Brexit: Deal Or No Deal?

In observing recent negotiations concerning the UK’s ever hastily impending withdrawal from the European Union, I’m finding the vocabulary used extremely familiar. We’re at a seminal stage in the Brexit talks and even at this decidedly late juncture, it’s hard to discern what progress has been made, either real or apparent. With negotiations seemingly deadlocked and with little prospect of a definitive breakthrough, there’s not exactly an abundance of optimism in the air and the mood of the population at large has become increasingly dark. The overriding feelings surrounding the most historic event of this generation are not so much febrile as depressingly toxic. These are certainly unique times. For all that, I can’t shake off this feeling of familiarity with the language being used. Where have I heard it before? Oh, that’s right: Noel Edmonds!

Yes, deal or no deal. That’s the question on the lips of an entire continent and an anxious watching world. Just what has Michel Barnier got concealed in that envelope of his? Alas, nothing of substance as far as Theresa’s May’s bitterly divided administration is concerned. What makes the impasse all the more intolerable is you sense we’re nearly there; that a positive outcome is tantalisingly close. So near and yet so far.

What we’ve seen in recent weeks is the unedifying sight of both sides frantically dancing on the head of a pin to find a commonly accepted form of words that’ll suit everyone. Neither party will get everything it wants, of course, but hey that’s the nature of compromise. Despite the wholly predictable mutual rejection of the latest sets of proposals, the broad outline of a deal is there and has been for many months now. The issue is one of marketability; how well both sides can sell any deal to their complex constituencies.

And May’s position is devilishly complicated. As if leading a party publicly tearing itself apart and in the midst of a de facto civil war wasn’t arduous enough, Britain’s premier must contend with another notoriously disagreeable component. In fact, dealing with arch Brexiteers like Rees-Mogg, Johnson and Davis is a veritable walk in the park compared to the intransigents in the DUP, upon whom Mrs May relies for her government’s survival. On top of all that, the British PM has to combat the impressive and formidable Barnier. A rock and a hard place doesn’t even come close to describing May’s predicament!

Perhaps we should’t be too gloomy. Common sense and pragmatism dictates that a deal will the done. As does the exigencies of the Irish border. The financial markets are edgy, businesses the length and breadth of the continent are begging for certainty and politicians from all sides of the spectrum are scurrying around furiously looking for a way to extricate themselves from this unholy mess. A no deal scenario is inconceivable in that context. Or is it?

The trouble is the protagonists have entrenched themselves so deeply that it’s becoming ever more difficult to negotiate a safe and secure way out. Pride and stubbornness have become factors here. No-one wants to lose face. But the stakes are way too high for pointless grandstanding and brinkmanship. Good sense must prevail in the middle of all this madness.

If that means a few extra customs checks on goods coming across the Irish sea, then so be it. It seems a small price to pay to avert the biggest political, economic and constitutional crisis to afflict these islands in a generation. This is a time for courage. A time for bold and conscientious leadership. It’s quite ironic that the calamitous breakdown in British/EU relations was at least partially inspired by the global financial meltdown and bail outs; whose grim ten year anniversary has just been marked. Brexit: Deal or No Deal? I wonder what The Banker has to say about it all?

 

File:Flag of Europe.svg

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

Image courtesy of Wikipedia: By User:Verdy p, User:-xfi-, User:Paddu, User:Nightstallion, User:Funakoshi, User:Jeltz, User:Dbenbenn, User:Zscout370 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Advertisements

Does Stormont White Elephant Herald Post- Good Friday Agreement Era?

As I’m sure you know, I live in Northern Ireland. It’s a thoroughly unique and distinctive place. One of the most remarkable aspects of northern Irish life is that the region effectively has no government or administration at the moment. In fact, it currently has nothing that remotely resembles administrative efficacy. Since December last year, our government has been in a state of  semi-permanent hiatus, effectively suspended while the nominal partners in government (what a misnomer that is) embark on their latest round of bickering and accusation. Anyone who has the misfortune of following northern Irish politics with a degree of regularity will know that Stormont has become a by-word for stalemate and dysfunction; the power-sharing government and associated apparatus established by 1998’s Good Friday Agreement (GFA) have been fundamentally inoperable for some time.

