Theresa May’s Irish Headache, and the Final Death Knell of British Imperialism

Posted By: December 08, 2017

Distributed by Irish National Caucus

“After centuries of oppression, will Ireland benefit from Britain’s implosion?…

Henry Porter. Vanity Fair.Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The United Kingdom, whose long slide into irrelevance was hastened by the arrogance of Brexit, is now moving rapidly toward dissolution over the terms of its self-imposed estrangement. On Monday, Theresa May made a terse statement announcing that negotiations with the European Union had been suspended because of disagreements over the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, uniting two issues—Europe and Ireland—that have obsessed the British political establishment for more than half a century. The Irish question, perhaps better than any other issue, underscores the chaotic nature of the U.K. government’s approach to Brexit, and the enfeebled state of the country since voting to cut ties with Europe.

What has happened this week looks like karma on a grand scale. But the predicament over the border is also a sign of the rapid retreat from reason that characterizes the plan to leave the E.U. May’s government has long promised a “hard Brexit” from Europe, leaving both the Customs Union and the Single Market, while maintaining a soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland—a devoted member of the European Union. Not even the head-banging Brexit extremists on May’s backbenchers want a return to the border patrols and watchtowers of the Troubles.

But May’s policy is dizzy with cognitive dissonance. It makes no sense whatsoever to withdraw from the E.U. and keep an open border through which goods can pass without standard customs procedures. The formula—drafted late last weekend and, crucially, not shared with the Democratic Unionists on whom May relies for support in the House of Commons—meant that Northern Ireland would have a special customs status and therefore remain more attached to the E.U. than the rest of the U.K.

The U.K. may be suffering a kind of institutional mental breakdown, but the processing speeds of politicians are as yet undimmed. Leaders in Scotland, Wales, and London quickly began to ask why they couldn’t be granted the same exception. Members of the Northern Irish D.U.P., meanwhile, were appalled to realize that the move would also make Northern Ireland more Irish. A border with Britain, drawn across the Irish Sea, would represent a significant step toward eventual unification of the north and south of the island. So the ardently unionist D.U.P. pulled its support and called a halt to the draft agreement needed for the Brexit negotiations to progress. Brussels’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, told member states on Wednesday that if May’s government cannot reach an agreement in 48 hours, talks could be delayed until March, accelerating the exodus of businesses from the U.K.

There is a desperate, suicidal urgency about the U.K. government’s behavior, and it is reasonable to wonder if some spooky determinism is at work—payback for centuries of domination in Ireland and a more recent record of exceptionalism in Europe. A hundred years ago Britain’s influence extended across five continents and, despite the huge cost of World War I, most of the trappings of the empire were intact. At that time, the idea that Britain’s plans could be frustrated by Ireland would have been laughable. Today, it is a hard reality because of the Irish—like all E.U. member states—have a veto in the negotiations. As the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole asked this week, “If, for the first time in 800 years, Ireland is proving to be in a much stronger political position than Britain, what does that say about what Brexit is doing to Britain’s strength?”

The answer is a humiliating one for the British, or, more precisely, the English, who dominated the history of the British Isles and empire before supporting Brexit by a majority. (Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the E.U.) It is the English who, if they were more self-aware, would feel the full force of the ignominy of the events of this week. But we are not living in a reasonable age and the London press—strongly biased in favor of Brexit—immediately heaped blame on the Irish government for what is essentially an English problem.

Does it have to be this way? Is the possible breakup of the United Kingdom and certain decline of its component parts simply the final stage of a cycle as old as history itself, the rise and fall of empires? You can argue that there are strong psychological reasons for what is going on in the English, who have had difficulty accommodating both the evidence of decline and the need for cooperation with neighboring states. Yet it would be wrong to generalize because of very large numbers of English—particularly on the left and in the major cities—voted to remain in the E.U. What is happening appalls them as much as it does the Remainers in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Britain’s membership in the E.U. did, for a time, mitigate the forces of decline. With people on both sides of the Irish border becoming citizens of the same political union in the 1990s, the sectarian and national differences began to matter less, culminating in the Good Friday Agreement under Tony Blair that ended the Troubles. Britain could function as a moderately successful economy and allow expression of its many skills in, for example, finance, scientific research, and the creative arts within Europe. While there were, admittedly, problems with immigration, the benign dissolution of borders had millions of supporters who saw in the E.U. a place for Britain as a modest, successful, post-imperial nation.