Tories must grasp the profound stupidity of their approach to the North

Posted By: October 15, 2019

“This article by Fintan O’Toole will be most helpful for Members of Congress and their Staff in clarifying the Brexit-Northern Ireland chaos.It is a ‘must-read’ by a master of his subject.”—Fr. Sean McManus 

Brexit deal depends on Britain restoring disinterest towards Northern Ireland 

Fintan O’Toole. Irish Times. Dublin. Tuesday, October 15, 2019

I try not to be a pedant but I do get annoyed when people use “disinterested” when they mean “uninterested”. To be disinterested is to be impartial, to deal honestly with other people without seeking to advance one’s own interests. To be uninterested is not to care about what happens to those people. One of the reasons Brexit has been such a mess is that the British government has seriously confused these two attitudes to Northern Ireland. It has managed, under both Theresa May and Boris Johnson, simultaneously to abandon its duty to be disinterested and to be fundamentally uninterested. If a Brexit deal is finally to emerge, it will be because the British have been forced to grasp the profound stupidity of this combination.

The Belfast Agreement is very clear on the idea of disinterested government. It requires that “whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions.” This requirement has been openly flouted since May’s ill-starred election of 2017 in which the Tories lost their majority in parliament. Impartiality has been abandoned in favor of a formal alliance with one party, the DUP, whose support lies almost entirely within one politico-religious tradition. 

But this abandonment of the duty to be disinterested has gone hand-in-hand with a lack of interest. The Tories have been fundamentally indifferent to the desires of most people in Northern Ireland, to the realities of life for the Border communities, to the fragility of the peace process and to the consequences of the recreation of a hard Border. In this, they have been faithful to the instincts of their own voters and members: 75 per cent of Tory voters say the collapse of the peace process in Northern Ireland is a price worth paying for Brexit and 60 per cent of party members say Northern Ireland leaving the UK is an acceptable consequence of Brexit. The message the DUP has failed to get is: they’re just not that into you.

It is quite a feat to be both nakedly partial and essentially unconcerned and its consequence is, of course, utter incoherence. The abandonment of impartiality led to a rhetoric of the “precious, precious union”. But the lack of real interest in that peculiar part of the Union known as Northern Ireland has made British governments incapable of addressing the real problems of the peace process and the Border with any credibility or indeed honesty: we passionately love Northern Ireland but not enough to take its specific history and geography seriously. This, in essence, is why the Brexit tractor has been stuck in the muddy fields of Fermanagh and Tyrone, spinning its wheels ever more frantically but going nowhere.

Willful  erasure

The most ludicrous effect of this contradiction has been the willful erasure of an obvious truth that both the British government and the DUP themselves accepted and articulated in the immediate period after the Brexit referendum: that Northern Ireland is different to Britain and that therefore Brexit would have to be different for Northern Ireland. It is hard to remember, after so much nonsense, that this was once a truth universally acknowledged in post-referendum discourse.

The British government’s first substantial Brexit plan, the white paper of February 2017, says: “The government recognizes that Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances present a range of particular challenges to be taken into account when preparing for our exit from the EU.” Even before that, Arlene Foster (yes that Arlene Foster) had put her name beside that of Martin McGuinness in a joint letter of August 2016 to May stressing that “this region (i.e. Northern Ireland) is unique” and actually demanding that the prime minister be aware of the “unique aspects of negotiations that arise from the Border”. 

But the result of the 2017 election created a toxic collusion in which the DUP, drunk on the illusion of power, spun the fantasy that Brexit could be exactly the same for Northern Ireland as for Somerset or Warwickshire and May (against her better judgement) indulged it. Out went “particular” and “unique”; in came “exactly the same”. More than two years have been wasted on the pursuit of a proposition that both the British government and the DUP knew to be unreal. But in the manual of Brexit for slow learners, the last chapter of this volume was always going to be the same as the first: go back to the plain truth that Northern Ireland is unique and that, if it really has to endure Brexit, it must have a bespoke version. Its Brexit suit cannot be off the peg —it must be made to measure.

If a deal is now to be possible, Boris Johnson must restore some semblance of disinterestedness by acknowledging that Northern Ireland is not the DUP. And he must, however belatedly, try to seem interested in the realities of the place and its communities. It would be too much to expect either of these conversions to be sincere. But they are the key to the one thing that really interests Johnson: his own survival.