*****DUP: the day Brexit's breakthrough hit the Belfast buffers

PUBLISHED: 07:00 08 December 2017

Theresa May greets DUP leader Arlene Foster, DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds and DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson outside 10 Downing Street

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MICHAEL WHITE on a week of confusion, bitterness and a very dangerous way to halt Brexit

The very idea of the Democratic Unionist Party’s tribal leaders insisting on ‘regulatory alignment’ with the rest of the sort-of-still-United Kingdom ought to be enough to make an Irish cat laugh. But no one in Brussels on Monday afternoon was in much of a humorous mood as Theresa May’s Brexit breakthrough hit the Belfast buffers.

After all, Ulster Protestantism’s actions over many centuries have spoken louder than their Loyalist words. What they repeatedly demanded was their own particular and unaligned version of their cherished Britishness, stubbornly majoritarian, often explicitly at the expense of their Catholic neighbours, even though they shared many of their more illiberal social values, on abortion or gay sexuality for example.

Plenty of ‘regulatory divergence’ there, eh? And some of it persists to this day. Until Belfast’s de-aligned habits periodically became intolerable or led to violence on the streets – as they did in 1914-21 and again after 1969 – the British state was all too often inclined to turn a blind eye to Stormont and its para-military B Specials, just as Dublin tolerated the IRA.

The Republic of Ireland, even more reactionary for much of the 20th century, has moved on in recent decades, entering the European and global mainstream to the point of currently having a half-Indian Taoiseach in Leo Varadkar. So has modern Belfast, but its hinterland is stuck with Arlene Foster and (he’s still around) Gerry Adams, a humbugging cross between Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn.

But we are where we are, as Michel Barnier’s clock ticks on, and as we so often have been in the tangled relationship between the larger and the smaller offshore islands, locked in a muddle of conflicting loyalties and inherited obligations. Land, religion, law, empire and foreign threats, all have played their divisive part at different moments of Anglo-Irish history.

When May flew into Brussels at lunchtime on Monday most of the mood music was upbeat. A tripartite deal – on citizens’ rights, on vulgar money and the winding Irish border – which would unlock those elusive trade talks was 90% certain, according to the Times. At breakfast time the Guardian’s more guarded tone looked out of step with the day’s mood.

But overnight briefing by officials in both Brussels and Dublin, talk of a 15-page summary and of planned statements or press conferences later in the day smacked of triumphalism and the suspicion that a vulnerable British prime minister was being bounced, not least by Varadkar and the wily Irish Department of Foreign Affairs.

The Taioseach had even summoned a special cabinet meeting. The Brits don’t seem to have pro-actively briefed, but Tory MPs were called to what proved a stormy Monday meeting of the backbench trades union, the 1922 Committee, and there was talk of a lengthy Commons statement (later cancelled) from May. EU Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, was spotted wearing his battered Burberry tie, in his case a conciliatory gesture to all but good taste.

Ireland being seen to call the diplomatic shots? Juncker in a good mood with a British fashion accessory? That would never do for the ‘take back control’ posse at Westminster and in the pubs of Middle England. In fairness, Ireland’s Europe Minister, Helen McEntee, sounded cautious as the morning unfolded. The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg and C4’s Faisal Islam also began picking up troubling vibes.

It wasn’t all about the Irish border either, a legacy role for the European Court of Justice (ECJ) was still to be finalised in ways suitable for UK consumption, a crucial issue – the crucial issue – for theologians of the Sovereignty School.

But the Irish dimension mattered because many people were only just waking up to the fact – or being forced to acknowledge – that it wasn’t just about Ireland. A ‘no hard border’ policy across Ireland would either mean one across the Irish Sea or suck the UK back into the EU’s outer orbit. The fantasists’ ‘easy peasy’ solutions involved Owen Paterson’s high-tech invisible customs border and Foster’s ‘soft border’, but also a hard Brexit’s regulatory divergence. They were not proving attractive, except to smugglers.

‘Regulatory alignment’ was the phrase that did Monday’s damage. Foster and her colleagues seem to have been kept loosely in touch with what the May team was doing, but insufficiently soothed. They were caught off guard.

It had been clear for a week that getting the EU 27’s green light for the future trade talks – the really difficult part of Brexit – had involved major UK concessions on money (that £40 to £50 billion divorce bill, paid over decades and not all of it to fund Farage’s £73,000 pension) plus a residual role for the ECJ in enforcing EU citizens’ rights in Britain and even trade disputes.

