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Leader: The return of the Irish Question

After nearly two decades of peaceful coexistence between unionists and nationalists, we risk reigniting the sectarian conflicts of the past.

Richard Nixon, the former US president about whom John Bew writes in the upcoming New Statesman issue, once declared of Latin America: “No one gives a shit about the place.” During last year’s EU referendum, the same appeared true of Northern Ireland. Though Remain supporters, such as the former prime ministers John Major and Tony Blair, warned of the consequences of Brexit for the province, Leavers and much of the media blithely dismissed their concerns (when they acknowledged them at all).

Seventeen months after the referendum, and eight months after Article 50 was triggered, the Brexiteers are no longer so insouciant. Of all the issues that must be resolved before Britain can begin new trade talks with the EU, the Irish Question is proving the most intractable.

The Conservatives’ vow to withdraw the UK from the customs union has created an unavoidable conundrum. Regulatory divergence between Britain and the Republic of Ireland necessitates the creation of a new “hard border” on the island of Ireland or between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Neither option is palatable. After nearly two decades of peaceful coexistence between unionists and nationalists, we risk returning to the sectarian conflicts of the past. The success of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement lay in ending the forced choice between British and Irish identities. People and goods move freely across an island border with 275 crossings (compared to 20 during the Troubles). Even more than the Conservatives’ post-election pact with the Democratic Unionist Party, Brexit threatens this delicate settlement.

The government’s response, however, has been one of bluster and denial. Its August position paper, which proposed using technology to create an “invisible border”, was rightly derided by the EU as “magical thinking”. As similarly Panglossian schemes have been floated (including the use of airships), the Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has grown understandably impatient.

After Theresa May’s repeated insistence that there will be no “hard border” in Ireland or “physical infrastructure”, Mr Varadkar last month demanded a written guarantee. “It’s ten years since people who wanted a referendum started agitating for one,” he observed. “Sometimes it doesn’t seem like they have thought all this through.”

Rather than conceding as much, the Brexiteers and their outriders have resorted to abuse. Hostile briefings have cast Mr Varadkar as a stooge of Sinn Féin and Brussels. The possibility that he is merely defending his nation’s political and economic interests, as any responsible leader would, has eluded many Brexiteers.

Ireland is grappling with a problem created by the UK or, more specifically, the Conservative Party. Although the Leave campaign narrowly won the 2016 referendum, the result did not imply automatic withdrawal from the customs union. Unlike the EU’s single market, which forced Britain to accept the free movement of peoples, this was not an arrangement that voters had a strong objection to.

It is only the Tories’ Brexiteer wing that yearns to pull Britain out of the customs union. Cabinet ministers speak vividly of new agreements with the US and the wider “Anglosphere” that will enrich the UK. “Within two years,” wrote the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, on 14 July 2016, “we can negotiate a free trade area massively larger than the EU.” More magical thinking.

In reality, Britain will not be able to sign any new trade deals until after a planned two-year transition period ends in March 2021. Any gains, as economists have repeatedly shown, will be far outweighed by the losses from restricted European access.

For the sake of ideological fantasies, then, Britain is grievously undermining relations with one of its closest allies. Peace in Northern Ireland, which has had no government since March, is not permanent; it must be assiduously renewed. Far worse than the possibility that the Brexiteers do not know this is another explanation: they do not care. 

This article first appeared in the 30 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world

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What the university staff strike reveals about our broken higher education system

The marketisation of our universities is facing its biggest opposition yet.

The biggest industrial strike ever by academic staff in Britain's universities has begun.

National newspapers are running panicked headlines about what may happen if the strike lasts: “University strike puts final exams in danger”, warns The Times. “University strikes could hit exams and graduation ceremonies”, says the Guardian. But as well as affecting the education of students who are heavily in debt, the strikes will hit academics with very different levels of job security, and university establishments at a time when higher education is on the political agenda. 

The University and College Union voted for strike action last month over a failure to reach an agreement with Universities UK (UUK), the body which represents of the Vice Chancellors of every university in the country, over changes to academics' pension plans.

The pension scheme at the heart of the conflict, the Universities Superannuation Scheme, currently has over 400,000 participants. UUK have stated that the pension scheme currently has a £6.1bn deficit and that the cost of future benefits has increased by one third since 2014. They are proposing a switch from a direct benefit pension scheme (fixed, guaranteed pension payments) to a direct contribution scheme (reliant on stock markets) to maintain the scheme's sustainability.

However, many academics argue the deficit is overstated, and is instead a cynical attempt to reduce the universities' pension liabilties. 

Older and more senior academics who have already spent several decades paying into the system will be less affected by the changes, as contributions will be protected under the old scheme until 2019. 

UCU however allege that this change will result in an average yearly £10,000 loss in staff members' pensions. Academics at 61 universities, including the likes of Oxbridge, UCL, Imperial College London, Cardiff University and the University of Edinburgh will be striking for 14 days. 

The strikes begin on Thursday, and yet no-one seems to know what will happen. FAQs provided by universities to students all appear to have a similar theme: Academic disruption will be minimised, but if you have a complaint, please email us. 

16 percent of academic staff at these universities will be on strike (because most academics aren't a part of a union) but lectures and seminars have still been cancelled. It is still unclear for students whether they will be examined on subjects that they will miss. 

But for the most part, students appear to support the academics. Mark Crawford, a Postgraduate Sabbatical Officer at UCL (the biggest university in the country to strike) says he has been pleasantly surprised by the number of students who have messaged asking him how they can help. 

Perhaps this is due to the pains some academics have gone to minimise the disruption their students will face. Some lecturers have made presentations available online, and have amendeded their reading lists. One academic at King's College London, KCL, has even rearranged her seminars off campus. 

Yet this feeling of goodwill may disappear when reality kicks in. Robert Adderly, a second year Law student at KCL, and a campaigner for the student group provocatively titled “Students Against Strikes” says he’s unsure how supportive students will be once the action actually begins. 

Adderly, while sympathetic to the concerns of the academics does not believe striking is the most effective way to negotiate with Universities UK. He goes on to say that he believes “neither side is willing to compromise” and says that the “only people losing out are students.”

He also says he believes a lot of students “haven’t assessed how they really feel about the strikes” and that the “longer it goes on, the more students who will get angry”. 

Adderly's thoughts are backed by a poll conducted by Trendence UK, a market research company, which found that 38 per cent of students supported their academics on strike, compred to 38 per cent who did not.

Several academics have spoken to the New Statesman off the record about feelings of uneasiness around the strike, arguing that there is a better, less disruptive way of resolving the pension debate. Others are unsure about the leadership of UCU and believe striking will only lead to a build up of work later. 

Professor Andrew Pomiankowski at UCL emailed his students saying while he supported the strike, he would continue conducting his classes this week. He later told the New Statesman “I have a lot of sympathy with the reasons for the strike - the loss of provision of pensions, especially for the younger members of staff. Talking is the only way of resolving this problem. However, I don’t feel that I should disrupt teaching of students. That’s a step too far.”

The strikes go to the heart of the debate about the marketisation of university. Even students who support the strike are in conflict with one another. Notably, students who support the strikes are unhappy with campaigns such as Adderly’s which are also demanding universities compensate them for lost teaching hours. Crawford says your “first instinct shouldn’t be how much am I losing? It should be how much is our staff losing.”

On the other hand, Adderly argues we shouldn’t pretend the marketisation of university hasn’t already happened, saying “It’s here. It’s happening. We are now consumers.” 

Though it appears unlikely that universities will refund students, these strikes are highlighting how our attitudes to higher education have changed in a short space of time, and causing some to ask if this is the future we want for British higher education.