Tuesday 20 August 2019

Michael Kelly: 'Tory civil war has infected the entire continent - while DUP's love of its precious union is clearly unrequited'

In Brexit, the Leave campaigners chose the pithy 'Take back control' to epitomise everything they wanted voters to believe the UK leaving the European Union was all about. Photo: PA
In Brexit, the Leave campaigners chose the pithy 'Take back control' to epitomise everything they wanted voters to believe the UK leaving the European Union was all about. Photo: PA
Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly

In a political campaign, a short, sharp and catchy slogan is worth its weight in gold. Whether or not the slogan stands up to close scrutiny is completely beside the point. If something catches the public imagination, it's priceless.

Think of US presidential elections - perhaps the most glitzy example of democracy doing its thing. None of John McCain's long speeches extolling his promise of 'Reform, prosperity and peace' in 2008 could compete with Barack Obama's irresistible 'Yes we can'.

In 2016, Donald Trump's 'Make America Great Again' had taken hold amongst large swathes of disaffected America while Hillary Clinton's campaign was still running 84 proposed slogans before focus groups. The half-dozen or so slogans she finally settled on were all forgettable.

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In Brexit, the Leave campaigners chose the pithy 'Take back control' to epitomise everything they wanted voters to believe the UK leaving the European Union was all about.

No amount of economic forecasts or expert opinion from the Remain campaign shifted that simple narrative. Brexiteers used the slogan repeatedly and relentlessly, while the Remain side never coined a simple and effective slogan.

Hitting the political jackpot is making people feel good about supporting a particular campaign. And who doesn't want to feel in control? Standing in the polling booth, pencil in hand, marking a simple 'X' to be part of the project to regain control of one's country - it's an almost intoxicating image.

Fast forward to 2019, and Brexit has resulted in chaos and probably the worst constitutional crisis in Britain in centuries. The House of Commons - once lauded as the mother of all parliaments - has descended into farce, with politicians trading insults across the floor of the house. Attempts by MPs to be part of the 'take back control' myth have gone up in smoke with an inability to come to a consensus on anything meaningful.

It's a measure of just how much of a circus Westminster has become that a near-naked protest in the visitors' gallery the other day hardly raised an eyebrow. No, the blood-sport in the chamber is much more interesting these days. It would be almost comical, if it wasn't so serious.

The UK now stands on the cusp of a no-deal Brexit which will have profound consequences for the livelihoods and well-being of people across Europe, especially in Britain itself and, crucially, here on the island of Ireland.

We find ourselves in the invidious position of being held hostage by the fact that the Conservative Party in Britain has unleashed its bitter civil war on the entire continent. The issue of Europe has torn that party apart for decades, and whilst it often seemed impolite to intrude on a personal tragedy, it was fascinating to watch from a distance.

But, we are spectators no more. David Cameron's referendum put that bitter internal struggle centre-stage. And in so doing, he has divided Britain in a way not seen in centuries.

It also looks unlikely that the Tories will survive this process as anything resembling a coherent party. Certainly, it's hard to see the Conservatives ever again reasserting their previous role as the natural party of government and a safe pair of hands to turn to in a crisis.

Of course, the consequences for Ireland are much, much more than economic. The image of Queen Elizabeth II laying a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin and bowing her head in silent reverence for the fallen rebels seemed to heal so much of the enmity between our two islands.

It all seems a thousand years ago now. Brexit has ignited anxiety about the relationship between Britain and Ireland and ties are strained in a way not seen since before the peace process.

Brexit is a huge threat to the hard-won peace and process of reconciliation. It has turned back the clock on Anglo-Irish relations and leaves serious questions about just how much the British establishment cares about peace in the North.

Part of the success of the process was the fact that parties in Ireland and Britain threw their full weight behind the accord and refused to score political points or take sides. It was the benchmark for a new era of consensus.

Now, Theresa May is reliant on the DUP - the only party on these islands who actively campaigned against the Good Friday Agreement. The party that never missed an opportunity to take advantage of any crisis is calling the shots and the Tory hard right is now taking its cues from the DUP.

Decades of even-handed stewardship on the North by John Major, Tony Blair and even David Cameron have been fatally undermined by the DUP's back channel to the prime minister, due to Mrs May's spectacular 2017 general election miscalculation.

By putting her party ahead of everything else, Mrs May has lost any claim to be a broker in the North. Under her leadership, the Tories have reverted to type and have shown that they cannot be trusted to be a fair adjudicator in any negotiations to restart power-sharing at Stormont.

Even with a deal, Brexit is bad news for Ireland. It is even worse news for the North and voters will not easily forget that it was the DUP who egged on the gung-ho no-deal fanatics of the Tory party.

Amidst their pious worries about preserving their precious union, the DUP would do well to take heed of this week's Ipsos poll that found only 36pc of Britons would like Northern Ireland to choose to stay in the UK while 45pc either didn't mind either way or had no opinion.

Like anyone dishing out unrequited love, the DUP will learn the painful lesson that a love affair that goes only one way is doomed to fail. It's a pity we all have to suffer in the process.

Irish Independent

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