So what, you might ask? Partnership governments and coalitions regularly fall apart all over the world as ideological differences and disputes prove discordant and intractable. Fair enough. What sets Northern Ireland apart is that our politicians can expect to be paid full, healthy salaries while they effectively sit on their hands and do nothing. And when I say nothing, that’s only a slight exaggeration. It’s a pretty good deal, isn’t it? And it’s us, the hard working taxpayers, who are subsidising the unjustifiable largesse and ostentation on the hill. I’ve a fair idea what would happen if I downed tools in my workplace and refused to do the job I was discharged to do. Different rules apply for Northern Ireland’s politicians, though. They’re able to make a virtue of continued inactivity, safe in the knowledge that their sizeable salaries will continue to be paid for the foreseeable future.

And, at the time of writing, there seems to be very little prospect of rapprochement  or accommodation. With two polarising elections in dangerously close proximity just ended, there seems little desire to get the exorbitant show back on the road. This ugly stalemate would be comical if the whole enterprise wasn’t so wasteful and lacking in everyday relevance. So, what happens if the circle isn’t squared? Direct Rule? More bloated and meaningless negotiations? Another bloody election? Each option carries inherent risk and danger.

What makes this impasse distinct from the countless others that have preceded it, is that it’s hard to see from where a potential breakthrough will come. Northern Ireland’s two largest parties-Sinn Féin and the DUP-appear further apart than ever and neither seem particularly vexed by the predicament they find themselves in. Indeed, some argue the parties stand to gain more by staying outside the Stormont executive while the messy melodrama that is Brexit plays out over the coming months and years.

Perhaps what we’re seeing is the emergence of a post-Good Friday Agreement era. The Agreement witnessed unprecedented euphoria and optimism throughout Ireland when talks were concluded nearly 20 years ago. Old enemies had sat down, talked (and listened) to each other and, against all the odds, hammered out a workable, if imperfect, compromise. Despite its obvious and fundamental flaws, the GFA was a valiant and venerable attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable and seemingly ushered in a new era of peace and mutual respect between the main traditions  in Ireland. The GFA’s primary attribute was that it offered something for everyone: the consent principle was enshrined for unionists, while nationalists were able to retain an aspiration for Irish unity within a new constitutional architecture that accentuated and augmented an all-Ireland dimension.

One of the primary criticisms of the GFA has always been that it institutionalised sectarianism; that instead of eradicating division it rather embraced political and religious difference and bestowed them with official blessing. Such critique is overly simplistic and ignores the laudable intentions behind the consociational ideals that underpin the GFA and its power-sharing structures.

After all, in a divided society that was emerging from a bitter and sinister sectarian conflict, it was inevitable that checks and balances were built into the new governmental architecture. One of the issues that’s hampered progress in the ensuing years  is that the GFA was predicated on perceived moderate parties (the Ulster Unionists and SDLP) leading the power-sharing administration and executive. And for the first few years of the executive’s existence, that’s exactly how it was.

However, these parties were soon completely and remorselessly usurped by their ambitious rivals in the DUP and Sinn Féin, who moved decisively to the centre and unashamedly stole their opponents’ clothes. With the UUP and SDLP at the helm, the GFA stood a fighting chance of being implemented and developed in the way its framers had originally intended. With  more polarised elements in control of the process, however, that original concept of shared government has proved much more elusive and challenging. No-one should be remotely surprised by this. A mandatory coalition comprised of sworn enemies pursuing  diametrically opposed agendas was always going to be a difficult edifice to maintain. It’s nothing short of a miracle, in fact, that the executive, under the DUP-Sinn Féin watch, lasted ten years before imploding amid acrimony and recrimination.

As precarious as Northern Ireland’s power-sharing structures undoubtedly are, we now have the destabilising influence of Brexit to add into this volatile mix. Presumably, the last thing unionist leaders and politicians wanted was the existential question of the Irish border brought to the fore in a meaningful way. And yet that’s what last June’s historic Brexit vote has done. Whatever else about the intentions of the negotiators behind the GFA, its structures certainly weren’t conceived to exist in an Ireland divided further by citizens within and without the European Union.

