Tuesday 20 August 2019

Martina Devlin: 'We should be under no illusions about the threat of a no-deal Brexit - we face significant collateral damage and the North will endure the most suffering'

'It's clear he intends taking Britain out of the EU on October 31, with or without an improved deal - repeatedly, he references the need to
'It's clear he intends taking Britain out of the EU on October 31, with or without an improved deal - repeatedly, he references the need to "honour the mandate of the people".' Photo: PA
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Let's take a moment to reflect on what the word 'crash' means. It tends to be accidental and when it happens something is lost - in a car crash, pain, fear, disruption and sometimes carnage ensue.

It can also suggest a systems failure: businesses go under, livelihoods are lost and people's prospects are impaired. Now consider where Britain is headed, towing Ireland in its slipstream - increasingly, it appears that Boris Johnson is steering directly towards a crash-out Brexit.

It's clear he intends taking Britain out of the EU on October 31, with or without an improved deal - repeatedly, he references the need to "honour the mandate of the people". In the absence of agreement with the EU, no deal is the default position, and all the signs are that Britain is trudging steadily towards that cliff face.

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But even a crash-out Brexit would have to be followed by negotiations on the future relationship between Britain and the EU. Terminating discussions forever is not part of no-deal. A crash-out Brexit can be deliberate or accidental but it cannot be the end. As with any crash, there are injuries to be assessed and pieces to be picked up. Here, increasing calls are heard for the Irish Government to specify its measures intended to avoid a hard Border - where checks will take place and how compliance with the single market's regulations will be ensured. But telling the Irish people means telling the world and why show a poker hand in advance?

Besides, detailing checks at this juncture effectively means we are preparing to facilitate no deal. Which licenses the British government to tell the US, with whom it's trying to strike a free trade deal: don't worry about the Good Friday Agreement, Ireland has a plan in place.

Incidentally, alarm bells sounded when Michael Gove, minister in charge of making no deal sound like everyone but Britain's fault, arrived in the North for a two-day visit yesterday. He couldn't be any more desirable to the DUP if he arrived gift-wrapped with a blood-red bow.

This is a politician who has called the Good Friday Agreement a "humiliation of our army, police and parliament" and a "denial of our integrity" designed to "lever Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom". He also opposes the backstop, unlike most of the people in the region he's visiting, but you don't get the impression he's there with an open mind to inform himself. No-deal oratory is redoubling, from him and other sources, with propaganda about the EU big bad wolf. None of this language, least of all the "bin the backstop" precondition to talks, is conducive to deal-making.

What the two sides should do now is take a leaf out of the Good Friday Agreement - first, sending Mr Gove on holiday because he doesn't understand its rights-based significance. That treaty teaches us to have talks about talks when positions seem irreconcilable. Then move on to talks proper. Britain used dexterous negotiators during the Good Friday Agreement and Mr Johnson's administration could learn from them.

Leave supporters are overconfident about Britain's place in the world and ability to weather the aftershock. Recently, in London's Parliament Square, I spoke with a protester who talked about sovereignty but had a tenuous grasp of reality - a common Brexiteer thread. When I suggested he'd be financially worse off under Brexit, he said: "What have I got to lose? I'm already poor. What are they going to take away from me? I don't own anything."

He was wearing clean clothes without holes. He had a home. He had food. This man had no concept of genuine deprivation. For him, October 31 can't arrive fast enough. At least he knows what he wants. But Tory and Labour MPs in Westminster opposing no deal are unclear about what they want. Another referendum or an agreed Brexit with a transition period? And can moderate Tories work with Labour and the Lib Dems?

There is no cohesive opposition to Brexit. Are Tory MPs willing to collapse their government? If so would they co-operate in a cross-party emergency administration? Are Labour MPs prepared to oust Jeremy Corbyn if he's a sticking point?

Britain is committing self-harm, which is regrettable on many levels. It also appears to be incapable of admitting that its democratic processes were manipulated during the Brexit referendum.

Britain may be the sixth-biggest economy in the world but it has black spots, including Northern Ireland, within this Disunited Kingdom which will become more deprived post-Brexit. Job losses, inflation and impaired public services are inevitable. The poor will grow poorer.

A former chief executive of supermarket chain Sainsbury's told the BBC earlier this week that the UK has 10 days' worth of food before gaps appear on shelves. On Thursday, the pound fell to a two-year low against the euro and dollar, driven by reports that Mr Johnson is contemplating a general election in the immediate aftermath of Brexit.

In Ireland, we face significant collateral damage even from a soft Brexit, although a hard one looks most probable right now. The North, in particular, is going to be injured financially and destabilised politically; but businesses across Ireland will suffer. The island-wide market will be affected, as will east-west trade: Irish businesses have supply chains with Britain, rely on the British landbridge to reach Europe, and are facing into tariffs on Irish goods.

There are concerns that if Mr Johnson loses a no-confidence motion in Westminster next month, he'll delay a general election until the days after Brexit - allowing the Tories to argue that Britain left the EU as promised. But imagine the chaos of an election campaign during the most challenging period experienced by the UK in modern history.

The Taoiseach has been speaking to various European prime ministers to shore up support for Ireland and we are assured it is "solid". But the EU will be solidly behind Ireland maintaining the integrity of the single market following a British crash-out, regardless of any difficulties this causes. Someone who negotiated with Michel Barnier told me: "He wouldn't give you a comma."

Ireland has harnessed the EU's power bloc - for now. But afterwards, what? There are fears for Ireland's low corporate tax rate, which drew the multinationals to our shores. It would be maladroit of the EU to demand its surrender. But it could push for the introduction of a digital tax (on turnover as opposed to profits) which Ireland opposes, no doubt because of lobbying by technology companies.

Finally, Brexit may be the blind leading the blind but the Leave camp has more momentum than Remain. We should be under no illusions about what that means.

Any silver linings? Last Tuesday the Taoiseach took part in a leaders' political debate at Féile, West Belfast's festival. He engaged. The North feels abandoned, with good reason, but that gesture did not go unappreciated.

Irish Independent

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