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4 April 2017

Gibraltar is a sideshow – why isn’t May focusing on Northern Ireland?

The government and press' fixation on Gibraltar at the expense of Northern Ireland and Scotland shows why the union is in danger

By Patrick Maguire

Has Spain planted its flag in the Rock of Gibraltar? Well, no, but anyone who’s so much as looked at a television this weekend could be forgiven for assuming so. As with so much of the Brexit debate, the contention is prosaic and the consequences unlikely to be all that significant.

The offending line in the European Council’s response to Article 50 – which handed Spain a veto over any post-Brexit trade deal affecting Gibraltar that it already had – was, as Stephen wrote yesterday, essentially performative.

That said, the fact that it was woolly reiteration of Spanish sentiment we’ve been party to for over three centuries hasn’t stopped the following from happening: Michael Howard suggesting we ought to go to war over it, the media covering the episode as if we were, and the prime minister and foreign secretary offering extensive and immediate comment.

The outsized prominence of this row should be a curious thing. Gibraltar’s population – 32,000 – is smaller than Leighton Buzzard’s and could fill a home game at Coventry City with several hundred seats to spare. Though part of the EU, it isn’t part of the UK proper – and Spanish politicians are wont to posture like this anyway.

The drama generated by this sideshow-within-a-sideshow reveals how successfully the government will likely be in negotiating the real existential threats to the union it faces in Northern Ireland and Scotland. The answer, if you haven’t worked it out already, is not very.

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Theresa May’s approach to those two issues in particular – and those of the Eurosceptic right – has been defined in the main by complacency and disinterest. Consider the intensity of reaction from those parties to Enda Kenny’s demand that there be a provision for Irish reunification in any Brexit deal: there wasn’t any. The same was true of last week’s revelation that Northern Ireland, which voted to remain by 56 per cent to 44, could retain EU membership in the event of a border poll: May offered vague assurances in the commons, Fleet Street offered some obligingly understated coverage, and that was that.  

These threats to the shape and constitutional integrity of the union the Tories profess to be protecting were largely ignored, were responded to with banalities and characterised as another droll instalment of the Ulster psychodrama.

The hyperventilating coverage of the Gibraltar episode has made this indifference very clear indeed. Where Fabian Picardio is feted as Our Man On The Rock, the likes of Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill – if mentioned at all – inspire the sort of tone usually reserved for bent councillors and members of the NUS.

The obvious irony in all of this is that while the future of the Irish border – largely neglected by the UK government – is one of the EU’s top three priorities for the negotiations to come, the future of Gibraltar is not. And while people like Howard obsess over a conflict with Spain that isn’t going to happen, the impact of Madrid’s abandonment of its long-presumed veto over Scottish ascension to the EU on May’s already weak answer to that constitutional question has barely been discussed.

But given the proven form of the Brexiters, substantive engagement with these very real problems is probably too much to ask. They see in Gibraltar – pubs! Union flags! Morrisons! – something they can’t and won’t see in Derry or East Kilbride. And that very English fixation is what, ultimately, could do for the union.