Thursday 21 February 2019

Michael Kelly: 'Foster and the DUP could learn a hard lesson from Brexit - if you can be bought, you can be sold'

Arlene Foster. Photo: Getty Images
Arlene Foster. Photo: Getty Images
Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly

For as long as I can remember, summer Sundays in our family were spent in the seaside town of Bundoran. We'd pile into the car in my home town of Omagh and set our sights for the rugged coastline of Co Donegal.

Maybe it's a feature of getting older, but the weather always seemed glorious. We'd while away the time walking on the beach and eating candy floss.

People didn't much care about children gambling in the 1980s, and many a carefree hour was spent pushing 2p coins into the one-armed bandits.

An integral ritual of our weekly pilgrimages to what older northerners still called the Free State was the gauntlet of checkpoints that marked the Border crossing.

The DUP's Arlene Foster - 10 years older than me - may not remember a hard Border, as she told reporters this week, but I certainly do.

Nowadays, the only indicators that one has crossed the Border is the chirp of a mobile phone welcoming one to the respective jurisdictions or the switch in road signs.

But our trip 'south' regularly saw us pass through ad hoc checkpoints by the RUC and the dreaded UDR, for starters. As one approached the Border at Belleek (in Ms Foster's own constituency), there was an enormous British Army checkpoint.

The queues often went on for miles. The tailbacks took so long that as a child I learnt the Nato phonetic alphabet off by heart by listening to the soldiers endlessly reading licence plate numbers into their radios. "Kilo, Juliet, India, one, six, four, eight" was the registration of my father's car at a time.

Cheerful squaddies, mostly from the north of England, would ask: "Can I see your ID, mate?"

More often than not, apart from the waiting, it was a fairly routine if tedious affair. But a hard Border it certainly was, despite Ms Foster's amnesia.

A few yards after the Border was the Irish customs checkpoint, and half a mile after that was another checkpoint manned by members of An Garda Siochána and the Irish Defence Forces.

We smiled when we saw them and waved goodbye on our journey home.

Somehow, they were ours in the way the British Army or the RUC never were.

Now, we didn't live in a Border town, per se. Our neighbours in the next parish of Aghaloo had to walk through a heavily fortified British Army checkpoint to get from the chapel to the local GAA club.

One parishioner - Aidan McAnespie - was shot in the back and killed by a soldier in 1988 as he crossed the checkpoint to attend a football match.

It was claimed to have been an accident at the time, but the soldier involved was charged with manslaughter 20 years later and is now awaiting trial.

Whether it was an accident or a crime will be for the courts to decide, but it's a potent example of what happens when one erects a border that drives a wedge between people and their environment that they have to cross each day.

Arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg - something of a Grand Old Duke of York in his on/off heaves against Theresa May - made a dramatic visit to "inspect" the Border last year. He concluded that a hard Border would be no big deal since it would just be a return to checks "as we had during the Troubles".

Had he bothered to educate himself and ask people what life was like before the peace process led to the dismantling of the Border infrastructure, he would be less cavalier in his attitude.

He would have learned that the Border had a crippling economic effect on communities either side of it. He would also have heard of the debilitating effect of watchtowers and armed patrols.

"It won't be like that this time," I can hear some on the Tory right scream. But, the dissident Republican threat remains real in the North, and customs officers on the Border will be ready targets for those intent on destabilising the peace process.

Mrs May's humiliation in the Commons would be fun to watch for the sheer theatrics, but for the fact that it is so serious and affects the lives of real people.

Her Brexit deal is effectively dead. The EU seem unwilling to revisit it and she will not secure a majority of MPs behind it.

Whatever 'Plan B' she unveils on Monday is unlikely to cut it, so the sooner Westminster - which prides itself on being the "mother of all parliaments" - reasserts itself and dislodges the DUP as the Brexit kingmakers, the better.

Mrs May is in office but not in power, so it's time for MPs to seize the initiative and thrash out a deal that is realistic and avoids the recklessness of the hard Brexit fanatics.

Her misjudged general election backfired spectacularly and left her reliant on the 10 votes of the DUP. That's a millstone that the Brexit process needs to have cut loose.

Ms Foster and her party are more interested in ideology than the economy. That's why they're willing to reject a deal that is good for the North.

What they'll learn is that Brexit is really an exercise in English nationalism rather than the integrity of the kingdom. For people like Boris Johnson and Mr Rees-Mogg, Belleek is as far away as Berlin.

And if the economic consequences of Brexit hit home hard, the Treasury's €10.5bn subvention of the North will come under pressure in favour of taxpayers in the shires - whatever commitments have been made to the DUP.

As standards of living fall in England and Wales, it's hard to see a Tory administration risking seats to stand up for an expensive appendage like Northern Ireland.

Arlene Foster and the DUP could end up learning a painful lesson: if you can be bought, you can be sold.

Irish Independent

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