Yet that great magma chamber that is Brexit resentment had not boiled over. Routine amounts of lava had flowed down from Mount Mogg. The Redwood caldera had recorded seismic activity, the Peak Redwood (Picque Redwood?) and the Duncan Smith Fault (it’s always someone else’s fault) had emitted steam and noxious gasses in the shape of an implausible “seven red lines” letter. But volcanologists were not unduly alarmed. From Mounts Johnson and Gove came scarcely a tremor. At safe distance from the action, the foreign secretary was engaged in top talks with his Norwegian counterpart. Is this man still on full pay? Monitors picked up weasel words like “no direct involvement” and “not indefinitely”. Perhaps UK courts could voluntarily refer disputes to the Luxembourg court?

The tone-setting Daily Mail was also behaving itself, with Brexit relegated to inside pages again. It did so on Monday and Tuesday. The usual suspects were relatively quiescent. On air Owen Paterson gave the appearance of actually wanting to help, not hinder, the prime minister.

Did this mean that reality-based politics were finally reasserting themselves, as they usually do in the end? Or was the What’s App group of slightly techie Brexit Tory MPs merely biding its time?

We may never know now. I was driving to Yorkshire when I heard the Official Unionists’ veteran former leader, David Trimble, prickly but clever, going over the top on Radio 4’s World at One. The BBC’s Mark Mardell kept reminding listeners that ‘regulatory alignment’ – by now the softer ‘no regulatory divergence’ had reportedly been amended to the text – was still in the shadowy world of non-attributable briefing, neither version yet in a published form. Trimble also reminded himself not to go over the top. But he couldn’t help it. This sort of deal would align the six counties with the 26, not with Britain, he kept saying. It was very dangerous to the unity of the UK and he couldn’t understand whether Foster’s DUP had been kept in the dark or been briefed without understanding. Why had they not said anything?

But middle class Ulster Unionist Party condescension towards its more muscular DUP rivals is never far from the surface, even years after successive DUP uppercuts put the UUP on its back. In the event neither Lord Trimble, nor May nor Juncker had to wait long.

May was summoned from her lunch with Burberry Juncker (humble pie on the menu?) to talk to Foster on the phone. A DUP statement – predictive text offers the handy adjective ‘intransigent’ – followed. In its wake came diplomatic disarray, what the rest of us call chaos.

Embarrassed yet again by her self-inflicted political weakness at home (that June 8 election ‘win’) May duly broke off the talks and came home to try and mend bridges. She had four days to sort out her domestic problem and try again, seven days according to others, 10 days if she and the 27 were willing and able to go to the EU wire ahead of the regular summit on December 14-15. That is where we all are, as I type. Who would have guessed when both Britain and Ireland joined the then-common market in 1973 or when the Irish punt broke with the sterling area in 1979 that 40 years later – almost a century after the 1921 treaty restored Irish independence – some Brexit fantasists would still be suggesting that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU would somehow restore the political unity of the British Isles, instead of the opposite?

Himself a signatory to the 1921 Treaty, still PM in the 1950s, Churchill thought reconciliation might yet come about, which is why he sanctioned continued Treasury support for prizes at Irish race meetings (the latest Churchill book is about his love of horses), this on the grounds that it would nurture goodwill.

What a soppy old romantic! Fifty-two years after his death, sensible bookies will be keener to take punters’ bets on Dublin signing up to Britain again than on Belfast going the other way.

In centrifugal Britain of 2017 what happened even before Foster’s statement was that other pro-Remain regions jumped on the ‘regulatory alignment’ train.

If Northern Ireland can stay aligned with the EU single market and customs union, why can’t we, asked Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor, and Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, whose laws, church and education have all been ‘diverged’ since 1707.

Similarly minded was devolved Wales, which voted for Brexit. If Foster can ignore her pro-Remain electorate, why shouldn’t Welsh Labour ignore its own? Cherry-picking opportunism is a very human vice, evident in Brexit, Remain and Juncker camps. Open Britain popped up on Tuesday to say the answer would be for all of us to stay inside the customs union and single market. Alas, an unholy alliance of May, Brexit’s Jeremy Corbyn and the Mail’s Paul Dacre sold that pass long ago. Correction: not ‘sold’, they gave it away.

What seems to have triggered the latest setback may prove to be misunderstandings based on diplomatic ambiguities, accidental or deliberate, of the kind that make the world go round. Was the proposed alignment for Ulster – non-divergence if you prefer – intended to embrace the entire EU regulatory regime? Or might it have been finessed into meaning only those aspects of alignment (hospital admissions, farm produce etc) specified in the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1998, an internationally-recognised treaty, whether Iain Duncan Smith knows or cares?

The fact that the spotlight has now been shone on alignments – the Norwegian option dressed in shamrock – may make a delicately ambiguous solution harder to find that will satisfy everyone concerned. Already rejected by May, sooner or later, it would have again become central to the trade talks because the alternatives are fraught with problems.

But with good will and/or intelligence, these things can be done.

It must be at least 30 years since I watched Wolverhampton’s Enoch (“rivers of blood”) Powell, by then exiled Unionist MP for South Down, explaining why he would be voting against the proposed extension of Britain’s 1967 gay rights law to Northern Ireland. MPs knew that Enoch was avidly pro-gay rights, but also that his new constituents were not.