Indeed, one of the great selling points of the GFA was that it was to be guaranteed and stewarded by two sovereign governments, themselves inextricably linked and bound as partners within the EU. Instead, what Brexit is set to deliver is an Irish state firmly and comfortably within the EU sharing a lengthy and reinforced land border with a Northern Ireland that will be (despite the wishes of a majority of its citizens) outside the European Union; unable to avail of the protections and benefits afforded to member states. You don’t have to be Einstein to see the hornet’s nest that’s been opened up with regard to both Anglo-Irish relations and internal Irish politics.

While the exact effect of Brexit on Northern Irish politics remains to be seen (and indeed negotiated), the inert state of northern politics is altogether easier to discern. Inter-party relations are perilously close to rock bottom, cooperation has been rendered virtually obsolete, trust seems a foreign concept, compromise a dirty word, while mutual respect has been replaced by suspicion and ouright hostility. In all of this, the question arises: is Stormont worth putting back together? Do any of us actually benefit from the white elephant on the hill that’s taken inactivity and political vacuum to new levels?

They say that the definition of insanity is doing the same activity or pattern repeatedly and expecting different results. So, all aboard the gravy train for another futile journey to nowhere? Perhaps that’s where we’re inevitably headed. Or maybe the parties have accepted that alternative solutions finally have to be considered in a post- GFA and post-Brexit era. If the main antagonists have had their fill of Stormont and want to explore new horizons, that’s a perfectly valid position. What’s obnoxious to many of us is that they continue to get paid for their lacklustre and listless efforts. The suspicion lingers that the current dynamic would swiftly change if MLA’s salaries were stopped or curtailed. For the increasingly small number of people who still value the Stormont farce, this could be their only hope.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

 

By http://www.flickr.com/photos/robertpaulyoung/ [CC BY 2.0 –Image Courtesy of Wikipedia (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

A Perspective on Brexit: 12 months on

Following the United Kingdom’s historic vote to leave the European Union just over a year ago, I wrote “Brexit: A Sleep Walk into Disaster.” You can read it here . A year on from the most unexpected and significant vote in my lifetime, it’s appropriate to return to this polarising subject. Now that Article 50 has been invoked by Westminster and Brexit negotiations have commenced in earnest, there’s no turning back. The divorce papers have been served, the lawyers have been instructed and all that remains (pardon the pun) is to hammer out the details of a potentially bitter and acrimonious deal. If that sounds unduly bleak, it’s nevertheless an accurate representation of the volatile times we’re living in. We’re deep into uncharted territory. Britain’s exit was always likely to be messy.

The highly charged and febrile atmosphere has only been heightened, of course, by yet another political miscalculation by a Conservative leader. A year has passed and we’ve been subjected to another unnecessary and unhelpful vote inspired by a misplaced sense of Tory arrogance. Incredibly, Theresa May, having initially indicated that her government would last its full term, made the catastrophic decision to ape her predecessor in calling a vote that a clear majority neither wanted or needed. As far as political miscalculations go, May’s volte face wasn’t far behind Cameron’s in terms of futility and ineptitude. The thought process was clear. Britain’s premier evidently believed that Jeremy Corbyn was too weak to mount any sort of credible challenge and that an enhanced parliamentary majority was virtually assured.

It sounded plausible enough but it didn’t quite work out like that. Corbyn proved much more durable and popular than May imagined and the Tory leader ended up losing her Westminster majority rather than augmenting it. Just like 2010, the UK was left with that most undesirable of electoral outcomes-a hung parliament. However, the context had changed so much in the intervening years that a desperate May was forced to turn to some unlikely and unorthodox allies to shore up her ailing administration. There were many Tories who’d been aghast with the Clegg coalition in 2010, but last month’s general election heralded an even more unlikely alliance. This time, the Conservatives didn’t turn to the Liberals for support but  Northern Ireland’s deeply contentious Democratic Unionist Party. Yikes!

