By now it must be clear to even the most optimistic or obdurate Remain-supporter in the United Kingdom that sooner or later their nation is going to leave the European Union. It’s no longer a question of “if” but “when” Brexit happens. What needs to be agreed is the initial framework for the UK’s formal withdrawal process before it can move on to the next phase of negotiations with the EU. Theresa May achieved that objective twice during her short and turbulent tenure as Prime Minister, agreeing a draft exit deal with Europe in late 2017 only to have the Democratic Unionist Party and its allies in the governing Conservative Party rip it to shreds before the year was out, and then again in 2018 with a revised version of the joint proposals, which was similarly eviscerated in the Westminster bear-pit.
Now Boris Johnson is back with an updated Withdrawal Agreement that undeniably owes more to Theresa May’s original 2017 document than any other British counter-proposal. And arguably goes much further, replacing the peace-protecting backstop protocol with an all-island frontstop one, establishing an Irish Sea regulatory border in all but name, while laying the groundwork for a possible post-Brexit relationship between the UK and EU that is much closer to the hardline Empire 2.0 aspirations of the Brexiteer bloc in the House of Commons and beyond. In other words a win-win outcome for London, Dublin and Brussels, despite undoubted and still uncertain compromises and fudging on all sides.
Unfortunately, and as with the previous exit deals, supporting a difficult but fair compromise means very little to those waging a bitter ideological war in Westminster, as Remainers and Leavers struggle for mastery, breaking all the parliamentary and party political norms that once held sway in the House of Commons. Suddenly we have anti-Brexit leaders and journalists joining with the DUP in their vituperative opposition to Johnson’s would-be treaty; and not just joining but sympathising with a heretofore pariah grouping on the fringes of mainstream British politics. Here is Jonathon Powell in the FT, explaining loyalist loathing of the new EU-UK agreement:
At root the DUP fear is that this is the beginning of a slippery slope to a united Ireland which they cannot stop if the principle of the cross-community agreement is undermined.
That is why we have heard threats from the UVF and Arlene Foster meeting the UDA.
Isn’t it extraordinary how some commentators in Britain can normalise British terrorism when they want to? How the reported meeting of the leader of a minority political party in the United Kingdom, a party in a de facto coalition government with the ruling Conservative Party for the last three years, with the leaders of an illegal terrorist organisation can be treated as just another piece of political commentary in the ongoing Brexit debate?
But what are the proposals of the anti-agreement camp in Britain beyond a re-run of the 2016 referendum? What alternative plans are they suggesting instead of a settlement that satisfies most of the key demands of Dublin, Brussels and London, protecting the Irish-British peace process and the integrity of the European Customs Union and Single Market? So far there has been little beyond increasingly stale rhetoric. For those of us observing events from this side of the Irish Sea, it seems that Remainers or Leavers in our troublesome neighbour to the east have no real interest in Ireland beyond using it as disposable pawn in their own domestic political games. They are champions for Irish concerns, for peace and democracy, on a Wednesday, and British nationalists, defenders of the “union” and the legacy of British colonialism in north-east Ulster, on a Thursday.
Both groups should take note of this important article by Cathal Ó Gabhann in the New European, who reflects on his own complex personal history, born in Ireland, raised in Britain, with a British Army career officer for a grandfather who was also an active supporter of the Irish Republican Army from the 1920s to the 1960s.
The great success of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was in removing the checkpoints, watch towers, helicopters, machine guns and, of course, the IEDs. Communities separated for decades by a border hardened by British army-cratered and barricaded roads, could once again return to a peaceful rural life.
For the past 20 years, farmers in Fermanagh have been able to tend their fields in Monaghan, and parishioners in Monaghan to reach their churches in Fermanagh, using hedgerow-bound roads no different from those in rural Northumberland. Mundane tranquillity has returned as the security apparatus has faded into memory. It is as if the border has ceased to exist.
But exist it still does. The GFA may have removed the border from the topography, but it remains a cartographical reality. For many local inhabitants, the GFA transformed the border from a practical aggravation to a political anomaly; unjust but eventually surmountable, with the momentum of history on the Republicans’ side; a stop-gap solution on the road to Irish unity.
It is natural that the people of Donegal and Derry; Cavan and Fermanagh; and Monaghan and Armagh are nervous about the future. Against the background of a rejection by Westminster of the backstop, reassurances that there will be no return to a hard border ring hollow.