Powell squared his conscience by arguing that such and important subject deserved primary legislation, not a Henry VIII style statutory instrument. He voted against and life went on. The then-laggard Irish Republic now has a gay Taoiseach, but gay wedding cake controversies in Belfast are still heading to the UK Supreme Court. What such tangled issues need is bold and imaginative leadership. Failing that, they need low cunning. But the May team failed in its staff work this week. It failed either to square or squash the DUP (the phrase is Welshman Lloyd George’s). That further weakened EU and domestic confidence in her ability to deliver a viable Brexit that will not damage both sides. May’s negotiators seemed close to an outline deal in Brussels (fairly close?) after painting over a few red lines. But she was stabbed in the back by ‘allies’ at home. By DUP allies in this case, though Mount Mogg rumbles on. “May has got to go,” added ever-helpful, mid-Atlantic broadcaster, Nigel Farage (again).

That may shore her up a bit. May isn’t helpless if she has enough brains and cunning on tap in Downing St to help her push through the thickets. She can bribe the DUP a bit more or she can remind them that the GFA allows for the secretary of state for Northern Ireland – currently loyal James Brokenshire, no longer Brexit’s Theresa Villiers – to call another border poll on the Irish unification option, if he deems public opinion to have shifted.

Who knows? Perhaps 32-county Irish sentiment is shifting away from a Brexit Britain, fashioned by the likes of Jake Mogg, the living embodiment of an English absentee landlord from Ireland’s Hungry Forties. I don’t know the answer. I only ask. Or perhaps the DUP might be invited to contemplate the joys of life under a Corbyn government, headed by a sentimental Sinn Fein ally, but actually run by John McDonnell, a quasi-Marxist, Irish republican hardliner with a nasty temper and some nastier lieutenants?

It will take nerves and skill to get May’s soft Brexit train back on track, the only train now in sight. But hard work and boldness is what serious politics is about – it’s bloody difficult and quickly sorts out the men from the boys. Triple election winner Tony Blair who backed a Corbyn policy on land tax the other day to help promote more housing – was once such a man.

But Blair’s renewed call for a second referendum on Brexit, wholly legitimate though it is in theory, underlines how limited is his traction with voters 10 years after his retirement into the penumbra of global money-making. If public opinion is shifting on the opportunity costs of Brexit – high costs, restricted opportunities – it has not yet shifted much, nowhere near enough to warrant England’s version of Ireland’s ‘border poll’.

In any case the outside world does not stand still. Damian Green’s allegedly porn-filled computer has proved an even more divisive issue, as senior police officers step in to condemn ex-colleagues who misused information to damage May’s most trusted ally. As this column noted last month, coppers playing politics to topple another minister is never healthy.

The Mail is currently standing by Green, concentrating its spite on Alan Milburn’s resignation over flagging social mobility (failings caused, he complains, by the government’s energy-sapping preoccupation with Brexit).

But the Mail is a fickle ally and Corbyn has edged ahead in the polls. No 10 insiders offer reporters rival briefings on Green’s prospects.

That is not good either.

On the wider horizon President Donald Trump’s benign good intentions towards America’s old ally were supposed to compensate a lot for cutting Britain adrift from the EU. But last weekend he directly criticised Theresa May (after initially confusing her with a Mrs T.M. Scrivener of Bognor Regis) for repudiating his thuggish retweet of an alt-right UK campaigner. At least May called that one right.

Yes, liberal opinion over-egged its horror and provided additional publicity for the hate-mongers. But the plea-bargaining deal by special prosecutor, Robert Mueller, with sacked national security adviser, Mike Flynn, brings retribution ever closer to the president’s inner circle.

That means danger to us all because in Trump’s mind he needs to ‘win’ to keep his base loyal.

His proclaimed ‘tax cuts’ victory in the US Senate might be enough to sustain his alliance with the Republican party through the crucial mid-term elections (Democratic disarray will help) in November 2018. Why? Because Trump voters won’t get their new tax demand until 2019 and wages are finally picking up.

But if it all comes unstuck before then – not a supply side success but a scam for the rich which adds $1 trillion to the US debt burden – then he’ll have to find another distraction.

There are plenty of hotspots to choose from, but the nuclear threat from North Korea tops my list, a real crisis badly handled by both sides, including China, which should be less complacent about facilitating another Trump humiliation.

Why mention it here? Because my own hunch remains that the only plausible scenario for putting Brexit on hold is a major world crisis that even Jake Mogg and Jean-Claude Juncker can see threaten their own well-being, making finer points of Irish border crossings look the parochial matter they are. A showdown in North Korea, triggered by a cornered president, is the obvious candidate.

Scary, isn’t it?

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