- 13 Feb 19
It is, you might say the 12.6 billion dollar question. While calling for a referendum may be extremely unhelpful, it is an issue that we need to start thinking seriously about…
Following the twists and turns of Brexit is like watching an early 20th century film, replete with jerky movements, message boards, exaggerated expressions, delusions and farce. Laurel and Hardy’s tagline nails Brexit in one: another fine mess you’ve got us into… It’s a godawful, slapstick circus.
Last week, the Conservative Party seemed to agree to send their Mrs May back to Brussels to renegotiate the Brexit agreement that British officials have spent two years working on with their EU counterparts – and specifically to screw the backstop arrangement that was designed to prevent a hard border in Ireland.
Clearly, the Tories understand neither Ireland, nor Europe, except as markets. So, all their debates are internal. They’re simply not listening to anyone else other than their cheerleading media and the DUP.
To a large extent the media are playing a putrid part, idiotically proclaiming May as indomitable, a heroine like Boadicea, crossing the channel in her chariot to do battle with the Empire built by the Treaty of Rome. Or perhaps it’s with the Teutons. It is all ludicrous stuff.
In the longer term, as Britain detaches from Europe, the Tories will drive it towards aggressively neo-liberal economic policy and de-regulated industries. There will be ferocious internal battles between left and right. The UK’s binary first-past-the-post electoral system will generate huge instability. Its economy is likely to shrink. It has the potential to become a political basket case, unstable, riven with strife and ideological wars.
A Disunited Kingdom?
And beyond that? Brexit may even cause the break-up of the UK. That, should it happen, would be supremely ironic. Northern Ireland may be the first to seek an exit, triggered by a combination of demographic change and growing disenchantment with post-Brexit Britain – and facilitated by the Good Friday Agreement’s provision for a referendum on unity. Not for nothing are the Tories trying to undermine the agreement.
Certainly, unity would resolve the issue of a borderless Ireland. However, other than in republican circles, the prospect is a source of much unease and for many very good reasons. The enormous financial burden is one: who will stump up the €11 billion subvention of life in Northern Ireland, that currently comes from taxpayers in the UK? The North’s historically irreconcilable animosities, along with the active terrorist groups and their associated criminal gangs is another. A third is the prospect of trying to agree a new political architecture to manage the divergent interests.
Yet Brexit is utterly changing the political, psychological and cultural ecologies. Many possibilities are in play. It would be unwise, even irresponsible, not to think ahead. That said, a referendum is not needed right now. Sinn Fein is calling for such a poll to wave a green flag for their loyalists, to stem a drift to ‘continuity’ republicans and to remind Unionists that the demographic clock is ticking.
Instead, what’s required is the kind of thoughtful, structured consideration that went into the marriage equality and abortion referenda. Northern Ireland has long operated as a twin-tunnel echo chamber. The success of the Good Friday Agreement – flawed as it may be – is largely down to how it created working channels between those tunnels. The processes that led to the GFA, and to our successful reforms alike, have taught us, above all else, that time, care and reciprocal respect are a pre-requisite to successful change.
Of course, the prospective financial burden must be dealt with and, in the process, the entirely legitimate concerns of the Irish taxpayer addressed. The republican notion that we should just go for it and work out the details later is as nonsensical as Brexit.
Northern Ireland doesn’t really function economically. The dependency on public service employment is extremely high. The thought of taking that on is a proverbial cold shower, even before we factor in the huge demands on infrastructure, including housing, that will arise in Ireland from Brexit itself.
Would the North hold Ireland back?
Besides, absorbing a region of one state into another inevitably comes at a huge cost. There are structural questions, such as the organisation, operation and delivery of public services; elimination of unnecessary duplication; divergent rates of pay; guarantees and vindication of rights and entitlements, including human rights, equality and identity. And so on and on. It would be a massive undertaking, with huge attendant risks.
Someone will have to foot the bill. But who? The UK might contribute for a limited time, if its own finances allowed. But that’s not a given. The US is unlikely to, at least as long as Trump is in the White House. And while the EU would, they might also point to the huge donations made to Northern Ireland in the past, through the European Regional Development Fund and the European Social Fund.
But perhaps the most central question is actually this: in the event of unity, how would we maintain the progress made in Ireland in recent decades, in particular the open and tolerant society and culture that now characterises the Republic? And how do we promote similar advances in Northern Ireland?
Historically, many “northerners” (of all persuasions and none) looked down on “southerners” (that term, of course, including easterners and westerners too) as under-educated, lazier, shiftier, more profligate, breeders, priest-ridden and rustic.
The shoe is on the other foot now. Indeed, as one Tyrone woman told the Hog, “People down here think that northerners are always complaining”! But on a serious note, the (still unfinished) drive towards a secular Republic stands in marked contrast to the lack of progress in Northern Ireland, for example on women’s right to choose.
Religion is far more entrenched in Northern Ireland, entwined as it is with national, political, cultural and community identities. Other than ceremonial occasions, churches in Dublin are empty of all but the elderly – whereas in Belfast they are still full.
And the faiths practiced in Northern Ireland are more conservative. Not for nothing did ex-Sinn Fein member Peadar Tóibín launch his new anti-abortion party in Belfast. So, a key interest among progressive campaigners would be to safeguard progressive developments against a potential arch-conservative fightback starting in the north.