Crowd didn’t know law but they were the judges

Posted By: July 05, 2016

THE IRISH NEWS – Monday 04 July 2016

Deaglan de Breadun Monday column KC News
MANY moons ago, I worked as immigrant labour in New York alongside a Cuban who had left his native land after the revolution.

He was angry about a lot of things, such as the staging of a trial by the Castroites in front of a crowd of about 18,000 at Havana Sports Palace stadium in 1959, where a senior figure in the old Batista regime was sentenced to death by firing squad as a war criminal. In theory, judicial authority rested with a military tribunal but critics felt there was a strong lynch-mob dimension. In heavily accented English, the embittered exile told me: “The crowd did not know the law but they were the judges.”

This conversation from the past came to mind after the Brexit referendum. The European Union is of course a complex institution. After nine referendums on EU matters, the voter in the South can claim to have a modest understanding of the issues. But there have been only two referendums on Europe in the UK, one in 1975 and the other last month.

At the risk of appearing anti-democratic, you have to wonder if the UK electorate is properly qualified to adjudicate on such a complicated matter. Even in the southern part of this island, where the voters have so much more experience in this regard, they keep changing their minds. We rejected the Nice Treaty in 2001 but accepted it the following year; we turned down the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 and voted for it a year later.

There has been talk of a second UK referendum but that is an unlikely prospect. Euroscepticism reaches all the way to the top of the Westminster establishment whereas in Leinster House it is confined to smaller parties and independents on the left.

Sinn Féin used to take a solidly anti-Brussels line but, given the party’s opposition to Brexit, their position can no longer be taken for granted.

Long time critic and opponent of the European project, Anthony Coughlan, has written an open letter to Gerry Adams expressing regret that the Sinn Féin leader ignored his advice to back the “Leave” option. This would have aligned the party with many northern Unionists as well as the majority in the UK as they voted “to regain their democracy and independence from the reactionary European Union”.

Coughlan, who must be the happiest Irishman in political terms right now, goes on to  state that: “Sinn Féin’s talk of a border poll, which has no hope of happening, and no hope of giving a desirable result even if it did happen, is but a distraction from the real issues now facing the country.”

Some republicans, at least, would be uncomfortable with backing Brexit as it would put them in the same camp as Nigel Farage as well as opponents of the peace process such as Michael Gove and, nearer home, the DUP. But Coughlan is not the only one to raise questions about Sinn Féin’s promotion of a Border poll.

A commentator in the Dublin-based Phoenix magazine said the “daft demand” was a top-of-the-head reaction to the Brexit result.

Maybe it’s not so daft after all. A united Ireland is what republicans are primarily meant to be about and renewing the call for what nationalists would describe as “reintegration of the national territory” won’t do Sinn Féin any harm.

But it’s not really a core issue at the moment. Many would say the key priority for Irish people is to help ensure that, even from the outside, the UK retains the closest possible relationship with the EU.

Norway is held up as an example of a country which has the same trading relationship with Europe as any of the member-states. But the Brussels mandarins are quick to point out that the Norwegians give free access to citizens from EU countries.

A senior government figure in Dublin, speaking unofficially, told me in effect that this is the square which has to be circled.

The logic of this position is that some way must be found to make concessions to the British on immigration while retaining them as a trading partner on the same basis as the remaining EU member-states. The danger is that a firestorm of similar demands could be stirred-up in other parts of Europe.

At time of writing, Sinn Féin have begun playing a different tune, calling for the establishment of a ‘national forum’ “to discuss our future in the EU”.

It would bring together all of the different strands of opinion on the island of Ireland and Scotland as well.

But why not invite parties from England and Wales also? We’re all in this mess together.