Hardly the strong and stable environment we were promised for the critical Brexit negotiations. It’s all a bit of a mess, isn’t it? And the early indications emanating from Brussels are that the discussions are going to be far from cosy and straightforward. The contrasting mood music from the competing participants is instructive, to say the least. While Britain’s negotiators have been at pains to seem all sweetness and light over the last year, Brussels’ approach seems altogether less accommodating. The British have seemed keen to present themselves as bastions of accommodation and compromise, while their EU counterparts have adopted an altogether stricter tone. All or nothing seems to be the essence of the EU’S position; as negotiators have been queuing up to tell the British that they can’t merely cherry pick the parts of EU membership that are most advantageous to them and ignore everything else. It’s not quite hard ball, but European politicians and negotiators are understandably loath to hand Britain’s leavers their wish list on a plate. Why rush to settle when you hold all the aces? Did anyone honestly think it was going to be any other way?

One might feel more sorry for May and her government if the wounds weren’t so obviously self-inflicted and avoidable. Britain’s prime minister now faces the toughest task of all: steering the UK through a time of unprecedented instability when the whole world must appear resolutely set against her. Attempting all this with no parliamentary majority and having been thrust into an arranged marriage with the unappealing DUP must be an extremely lonely place to be. How unnecessary this predicament was. If Cameron had only backed the courage of his convictions and stood up to his internal dissenters by trying to reform the EU from within, this whole unsavoury mess could have been avoided. Alas, that ship has long since sailed and we’ve all been subjected to crippling uncertainty and political chaos as a consequence.

A year ago I wrote about the law of unintended consequences and the period post the Brexit referendum has illuminated my point. While it didn’t take a clairvoyant to see that Brexit had the potential to unsettle the constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom, few could have predicted the remarkable way in which the Brexit vote has rekindled the debate on Irish reunification. Prior to June 23rd last year, the whole concept of Irish political unity (as it’s historically been understood) was completely off the agenda in any real and current sense. Even Sinn Féin seemed more than comfortable in their place atop Stormont’s power-sharing pyramid.

The Brexit referendum has changed that dynamic inexorably. For the first time in a generation, the Irish unity debate is firmly back on the agenda in a meaningful way. And a majority of unionists supported Brexit? Indeed, were the referendum to be reprised tomorrow, most of them would still vote exactly the same way. Maybe it makes sense to them! How Ireland will fare in negotiations is uncertain but there is no doubt that the Brexit discussions will shape Ireland’s political future in a profound way. Whether it’s hard or soft, centred on land or at sea, the Irish border is set for its biggest shake up since its creation in 1922. How the hastily arranged DUP-Tory love-in will affect these seminal issues is anyone’s guess.

The recent plethora of elections has left many cold and apathetic about Brexit and the immediate future. Increasing numbers are turning off politics. It’s easy, of course, to see European political machinations as remote and impersonal. But something extraordinarily significant and fundamental is happening over the next couple of years. And we all have a stake in it. It’s no exaggeration to state that the world as we know it is being turned on its head. Old certainties and ideologies are threatened as a new political order and arrangement presents itself. Maybe it will all work out okay in the end but nothing should be taken for granted. Everything is on the table and  it’s possible that the UK and Europe will  change dramatically over the next decade on the back of the landmark Brexit negotiations. The stakes have never been higher. I guess that’s what happens when you make yourself an unnecessary hostage to fortune. Strap yourselves in. We could be in for a very bumpy ride.

 

Twitter: @rorymcgimpsey

 

 

Brexit: A Sleepwalk into Disaster

The United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union”

My alarm clock went off at 6:00 as usual on Friday morning, but the world I woke up to was markedly different to the one I left when I fell asleep. It was the dulcet tones of Conor Bradford that relayed this cataclysmic news to  me. For those unfamiliar with the broadcast journalist, Bradford is a newsreader and anchor on BBC Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster programme. His grand and patrician style is particularly appropriate for events of such significance. l couldn’t believe his words. Like most of us, I hadn’t seen this coming.

I’m a bit of political anorak and had spent most of Thursday evening watching the television analysis of the Brexit referendum. However, as I retired to slumber, all the meaningful early predictions and exit polls were calling a narrow but clear victory for the Remain campaign. Therefore, the mind-boggling news that the electorate had decided to end the UK’s 43 year membership of the EU came as an almighty shock. Coming from Northern Ireland, the Brexit debate has undoubtedly assumed a greater significance, given the complex dynamics of all-Ireland political and  economic structures. All of a sudden, we were facing the unsettling prospect of sharing a land border with the European Union. What would that mean for our industry and agriculture? On Friday morning, shock and confusion reigned above all else. Dismay was the prevailing emotion. The fact that Northern Ireland had voted to remain was scant consolation.

