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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. 

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.

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. 

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new cold war

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I’ll miss the youthful thrill of Claire’s Accessories – but the tween Mecca refused to grow up

From an adolescent rite of passage to struggling to stay open: how the tackiest shop on the high street lost its shine.

The first day I was allowed to go into “town” (hailing from rural Essex, that’s the local shopping centre, not London) with a friend – unsupervised by a parent – was a real cornerstone of my childhood.

We were 13, and looking back, we had neither mobile phones nor contingency plans, and my mum must have been sat at home for the entire two hours scared shitless, waiting for when she could pick me up again (by the Odeon carpark, 3pm sharp).

Finally free from the constraints of traipsing around department stores bound by the shackles of an adult, my friend and I had the most grown-up afternoon we could imagine; Starbucks Frappuccinos (size: tall – we weren’t made of money), taking pictures on a pink digital camera in the H&M changing rooms, and finally, making a beeline for tween Mecca: Claire’s Accessories.

As a beauty journalist, I’m pretty sure Saturdays spent running amok among the diamante earrings, bow hairbands and fluffy notebooks had an influence on my career path.

I spent hours poring over every rack of clip-on earrings, getting high on the fumes of strawberry lipbalm and the alcohol used to clean freshly pierced toddlers’ ears.

Their slogan, “Where getting ready is half the fun”, still rings true for me ten years on, as I stand on the edge of dancefloors, bored and waiting until my peers are suitably drunk to call it a night, yet revelling in just how great my painstakingly applied false lashes look.

The slogan on a Claire's receipt. Photo: Flickr

On Monday, Claire’s Accessories US filed for bankruptcy, after they were lumbered with insurmountable debts since being taken over by Apollo Global Management in 2007. Many of the US-based stores are closing. While the future of Claire’s in the UK looks uncertain, it may be the next high street retailer – suffering from the surge of online shopping – to follow in Toys R Us’ footsteps.

As much as I hate to say it, this is unsurprising, considering Claire’s commitment to remain the tackiest retailer on the high street.

With the huge rise of interest in beauty from younger age groups – credit where credit’s due, YouTube – Claire’s has remained steadfast in its core belief in taffeta, rhinestone and glitter.

In my local Superdrug (parallel to the Claire’s Accessories, a few doors down from the McDonald’s where we would sit, sans purchase, maxed out after our Lipsmacker and bath bomb-filled jaunt), there are signs plastered all over the new Makeup Revolution concealer stand: “ENQUIRE WITH STAFF FOR STOCK”. A group of young girls nervously designate one among them to do the enquiring.

Such is the popularity of the three-week-old concealer, made infamous by YouTube videos entitled things like “I CANNOT BELIEVE THIS CONCEALER!” and “FULL COVERAGE AND £4!!!”, no stock is on display for fear of shoplifters.

The concealer is cheap, available on the high street, comparable to high-end brands and favoured by popular YouTube “beauty gurus”, giving young girls a portal into “adult life”, with Happy Meal money.

It’s unlikely 13-year-olds even own eye bags large enough to warrant a full coverage concealer, but they’re savvy enough to know that they can now get good quality makeup and accessories, without going any higher than Claire’s price points.

They have naturally outgrown a retailer that refuses to grow with them; it’s simply not sustainable on Claire’s part to sell babyish items to a market who no longer want babyish things.

Adulthood is catching up with this new breed of teenagers faster than ever, and they’ve decided it’s time to put away childish things.

Tweenagers of 2018 won’t miss Claire’s Accessories if it goes. The boarded-up purple signage would leave craters in shopping centre walls soon to be filled with the burgundy sheen of a new Pret.

But I will. Maybe not constantly – it’s not as if Primark has stopped selling jersey dresses, or Topshop their Joni jeans – it’ll be more of a slow burn. I’ll mourn the loss of Claire’s the next time a pang of nostalgia for blue-frosted shadow hits me, or when it’s Halloween eve and I realise I’m bereft of a pair of cat ears. But when the time comes, there’s always Amazon Prime.

Amelia Perrin is a freelance beauty and lifestyle journalist.