainer or soft Brexiteer hopes are pinned on legal challenges in Belfast, Edinburgh and London, and to politicians setting aside their differences in the national interest. They have four days next week to try to bump through legislation to stop Britain crashing out of the EU.

In Ireland, we can't treat what's happening as an internal British matter because of its impact on the Border. As no deal looms, traders' need for information about checks and controls is heightened, and the Government is under increased pressure to give details of its arrangements.

It is a delicate balancing act for the Government - when to show its hand? The concerns of businesses are understandable. After all, if they turn out to be grossly underprepared for a hard Brexit, panic will ensue. But it's also possible the Government hasn't yet agreed provisions with the European Commission. Furthermore, both Ireland and Europe are aware the Johnson camp will take advantage of anything they say.

In the first instance, arrangements in Border areas will depend on customs officials, but sooner or later police and soldiers will be involved. Lt Col (retired) Dan Harvey of the Defence Forces told the Irish Independent he believes they are ill-prepared: "An Garda Síochána, the Defence Forces and officials of the customs and excise have lost most, if not all, of their corporate knowledge of the Border. In addition, many Garda and Defence Forces' barracks and posts on or adjacent to the Border have been closed in a very short-sighted, cost-driven policy by Government. It was from those barracks and posts that the patrolling of the Border was mounted."

An officer with 40 years of experience, he warns that corporate knowledge of the Border has been lost by peacekeepers. He will speak at the Casement Summer School in Dún Laoghaire tomorrow.

The Government needs to become more effective at spreading the message in Britain that Border concerns are less about trade and more about protecting the peace and the birth right of people to be treated as Irish and therefore EU citizens.

In that context, a welcome intervention this week came from some Church of England bishops. "The Irish Border is not a mere political totem and peace in Ireland is not a ball to be kicked by the English," says an open letter.

Amid the current air of unreality, Westminster returns on Tuesday and has four days to do or die (to borrow from Mr Johnson's idiom) before suspension until mid-October. The 'Financial Times' says Labour's strategy is for Jeremy Corbyn to take control of House of Commons business and force a vote on asking the EU for an extension.

It's possible, despite tight numbers and a narrow timeframe. In a showdown, Tory rebels such as Ken Clarke say they'll vote against their government, but Mr Corbyn is not a figure for Remainers to unite behind. An agreed candidate has not been chosen to spearhead this plan. No wonder Mr Johnson is running rings round them.

"Now Brussels know we mean business," Mr Johnson reportedly told his cabinet. I hope the prorogation strategy has concentrated minds and sharpened wits because this government doesn't play by the rules.

Irish Independent

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