So. Can I ask how you’re feeling today? I appreciate that this question isn’t directed at everybody. There are thousands of people who couldn’t give a monkey’s about Brexit and occupy their thoughts with other issues of the day, like will the Republic of Ireland team qualify for Euro 2020, are Belfast’s bus-lanes a money-making racket, and is it possible to get phone-in show poisoning? But for those of you who are Brexit-focused, I’m concerned for your welfare. Is your brain beginning to feel its different bits are quivering and colliding with each other, such is the speed and variety of Brexit problems pinging and cracking all around us?
For months if not years, the EU has been saying that the Theresa May withdrawal bill was It. No more renegotiations, those are now over, done (and dusted), and there would be no change especially on the backstop.
Then Boris Johnson and his groupthink group talked about signing up to an agreement that would have our NE Nest aligned with the EU on food, animal and plant safety. In other words, there’d be a seamless border for these matters. Arlene Foster went down to Dublin and made nice, with talk of our shared history and geography. It looked as if the deadlock iceberg had begun to melt. The EU seized on this brief moment of common sense but explained that there had to be a seamless border for everything, not just for this food/animal/plant bit, important though that was. And then Leo said he was for New York and he’d be having talks with the British. So was the withdrawal agreement that couldn’t be opened now being opened? And were the negotiations that could only be done between the UK and the EU now being done between the UK and the south of Ireland?
Johnson and Co indicated that they’d look at the rest of the backstop during the trade relations discussion that would follow Britain’s exit from the EU. The EU, thanks be to God, said “You want us to trust you, then, Boris? With your track record? You Brits, you have such a highly developed sense of humour!”
Ireland north and south are now faced with two serious dangers. One is that the EU will agree to some sort of time-limit – say, a ten-year backstop and we’ll then look at it again. No permanent backstop, such as May’s withdrawal deal contained. The second serious danger is that there’s talk – by the British – of involving our overheated NE Nest’s Assembly in all of this. If pressure could be applied for Stormont to be up and staggering, it’d give those most affected a voice AND, through the petition of concern, it’d give the DUP a veto on any agreement that might be reached.
My heart tells me the south of Ireland and the EU will stick to their guns, face down the British and point at the tightly-sealed withdrawal bill. My head tells me that this catastrophic deadlock must be broken, that a time-limited back-stop mightn’t be so terrible after all. If much of unionist business and farming favour a seamless border today, with all sorts of links cross-border, how much more seamless will be the border in ten years’ time, when the web of cross-border contacts and contracts will be multiplied and even more indissolubly linked?
The big danger is that we’ll underestimate the DUP capacity for deviousness. Arlene’s party are the reason we’re in the massive mess we are, and once the backstop is diluted even slightly, the DUP won’t rest until it’s as weak as convent tea. Instead, the EU (not the south of Ireland) should stipulate something closer to twenty-five years on the backstop, if that’s what it takes to get the UK moving towards a deal.
Think about it: how big of a majority will nationalists/republicans then constitute in our NE Nest? In fact, after twenty-five years, there’ll be no seamless border. By then there’ll be no border at all, and Robert Emmet’s epitaph will at last, after centuries of waiting, be written.