Once the shock had abated, my mind turned to a more rational analysis of these groundbreaking and unprecedented events. What did it all mean? How best to make sense of the madness? It occurs to me that whatever about the merits of the outcome, this was a decision made for the wrong reasons. My abiding impression of the Brexit fiasco is that this was a critical decision made by many without even a basic comprehension of the facts. I can scarcely recall a political debate where the campaign was so thin on information and rational argument. The Brexit referendum was a triumph of ignorance and alarmist rhetoric over rationality. There was plenty of noise, but no real substance. For a decision of such magnitude, the debate was painfully thin on detail. In fact, many people seemed genuinely confused about what they were actually voting about. Some folks seemed to think that the issue related to immigration. Although a misguided view, having regard to the EU’s insistence on the free movement of people, goods, and services, you can see how they came to that conclusion. Others strangely linked the referendum to terrorism. How bizarre! The idea that this unstable action has somehow made us safer in this volatile world must be the ultimate example of hysteria and ignorance triumphing over rational thought. The Brexit vote, it seems to me, is the result of a weird form of collective impulsiveness, individuals hastily making a vital decision without recourse to even the basic facts.

In truth, there are those who have no real interest in dealing with the facts in relation to this discussion . For events that are hijacked by such hysteria and febrile emotion, there is a form of “confirmation bias” at work here. Facts and details are consumed by a perfect storm of prejudice and preconceived ideas, sacred cows that cannot be challenged. It is my belief that the propagandists on both sides of this debate have no interest in hearing anything that remotely challenges their predetermined notions. For a debate of such fundamental importance, objectivity and emotional detachment were needed to drown out the rhetoric and emotion. Alas, the opposite appears to have been the case. As happens so often in these emotionally charged debates, individuals decide what side of the fence they’re on and then look for evidence, no matter how flimsy, to support and justify that preconceived view. That is an inherently flawed process when dealing with something so significant and fundamental.

The other curious factor was how many voters ostensibly sacrificed self -interest for  emotion.  It’s remarkable that Northern Irish farmers apparently derive over 70% of their income from the EU by virtue of the Common Agricultural Policy. And yet statistically, some of those same farmers must have voted for Brexit. In a region that is so dependent on EU finance and support, how can such actions be rationalised? And for that matter, it seems strange that the largest Unionist party supported a decision that seems, on the face of it, to be utterly detrimental to the stability and prosperity of their beloved United Kingdom. You wonder if they’ve given it any coherent thought. Maybe they want another Scottish referendum and the consequent break-up of the union they supposedly cherish?!  That’s before we even get to the dreadful miscalculation of David Cameron. The deeply flawed decision to hold this referendum is borne in arrogance and strategic senselessness. I’m no fan of Cameron and the Tory party, but I’ve always viewed Dave as an effective and clever politician; a consummate leader who  exerted an almost clinical control of an often dysfunctional and divided party. To have sacrificed his legacy, just a year after securing an impressive majority, is one of the greatest political errors of the last 50 years. Regret must be the least of Cameron’s emotions this morning.

In truth, Brexit has produced no real winners, aside from the remorselessly ambitious Boris and the eccentric, absurd Nigel. For all the well-meaning and naive talk of a second referendum, I think we’re stuck with this disaster. As someone living in Northern Ireland, we’re facing a particularly uncertain and potentially divisive time. What will the impact be in relation to our re-defined frontier? Surely there will be some form of enhanced demarcation and customs presence? No-one really knows for sure, but we’re about to find out. However, a time of great flux and uncertainty awaits the entire United Kingdom. Brexiteers. Strange term. Sounds a bit like musketeers. All for one and one for all? Not anymore following this seismic vote. Well, they’ve got what they wanted. The law of unintended consequences in all its dramatic glory. The UK has sleepwalked into Brexit. Now we all must face the consequences of this new and scary reality.

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/25/Boris_Johnson_July_2015.jpg

File:Boris Johnson July 2015.jpg

 

Twitter:@RoryMcGimpsey

Beware Brexit!

