Amid the sound and fury of the election, no one seems to be talking about the actual content of Boris Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement – except in Northern Ireland, where it could begin the break-up of the United Kingdom, writes Joyce McMillan.
The media landscape of this general election has been a gruelling place, for anyone who cares about the substance of UK politics. The braying, the bluster, the steady streams of deliberate lies and disinformation, and above all the pervasive presence both in Tory propaganda and in public opinion of the meaningless and misleading mantra “get Brexit done”, has been enough to reduce any serious observer to tears; and seems to be causing actual illness among some of the 16 million who never wanted to leave the EU in the first place.
So imagine my surprise, one day this week, when I noticed a sudden change in the tone of voice emanating from the radio, during a BBC news programme. It was the sound of people – politicians, business people, citizens and social campaigners – discussing the substance of Boris Johnson’s Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, and doing so with knowledge, humour, and a high level of engagement; and the voices came – perhaps unsurprisingly – from Northern Ireland, the one part of the UK that seems to have moved on from the ya-boo dynamic of this election campaign in the rest of the UK, and to be holding a serious debate about the future of the province.
To say that opinions of the agreement were unflattering goes almost without saying. The one positive aspect of the deal is that it does, more or less, maintain an open border on the island of Ireland; but in all other aspects, it is nightmarishly complex at best, and at worst openly damaging to the interests of the people of Britain. In effect, although not in law, it leaves Northern Ireland inside the European single market and customs union, while the rest of us leave on 31 January; although the precise degree of Northern Ireland’s alignment with the EU has been fudged, to allow the UK as a whole to make its own trade deals after Brexit, and to allow Boris Johnson to say that the UK is leaving the EU “whole and intact”.
The downside of this arrangement from a unionist point of view, though, is that despite the Prime Minister’s blustering denials, it does place a regulatory border down the Irish Sea, with goods travelling into Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK subject to checks if they are “at any risk” of being further exported into the EU. And the fact that there has been no uproar of objection to this from the hard-Brexit Tory right finally exposes them for the charlatans they are; using “no border in the Irish Sea” as a supposedly non-negotiable bargaining chip against Theresa May, and then immediately discarding it, the better to support Boris Johnson.
No-deal Brexit still possible
If the Tories’ serial betrayal of Northern Ireland has succeeded in uniting the community there in various shades of opposition to the deal, though, the opposition parties in the rest of the UK all seem to have their own reasons for failing to engage with the detail of Boris Johnson’s agreement; the SNP and Liberal Democrats seem to have made strategic decisions not to get bogged down in the details of Brexit, since their priority is to stop it from happening at all, and Labour is too busy wrestling with its own demons.
Yet even if we leave the matter of Northern Ireland aside, the current deal is a bad one by any measure. In the first place, it takes the whole UK out of the single market and customs union, an outcome ruled out by many Leavers during the referendum campaign; and essentially puts us in the position of having to negotiate our way back in again, on much less advantageous terms. Worse, if those trade negotiations go badly, it leaves us with no parliamentary protection against a government that decides to make a no-deal exit at the end of 2020.
The agreement also explicitly abandons any commitment to maintain a level playing field between Britain and the EU on environmental protection and food standards. It robs more than 60 million British citizens of their freedom to live, work and study across 27 European countries. And although it provides for some parliamentary scrutiny on EU-guaranteed employment rights, it only suggests – in the accompanying political document – that the government should “make a statement” to parliament, before removing such rights, for good.
Boris Johnson’s insistence that this deal represents a good thing for the country, that it will “get Brexit done”, and mean that we never have to discuss the subject again, therefore represents an open goal at the heart of his campaign; a vacuum of meaning and sense into which any well-organised opposition could, and should, be firing daily salvos of scorn. The fact that no-one is consistently doing so marks a dangerous failure of clarity and realism, not only in British politics, but also in the upper echelons of British political journalism.
And as for Northern Ireland – well, although those on the extremes of the province’s politics remain as noisily identity-focussed as ever, the sound currently emerging from the province is that of a majority of practical people who have seen enough of conflict, and who understand the value of the European Union both as a trading bloc, and as a stabilising constitutional framework. It is true that Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU by a narrower margin than Scotland; and that Boris Johnson’s deal at least removes the immediate threat of a hard border with the south.
Yet the new Irish Sea border it introduces will be a permanent reminder, to Northern Ireland’s increasingly disaffected unionist community, of the shameful indifference and ignorance with which Brexit’s impact on Ireland, north and south, has been handled by successive British governments since 2015. And if Brexit is finally to lead to the break-up of the UK, my guess is that that process will begin not in a still-divided Scotland; but in a Northern Ireland increasingly united in despair at London’s failure to understand its recent history, and to share its aspirations for a new European future in which national identity continues to matter – but not enough to create the kind of “hard borders” that break hearts, and shatter human lives.