It’s the border, stupid

One news item on the radio this morning caught my attention. Today is the 50th anniversary of a civil rights march that took place in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, and which descended into violence as officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary attacked demonstrators with batons.

This date, 5 October 1968, is widely regarded as the start of The Troubles that plagued Northern Ireland until the signing of the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement thirty years later, in April 1998. In the intervening two decades, Northern Ireland has prospered, and an open border with the Republic of Ireland facilitated by both the UK and the Republic being members of the European Union. Last year, Steph and I toured Northern Ireland and saw for ourselves how far the province has come since them, with clear signs of prosperity and peace.

Once again, the island of Ireland is dominating British (and European) politics. Northern Ireland is at the forefront of the Brexit agenda, because of the border issue between the province and the Republic of Ireland. Post-Brexit in March 2019 this border will be the UK’s only land border with the EU. During our holiday in Northern Ireland, we criss-crossed that border multiple times. In fact, a single road, denominated A3 in Northern Ireland and N54 in the Republic, crosses from one country to the other four or five times in the space of less than 10 miles.

We traveled that road, and the only evidence of crossing from one country to the other were speed warning signs for mph or kph (Northern Ireland or Ireland).

Concerns have been raised in all quarters about a return to a post-Brexit hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic post-Brexit. That is one potential  (and awful) outcome of no withdrawal deal being reached between the UK and the EU. ‘Negotiations’ continue, and will come to a head in the next few weeks.

But no-one seems able to square the circle, and the UK government and the European Commission seem as far apart as ever. Incidentally, the dismantling of the hard border and its continued open status were conditions of the Good Friday Agreement that has undoubtedly brought peace and prosperity, It’s a legally-binding treaty that could potentially scupper Brexit. Brexiteers seem to forget the legality of this agreement.

On this 50th anniversary, it is appropriate in the context of the Brexit process to reflect on bitter times past and the consequences of communities unable to co-exist without resorting to violence.

It beggars belief, however, that someone as prominent in British politics as arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg can demonstrate, in recent cavalier and insensitive language that elicited widespread shock, his lack of understanding. He once again proved (to me at least) that he and acolytes are quite prepared to make Northern Ireland a sacrificial lamb in their determination to bring about a hard Brexit.

Unfortunately its devolved government has not been functioning since the power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive collapsed in January 2017, and effective government is at a standstill. The majority political party, the Democratic Unionist Party or DUP is pro-Brexit, and is playing hardball with Prime Minister Theresa May’s government which is in hock to the DUP for parliamentary support following the 2017 General Election when the Tories lost their overall majority.

I’m not going to go into detail about any or all of the various solutions that have been put forward to solve the border issue. Some involve technologies or approaches that have yet to prove their value or workability. To date these suggestions have been dismissed by one side or the other.

The Irish border question might be the ‘straw that breaks the camel’s back’. Inevitably, I guess, there will be a fudge, some compromise that will satisfy no-one. However, it’s possible—probable even—that any agreement that Theresa May secures from the EU will be voted down in parliament, and then the risks of crashing out of the EU escalate significantly.

I strongly support the demand for a People’s Vote (i.e. a second referendum in some form or other). That’s our democratic right. People do change their minds and as the vision of a post-Brexit UK becomes clearer, there is a growing clamour for a new vote. In a number of recent nation-wide polls not only is there growing support for a People’s Vote, but the outcome of that vote would support remaining in the EU, with a much higher proportion supporting Remain than voted Leave in 2016. Ironically, in the 2016 referendum, Northern Ireland voted to Remain in the EU by a majority of 56% to 44%. Going forward, Northern Ireland could be key to remaining in the EU.

Hope springs eternal!

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