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13 March 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:25pm

Delusions, hypocrisy and historical amnesia – the Tory Brexit meltdown begins here

The danger of the current situation in Northern Ireland lies in the fact that Brexit is, effectively, an English nationalist project. 

By Paul Mason

The boardroom at Croke Park, the Dublin headquarters of the Gaelic Athletic Association, would put the bridge of the Starship Enterprise into the shade. As well as Gaelic football matches, the sleek  venue hosts conferences for the Irish tech and financial services industries. Last time I was there, an Irish banker asked me: “Do the Tories have any fucking idea what they are doing with Brexit?” After the past two weeks I am convinced the answer is no.

Nobody planned for Britain’s hubristic departure from the EU to throw the Good Friday Agreement into crisis, but that’s what is happening. Britain’s relationship with its oldest former colony has triggered a bout of obsessive compulsive disorder for the Conservative Party.

After 18 months of procrastination and denial, Theresa May last week accepted that Brexit will leave the UK a rule-taker and a fee-payer in every sector of the economy that matters. It will leave the European Court of Justice exercising jurisdiction over EU citizens’ rights in Britain for 100 years. Dressed up in phrases such as “managed divergence”, the new relationship will leave the UK part vassal state, part delinquent sitting on the naughty step of Europe.

The proposal could be rejected by the EU, which wants Britain to choose between options mirroring the relationship with either Norway or Canada. But even if it were accepted, May’s proposal means reneging on two promises: that Britain will enjoy the “exact same benefits” outside the single market as inside it (as David Davis claimed in January 2017); and that the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland would be “frictionless”. The one delusion flowed logically from the other.

Once they rejected the idea of Britain joining a customs union with the EU – an idea still in play last December – the Tories were obliged to repudiate a unified trade zone across the whole island of Ireland, and in lurid terms. The EU is trying to “annex” Northern Ireland, says former Europe minister David Jones. The draft withdrawal agreement “threatens the territorial sovereignty” of the UK, says May.

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Economically, Ireland is already united, with a single market for goods, services, people and capital. Even more significantly, the economies of Ireland and the mainland UK are heavily interdependent. Ireland exports £15bn worth of goods – mainly food, medicines and chemicals – while Britain exports £18bn worth of goods the other way, primarily petrol, oil and gas. And in banking, insurance and the accountancy world Dublin plays a highly valuable role for both the City of London and the entire EU.

Yet both the economic ties and two decades of post-conflict cultural connections are at risk because of the imperialist delusions of a section of the Tory right. In the ideology of English conservatism – a kind of golf clubhouse of the mind – the word “Ireland” calls to mind a list of outdated stereotypes. Father Ted, Provos singing rebel songs until 3am in rural pubs, aged nuns presiding over the mass graves of unwanted babies. The Ireland that the English right identify with is, south of the border, simply what’s left of the Protestant Ascendancy.

The English elite has made this mistake before: with the Scottish referendum. They moved exclusively in unionist circles and constructed a picture of Scottish identity totally at odds with the radical, cosmopolitan nationalism that drove the Yes vote. They had to resort to economic coercion and lies to squeeze a narrow victory in 2014. Neither option is available to them in the coming clash with Dublin. It has a high quality press beyond Rupert Murdoch’s control, and a confident, modern, liberalising business class.

The danger of the current situation lies in the fact that Brexit is, effectively, an English nationalist project. And it is set to fail. Theresa May’s offer will be torn apart by a combination of the European Commission, her own parliament and the European Parliament. She will then have to choose between a de facto customs union that (in part) solves the border issue, or a Canada-style deal that destroys the Good Friday Agreement. With major business associations, all living former prime ministers, and the majority of MPs in favour of a soft border and a soft Brexit, my hunch is that May will be forced towards that position. In turn, that will destroy her agreement with the DUP and most likely unleash a wave of anti-Irish hysteria among the Tory right.

The Tories’ slander campaign against Jeremy Corbyn over his support for civil rights for Northern Ireland’s Catholic community during the Troubles shows their desire to reignite, rhetorically, the Anglo-Irish conflicts of the 20th century. It’s part of the self-deluded narrative that has guided the whole Brexit strategy: the idea that “our” former colonies will want to form a new, white, English-speaking trading area – nicknamed Empire 2.0 – to replace the EU.

But many parts of that empire recall how badly such arrangements work. It’s impossible for a Brit to look out on to the gleaming emerald turf of Croke Park without remembering that this is where the British Army opened fire on a crowd of 5,000 spectators, killing 14 civilians, on 21 November 1920. This event, which is a major moment in the history of Britain (coming before the 1921 secession treaty), is not exactly prominent in either school textbooks or in historical TV drama. Yet it should be.

The original Bloody Sunday massacre at Croke Park is arguably what turned the Irish business class and intelligentsia towards the project of a republic and a united Ireland. Watching the Tory right display zero historical awareness, zero contrition and maximum cynicism when it comes to their alliance with the sectarian DUP, and a barely concealed contempt for Irish culture and language, you can see their point. 

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This article appears in the 07 Mar 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new cold war