You only have to take a cursory look at any news outlet to appreciate that something quite fundamental is happening in the next few weeks. On 23 June 2016, Britain will vote via referendum on whether the United Kingdom will remain in the European Union. Ever since the UK entered the political union (or its predecessor the European Economic Community to be precise) in 1973, its citizens have had a rather distant relationship with the supra-national body. Unlike other European states like Germany, France, and the Republic of Ireland (who entered the union in the same year as the UK) to name just a few, it’s fair to say the United Kingdom has never been an enthusiastic advocate of the European project.

Throughout the complicated history of the European institutions, the UK has often seemed like a semi-detached observer, its politicians instinctively resisting the red tape, bureaucracy, and integration associated with EU membership. Indeed, successive British governments have effectively sought to renegotiate the union’s treaties and deals, often with mixed success. While British administrations of all persuasions have been locked in a seemingly perpetual cycle of renegotiation, it is not the minutiae of political rules that has led to next month’s crucial referendum.

Rather than the aforementioned red tape and bureaucratic intrusion that is often cited by  polemical commentators, the problem that many Britons have with continued EU membership has nothing to do with bureaucracy, but everything to do with perceived political integration. What clearly irks some of the loudest voices endorsing the “Leave” campaign is the notion that this alleged integration will become ever more pronounced, and all traces of national sovereignty will be permanently ceded to Brussels. Campaigners for Brexit fear a de facto United States of Europe above all else, it seems.

One of the more interesting aspects of the debate surrounding Britain’s European future is the overwhelming focus on emotion. With such a seminal vote imminent, one would have expected political leaders to focus on the details. After all, how else can voters make a genuinely informed decision? Instead, what many campaigners offer  (on both sides of the debate it has to be said) is emotive and immature rhetoric. Perhaps that is why the “Leave” campaign has attracted some very eccentric and vocal proponents to its cause.

Arguably, the propensity for populist and sentimental rhetoric is one of the reasons many observers are predicting the retention of the status quo in June’s referendum. For seismic constitutional change to take place, logic states that the middle ground must be persuaded. It’s difficult to make the case for substantive change when febrile emotion has hijacked the argument. It is easy to scoff at some of Boris Johnson’s more bizarre pronouncements, but it is clear that the former Mayor of London is much more intelligent and capable than the crude caricature often presented of him. Despite his unconventional demeanour, Johnson is undeniably a shrewd and ambitious operator. None of which makes him right on the Brexit question, of course. We’ll soon find out if Boris and his fellow Brexit supporters have persuaded enough British voters to leap into the unknown.

It’s interesting to observe the different dynamics operating on both sides of the Irish Sea. Unlike the UK, Irish people (of all political persuasions and none) tend to be more enthusiastic and vocal in their support of the EU. With some exceptions, Irish people generally give a wholehearted seal of approval to the European project. And how could it be any other way? Modern Ireland is testament to the triumph of the EU. Irish infrastructure, from roads and railways to everything else in between, has been transformed by EU finance.

It’s not just economic factors that underpin Irish support for the EU, though. A majority of Irish people have bought into the EU on all levels, viewing it as an institution that enriches their nationality rather than compromising it. One of the positive aspects of  Ireland’s progressive outlook is that it doesn’t allow borders to stifle the benefits of EU membership. Northern Ireland has benefited enormously from EU participation and peace funds are only a small  part of a substantial European investment. It’s easy to understand, therefore, why normally conservative Northern Irish leaders are reticent to back the  Brexit campaign. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a shock. Contrary to popular perception, residents of Northern Ireland instinctively understand complexity of identity, that someone can be British as well as Irish, European rather than insular. One of the consequences of our tragic history is an appreciation of this cultural and national nuance.

The very idea of Brexit threatens the layered and complex Irish political architecture that’s taken years to construct. The implications of a British withdrawal from the EU extend far beyond middle England, therefore. Ultimately, the British people will re-define their own relationship with Europe on June 23, but a huge amount is at stake. It is not an exaggeration to state that millions anxiously await the outcome of the Brexit referendum. Irish citizens (north and south) are included in that number.

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey