There is a lovely story about the proud mammy watching her son, a Scottish squaddie, and proclaiming to her equally proud husband: “He’s a natural, everybody’s out of step but our boy!”
So it is, increasingly clearly, with the Brexiteers. Everyone is unreasonable but them. The ever expanding list of things that the Brexit Ultras blame for the imminent failure of Brexit (the EU, Ireland, judges, Remainers, academics, experts, civil servants, etc.) gained its most dangerous and indeed sinister new entry this week. Several Ultras have launched what looks suspiciously like a co-ordinated attack on the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) itself. This is, of course, the international treaty that has guaranteed peace in Northern Ireland since 1998 and is, in my view at least, the greatest achievement of the Blair government.
Coming from Glasgow, I have been over the water to Belfast too many times to count. I also try to remain neutral in their internal affairs and know enough of my history to tread really, really carefully. When dealing with Northern Ireland, though, the deeply dishonest Leave campaign deliberately chose not to explain the consequences of Brexit. Even now, having won, they refuse to own them. This week, though, the Brexiteers’ casual non-regard for the island of Ireland turned into something more alarming. First, Owen Paterson, a former Northern Ireland Secretary no less, retweeted a Daily Telegraph article arguing that the GFA had run its course. The never-knowingly-consistent Daniel Hannan has pronounced that it has failed. The Labour MP Kate Hoey is telling anyone that will still listen to her that Remainers are just using the GFA to halt Brexit.
Why are they doing this? Why attack one of the most successful peace treaties of all time? Why try to discredit an already difficult balance at the very moment that support for the agreement is needed most to return to a power-sharing assembly and government? It is also, let’s remember, the will of the people of the island of Ireland. It was endorsed in the 1998 referendum by 71 per cent of Northern Irish voters and in the constitutional referendum held the same day in Ireland by 94 per cent of voters. For politicians who are so keen on the will of the people, it appears the will of some people matters more than others.
And the reason is as transparent as it is grubby and short sighted. They have worked out, as I have said in a previous column, that the Good Friday Agreement scuppers their plans for a harder-than hard Brexit, because it requires an invisible border across the island of Ireland. Even the UK government, in the agreement on Phase I of the Brexit negotiations, accepted that this had to be maintained. What we all know of course, is that this cannot be done without the UK, or at least Northern Ireland, remaining in the single market and customs union. This is unacceptable to the Ultras. This is the crux. There is no other solution, and this spoils their plans for the hardest Brexit at all costs.
The second reason is that they simply don’t care about the GFA, or, by extension, continued peace and power-sharing in Northern Ireland. Many of the older Brexiteers opposed it even at the time. Of course, the GFA is not without challenges, and of course, it has evolved over time and we should set nothing in stone. But the failure of the parties in Northern Ireland to agree power sharing is a small temporary failure, when you remember that the GFA has delivered peace. Give me democratically-elected politicians wrangling, however interminably, over the heartbreak of the past, any day. Their attempt to conflate the border issue, caused entirely by the Brexit they want, and which Northern Ireland rejected in the EU referendum, with the GFA is also deeply reckless. Such an approach treats the GFA as something that needs to be knocked down on the way to their goal.
The Brexit Ultras already leave a wake of destruction behind them. The UK government told us that workers’ rights would be protected after Brexit, but it transpired that it is investigating “opportunities” to cut them under the guise of boosting the economy. Last week, Greenpeace unearthed plans by a network of US and UK right-wing groups, co-ordinated by Daniel Hannan’s Initiative for Free Trade, to argue for the tearing up of EU protections on food safety, animal welfare, and environmental protection as part of a UK-US trade deal.
What is emerging here is a shocking picture of the society that the Ultras want to create. A selfish society where the destruction of peace and trust is commonplace. A low-regulation, race to the bottom economy without protections for workers, consumers or animals. Even on the day Brexit secretary David Davis, not especially known in Brussels for his pragmatism, tried to reassure a Continental audience the UK will not go rogue, his party-within-a-party colleagues in the European Research Group willfully undermined him with calls for precisely that. What’s still worse is that it is clear that they will try to foist this awful vision onto us at any costs. Nothing, not even peace in Northern Ireland, or the provisions of an international treaty with our nearest neighbour will stand in their way.
When they shout “sovereignty” and “will of the people”, they don’t mean you. They don’t mean the sovereignty of the Scottish people, or of Ireland, or the will of the people who voted against Brexit and for peace in Northern Ireland. They mean their own sovereignty, over you.
The Brexit Ultras are right about one thing, though. The Good Friday Agreement is a threat to Brexit, or at least their version of it. There’s no solution outside of the single market and customs union. The GFA may well be the thing that brings down Brexit, but Brexit must not allowed to bring it down with it.
Alyn Smith is a Scottish National Party MEP for Scotland.