Call my bluff?
I sometimes wonder if the threat of a disorderly no-deal exit from the European Union on October 31 is a negotiating ploy by the Johnson government in London. Whether, in fact, despite the bellicose rhetoric, the prime minister and his Brexit “war cabinet” is actually prepared to make a last-minute deal with Brussels if, as seems almost certain, it proves impossible to get the European Union to budge on the backstop. The calculation in Downing Street being that the heightening of domestic public fears resulting from its attempts to exert pressure on the EU will, in fact, work in its favour. Such will be the over-riding sense of relief at a crash-out having been avoided, so the thinking may go, a deal (any deal) will be greeted as though a victory.
Unfortunately my suspicions of careful game-playing by Johnson and crew soon evaporate when some glassy-eyed zealot from the outer reaches of the Tory backbenches pops up on television to warn of an in-house bloodbath if the Conservative leader gives so much as an inch to Europe.
To digress for a moment, this kamikaze approach by the UK government has brought an abrupt halt to all talk of remaining in the EU. It’s as though the Remain argument has been taken off the table as an option, and the only thing left to decide is the manner of the UK’s exit. Some kind of agreement is undoubtedly better than none, but we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that Remain is still an option – and by far the best option.
Johnson may not be feeling pressure, but others should
Does Boris Johnson feel under any pressure? Is he actually capable of feeling pressure, in the way that ordinary people (i.e. those not subject to extreme narcissism) do? Who knows! But it’s a sure bet that any concerns he has are entirely related to his own future prospects and not those of the millions of people across the United Kingdom and Ireland who will be negatively impacted by Brexit. Which brings me, albeit circuitously, to two groups that should be feeling some pressure because of the havoc that Brexit will wreak on the lives of many of their supporters.
Brexit a tipping point for the DUP?
Over the past few years the Democratic Unionist Party has been involved in quite a few high-profile, invariably money-related, scandals. These include, but are far from limited to, the “cash-for ash” fiasco at Stormont; one of their MPs receiving undeclared gifts to lobby on behalf of foreign governments; a mysterious EU campaign donation of £425,000 to the party; various elected representatives not declaring conflicts of interest in respect of planning applications; and an assembly member working, undeclared, for a lobby group that regularly sought to influence a planning committee on which his wife, a councillor, sits as a member. Yet the party remains electorally unscathed. It would be easy, especially for its members, to begin to imagine that the DUP can do almost anything it wants and not be punished by the electorate. But there is always a tipping point where public tolerance is concerned. And for the DUP that could well prove to be Brexit.
“A billion criticisms”
Speaking at the Féile an Phobail in West Belfast, DUP MP Gregory Campbell claimed he’d “take a billion criticisms” over his party’s Brexit deal with the Tories. This was a none-too-subtle reference to the £1 billion promised for Northern Ireland in return for the party propping up the Tories at Westminster. Now, this is not to pretend that Campbell is on the intellectual wing of his party. I think it’s a fair to assume that most of the DUP’s thinking and strategising is done by other of his colleagues. But his remark struck me as revealing, nonetheless.
Campbell is bound to have been coached before going to West Belfast and questions on the DUP’s relationship with the Tories were surely anticipated. Yet the best the party spin-doctors could come up with to justify delivering Brexit is a promise, still to be fulfilled, of £1 billion for Northern Ireland. Let’s see how that flies post-Brexit when havoc is being wreaked on the sink estates and among the farming and business communities where the DUP derive a considerable amount of their support. As soon as Brexit begins to bite any talk of a £1 billion bonus will be totally counterproductive given the DUP’s pocket-lining history. And nor will electors be in any mood to listen to the old bogey-man excuse of, “It’s all the fault of the Irish government and the EU.” They know, and will remember, that there could have been no Brexit without the DUP.
And what about Sinn Féin?
Just as the DUP will stand charged, post-Brexit, with the sin of commission, so its occasional partner in devolved government, Sinn Féin, runs a considerable risk of being charged by its electors with the equal and opposite sin of omission, if it doesn’t change tack.
Along with many other commentators I derided Fintan O’Toole’s well-meaning but seemingly naive suggestion that Sinn Féin’s seven MPs should temporarily vacate their seats to allow others to travel to Westminster to oppose Brexit. By doing so, he contended, the party could help avert the worst crisis that Ireland, North and South, has faced for decades.
As expected, within a couple of hours of it being published, Sinn Féin poured scorn on the suggestion. Upon reflection, maybe O’Toole wasn’t being so naive after all. Maybe his suggestion was a “heads I win, tails you lose” gambit that achieved exactly what he intended. We shall never know, and nor does it much matter. What is beyond question is that his intervention has drawn widespread national and international attention to the fact that, despite its ability to do so, Sinn Féin is not prepared to intervene to help alleviate the impact Brexit will have on Ireland. How does a party that styles itself as dedicated, above all else and above all others, to the best interests of the people of Ireland explain this to its northern and southern electorates? With great difficulty is the trite, but accurate, answer.
Principle or people?
If Brexit only threatened the welfare of people in the UK, then Sinn Féin supporters, even those amongst the worst affected in Northern Ireland, would understand its position. But Brexit doesn’t only threaten the UK. It will destroy economies and the lives of many thousands of people across Ireland. Sure hasn’t Sinn Féin’s been amongst the loudest voices warning us of this.
Sinn Féin may yet decide to suspend its abstentionist policy in the face of the national crisis that Brexit will bring, and send its MPs to Westminster to do battle. It’s hardly as if discarding abstentionism is without precedent (the Oireachtas and the reformed Stormont). If the party does not change tack when Brexit begins to make itself felt across the northern and southern heartlands of its support, the argument for putting principle (abstentionism) ahead of people will seem very thin indeed to those most affected. It will, I suspect, be afforded a similar level of contempt to the DUP’s talk of a £1 billion windfall from London.
A guest article by Elizabeth Cady Stanton