Theresa May. Photo: Getty
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Has Theresa May avoided a crisis on the Irish border, or just delayed it?

All sides can agree on what words to say, but differ over what those words mean in practice.

Success? A deal appears to have been struck on the Irish border, paving the way for the Brexit talks to move from legacy issues – the question of the United Kingdom’s outstanding liabilities, what happens to British citizens in the rest of the EU and European citizens in the United Kingdom, and the treatment of the Irish border – to the shape of the future relationship.

According to RTE and Philippe Lamberts, a Belgian Green MEP who has been shown a draft agreement, the British government has agreed a “special situation” for Northern Ireland.

The question of what happens to the Irish border after Brexit is difficult but not complex. Since 1993, when the customs union came into being in its current form, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland have shared a customs and regulatory orbit, which has allowed them to maintain an open border. Once the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, if the British government wishes to also diverge as far as customs and regulation goes, there will be customs checks, either at the existing border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, or in the Irish Sea. The first is unacceptable to the Irish government, the second is untenable for the DUP, on whom Theresa May relies to remain in office, and indeed to parts of the Conservative Party as well.

The third option – the United Kingdom remains inside the customs union and within the regulatory orbit of the European Union – is acceptable to a majority of MPs in the House of Commons, but it is unacceptable to a big enough minority of Conservative MPs that it is hard to see how Theresa May would be able to avoid a no confidence vote, though she could probably survive it.

What has been agreed appears to be a form of words that can broadly, be read in different ways by different people. For the Irish government, it’s a guarantee that there will be no hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. But for the DUP, that control over these powers are devolved to the legislature in Stormont means that they wield a veto over any actual regulatory alignment, at least in theory.

It basically comes down to who is actually aligning with you: does the agreement mean that come the crunch, Northern Ireland will align with the Republic of Ireland even if the rest of the United Kingdom doesn’t, or that that Northern Ireland will have the option to do so, or that the United Kingdom as a whole will remain within the regulatory orbit of the United Kingdom? It’s not clear. That fudge means that all sides can probably agree to move forward with talks on the next stage of agreement.

There are a couple of things to watch out for as far as what happens next. The first is that it is difficult to see how power-sharing in Northern Ireland will resume for the foreseeable if the final outcome is one where the right to diverge is concentrated at Stormont, not Westminster. Why? Because power-sharing at Stormont requires the largest party from each community – currently, the DUP and Sinn Féin – to agree a joint programme. This fudge means that the government at Stormont will be given the choice: to use its regulatory devolution to cleave closer to the Republic of Ireland or to the United Kingdom. That’s a poison pill as far as any accord between the two groups at Stormont goes.

But a more definitive steer on regulatory convergence risks tipping the Conservatives out of office as the DUP cannot accept an arrangement that weakens Northern Ireland’s connections with the United Kingdom while strengthening their ties with the Republic.

What about the third option? Well, that’s where things get a little more complicated.  If Theresa May committed to that tomorrow, the Conservative party would implode and so would her premiership. But if she can get to the end of the process and agree a fairly soft exit from the EU, she is guaranteed a large enough chunk of votes from the Labour Party to protect her from any Conservative rebellion, for a variety of reasons: devoted pro-Remain Labour MPs won’t vote to allow a catastrophic no deal exit, Labour MPs with a heavy constituency Leave vote won’t want to be seen to be resisting the “will of the people”, and so on. Even if the majority of Labour MPs vote against, May ought to be able to count on a big enough chunk of them to see off any rebellion.

 So the interesting question is whether this fudge can hold together long enough to get May to the end of the line, or if it will collapse in short order.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

Photo: Getty
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South Africa’s new dawn: How Jacob Zuma’s misrule was ended

“We are going to look back at the past ten years and think of it as a lost decade.”

On the afternoon of 13 February, as South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma was recalled by his party, the African National Congress (ANC), a popular Johannesburg radio station began receiving calls about a peculiar incident.

A truck had lost its load along the M2 highway and people were scurrying to pick up what they believed to be tiny nuggets of unprocessed gold. The highway became congested as motorists pulled over to join the search. Even for a city that rose from the dust of a gold rush, this was a bizarre scene.

The first radio caller was giddy with excitement, as was the second. The third did what South Africans do best: he made light of an otherwise confusing and anxious day in the young nation’s history. “It’s manna from heaven,” the caller said. “Zuma’s just been recalled and already the roads are paved in gold.” Nine years into the president’s disastrous rule, South Africans had not lost their sense of humour – and were awaiting a new dawn. The police cleared the scene along the M2, no one proclaimed a worthy find and the nation returned to waiting for Zuma’s next move.

Technically, the president did not have to resign as head of state, despite the opposition of the ANC, the proud liberation movement turned ruling party that Zuma led for a decade until December 2017. Realistically, he had no options left.

With an overwhelming majority in parliament, the ANC was ready to table a motion of no confidence the next day. Defiant to the end, these final hours on the eve of Valentine’s Day were Zuma’s last stand.

They called him the “unstoppable tsunami” and with good reason. Zuma damaged South Africa and the ANC in ways only history will fully capture. He wrecked a country struggling to rebuild itself under the shadow of apartheid. Under his rule, the economy stagnated, unemployment rose, poverty grew, violent crime spiked and corruption became endemic.

“South Africa was headed in the wrong direction,” says Mmusi Maimane, leader of the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition, which governs in cities including Johannesburg and Cape Town. “We are going to look back at the past ten years and think of it as a lost decade,” the political analyst Stephen Grootes concludes.

Zuma lurched from one scandal to the next. He was acquitted of rape, avoided almost 800 corruption charges for over a decade and nearly crashed the economy by recklessly firing a respected finance minister. Taxpayers were misled over exorbitant upgrades to his private mansion (a swimming pool was defended as a fire-fighting feature) and his friendship with the controversial Gupta family placed him at the heart of what became known as “state capture”: the looting of state coffers through the corruption of senior government officials.

“State and independent institutions were repurposed for the enrichment and protection of Jacob Zuma,” says political commentator Justice Malala. “He went through the guts of the framework, pulled out the institutions he needed and systematically broke them down or took away their independence.”

The institutions ranged from the tax revenue service to the public broadcaster, from the police to the prosecuting authority, and from the intelligence services to crucial industries such as mining.

Although constitutionally barred from governing beyond 2019, Zuma was widely believed to have engineered a plan to hold on to power (and avoid prosecution) through his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who was campaigning to take over from him. By December, when the ANC met to pick its next leader, who would go on to become the country’s president in 2019, a mood of despair and hopelessness had set in.

The race was close. In the end, 179 votes out of nearly 5,000 cast separated Dlamini-Zuma from her challenger, Cyril Ramaphosa, a former union leader and businessman who had campaigned on an anti-corruption and pro-growth platform.

Ramaphosa’s victory in mid-December was a turning point. It removed the prospect of Zuma’s continued rule, began an instant shift in political power and sparked a moment of renewed hope. Ramaphosa had his own controversies, but was viewed as largely incorruptible. He had risen through the trade unions, served the ANC and built his wealth in the private sector. 

Following Ramaphosa’s election, the extent of state capture emerged through superb investigative journalism.

Politically driven prosecutions fell away, a hugely unpopular nuclear energy deal with Russia was frozen and, as Zuma was being recalled, police cars arrived outside the home of the Gupta family.

And yet, the president refused to leave the Union Buildings quietly, prompting comparisons with Margaret Thatcher. “He was the worst possible combination of ignorance, selfishness and incompetence that could have been inflicted upon the long-suffering people of South Africa,” read an editorial in the Daily Maverick on 13 February. “Now, stripped to the bare essence of being Zuma, the final image emerges, one of the selfish man who cared only for himself.”

Journalist Richard Poplak concluded: “What is born in chaos dies in chaos.”

 Zuma’s departure allows for the rebuilding to begin. The role played by the media, civil society – which found its voice during the Zuma years – and the judiciary (particularly the constitutional court) is being recognised. New president Ramaphosa delivered an inspiring state of the nation address the day after being sworn in.

“You can survive bad leadership, but what you won’t survive is bad institutions,” Mmusi Maimane told me.

There are no delusions over the epic challenges ahead. Unemployment is at 27 per cent (and is much higher for young, black South Africans) and GDP growth is stranded at 1 per cent. However, there is optimism, too: the “lost decade” is over and the Rainbow Nation’s renewal has finally begun. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia