by Frank Schnittger
Fri May 18th, 2018 at 12:33:21 AM EST
As Brexit day looms ever closer some things are gradually becoming clearer to even the most delusional of Brexit supporters. It is not the EU which is quaking in it's boots at the prospect of Britain leaving, it is the UK.
Having realised that leaving the customs Union and Single market puts at risk all the benefits the UK derives from trading (and integrating it's production processes) with its largest trading partner, the British government is desperately trying to salvage what it can while still delivering on its formal promise of Brexit.
All the debate in British government circles between "a customs partnership" and "Max fac", or maximum facilitation of EU trading rules and tariff collection is essentially a debate between two options the EU has already dismissed as unworkable.
But it is the Irish border question which has, almost single handedly, unravelled the UK government's negotiating position, and N. Ireland Unionists are, very slowly, coming around to realizing it. The DUP are panicking, and desperately casting around for a bogeyman to blame.
Newton Emerson is a N. Ireland Unionist and commentator writing for the Irish Times. He is almost the sole sentient Unionist writing on N. Ireland politics at the present time, capable of communicating to both a Unionist and Irish readership.
He has been documenting, slowly, the emerging sense of panic in DUP ranks as it becomes clear what Brexit really means: the potential break-up of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The DUP is now publicly panicking over Brexit.
Last week, as the British government's plan for a customs partnership with Europe following Brexit fell apart and both houses of parliament voted to stay in the European Union customs union, the DUP reportedly informed Downing Street it would also back customs union membership if that was the price of preventing a so-called sea border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
He then goes on to outline what he sees as the DUP's true position on Brexit:
There are two keys to understanding the DUP's true position on EU departure. The first is to realise that, like almost everyone else, it did not think Leave would win the 2016 referendum. This lured the party into believing it could indulge the pro-Brexit instincts of its members and supporters at no political cost.
Such instincts were not shared across the leadership. In an infamous interview just after the referendum, Stormont economy minister Simon Hamilton - Foster's closest lieutenant - repeatedly refused to say how he had voted, leading to the universal assumption he had voted Remain.
The second key to the DUP's position is that its Leavers were high-profile but low-powered, with no common philosophy.
There was a pro-Brexit caucus on Stormont's backbenches, but its motivations ranged from free-trade fundamentalism through to various shades of British nationalism.
The DUP's centre of Brexit sympathy was at Westminster, among what were then its eight MPs. Dodds was a true believer in the free-trade vision and had been involved with its leading lights from the beginning. Jeffrey Donaldson wanted a piece of the campaigning action and helped arrange the Metro newspaper ad that alerted journalists to its unusual funding. Ian Paisley jnr appeared to enjoy the more purely flag-waving aspects of the issue, verging at times on simply winding opponents up.
Well what may have seemed to some like a harmless piece of political fun is turning out to have real political costs. Sinn Fein brought down the Stormont Executive created by the Good Friday agreement because of increasing DUP slights against the nationalist community, the renewable heat incentive scandal, and the divisiveness of the DUP's supportive stance on Brexit.
I commented on that article as follows:
Thanks Newton, for your usual insightful analysis. The DUP may have been guilty of the usual Brexiteer opportunism combined with the usual British sneering sense of superiority towards Europe, but there really is no excuse for the alacrity with which they chose to do damage to the Good Friday Agreement and the emerging communal consensus and peace in N. Ireland.
Whatever about succeeding in winning 10 seats in N. Ireland they lost the Brexit referendum in N. Ireland by a considerable margin. And whatever about their desire to maintain strong links with Britain, N. Ireland is the only place they have a mandate to speak for and despite calling themselves the Democratic Unionist Party they chose to defy the democratically expressed wish of the people of N. Ireland to remain in the EU.
In doing so they gave up all claim to speak on behalf of all the people of N. Ireland and became, once again, the narrow sectarian party of the early Ian Paisley which opposed the Good Friday agreement and all attempts at building peace and closer communal relationships in the North. They could have championed a policy of maintaining N. Ireland in both the UK and the EU - the reverse of Greenland, which is still part of the Kingdom of Denmark, but outside the EU - and in so doing staked a claim to lead both communities in N. Ireland.
They chose not to do so and so lost all legitimacy to speak for anyone but themselves and a narrowing support base. They will now, deservedly, be consigned to the dustbin of history unwanted by either Britain or Ireland. There are some betrayals which simply can't be reversed or forgiven. Arlene Foster is right: Europe doesn't understand them - or how they could have been so stupid.
Now that the DUP's responsibility for Brexit has been amplified by their new position of holding the balance of power in Westminster, they are busily trying to find a bogeyman to blame for their predicament. In his latest article Newton Emerson writes:
Sammy Wilson, an MP and former Stormont finance minister, has accused Tánaiste Simon Coveney of being a "belligerent, interfering Brit-basher" using Brexit "as an excuse to break up the UK".
"Border issues can all be dealt with by technology but Coveney and co have stuck their heads in the sand refusing to even consider this solution because it doesn't suit his aggressive republican agenda," according to Wilson.
Little matter that Simon Coveney, Irish Minister for External Affairs, is one of the mildest mannered and least nationalistic politicians you are likely to find on this island. Little matter that Coveney and the Irish government have been far more sympathetic to UK government attempts to come up with "imaginative solutions" involving new technology and "trusted trader" schemes" than has the EU more generally.
As Newton Emerson writes:
Since last August, it has been British government policy to continue frictionless trade with the EU through either a customs partnership, in which the EU and the UK collect each other's tariffs; or by "max fac" (maximum facilitation) - using IT systems and trusted trader schemes to minimise physical checks.
Prime minister Theresa May favours the first option. Both would still create "Border issues" and Wilson is correct that technology could solve them. The problem for the DUP is that these solutions would be applied at Belfast harbour, not at the Border itself.
Even worse for the unionists, avoiding all infrastructure at the Border is a British government promise - implicit in last August's two-option policy document and explicit since March's draft EU withdrawal agreement.
Of the two options, a customs partnership would make the technological sea border aspect of Brexit less painfully obvious. But May's divided cabinet is now wobbling towards max fac, a technological border by definition, whose Irish Sea location would be impossible to ignore.
The DUP is hardly going to blame itself or its Conservative partners for this, or credit Sinn Féin, with which it still wants a Stormont deal - so a Dublin bogeyman is the inevitable alternative.
Brussels has rejected both the British options, dismissing the customs partnership in particular as "magical thinking". It is implausible that all 27 remaining EU members would run a second tariff system for the UK's benefit, or that global firms and third countries would willingly make allowances for it. However, Dublin is prepared to create a bespoke customs partnership between the UK and Ireland, which is a far more practical proposition.
The lack of attention this generous offer has garnered is ironic and bizarre.
Brexiteers assumed they could split Ireland off from the rest of the EU in negotiations and were enraged when they could not do so. Many in Europe warned that perfidious Albion would not be allowed to play its classic game of divide and conquer again - especially in Ireland.
Yet the Irish Government has spent the past two months gesticulating its willingness for a separate arrangement and nobody in Britain even seems to have noticed. Clarifying the offer has only provoked more rudeness from the DUP.
I have commented on Newton's article as follows:
If the Good Friday Agreement was "Sunningdale for slow learners", as Seamus Mallon once memorably put it, then Brexit is the break-up of Great Britain, as Newton Emerson is now, slowly, coming around to realising. In this he is considerably ahead of Unionist "thinking" on Brexit and much else.
Brexiteers blithely assumed that they could "have their cake and eat it" and that Great Britain was so important the EU would end up having to give them all the benefits of EU membership and almost none of the costs. The last 2 years have been one long, slow, process of disillusionment for them with the EU slowly strangling the life out of remaining Brexiteer delusions of UK grandeur.
Basically the UK can have nothing outside the EU that it is not prepared to pay for, and having it on a piecemeal "cherry picking" basis means that it will have to pay for anything it gets at retail prices. You want membership of a Custom's Union, Galileo, the Blue skies agreement? Fine. But you will have to pay.
Specifically, on N. Ireland, that means there can be no new border controls within the island. If that means some border controls in the Irish Sea or elsewhere, then fine. That is simply not the Irish government's problem. The Irish government may be prepared to play around with words to relieve Brexiteer embarrassment, but the substance will not vary: "Vee haf rulz" as the Germans like to say.
It wasn't meant to be that way. The Irish were meant to simply lie down and suck up any Brexit "solution" that Brexiteer marketing whiz kids could dream up. This has come as a shock to Brexiteers in general and the DUP in particular. They have never had to deal with an Irish government in the stronger negotiating position before.
The insults will continue to fly. And no one will give a damn.
I have previously written articles on Brexit with titles such as "Brexit means breakup" (October 2016) and "Brexit balance of power swings from UK to Ireland" (August 2017), but these realities are only slowly dawning on most Unionists. Their response has been one of anger and incredulity, petulance and magical thinking.
But there is another way that the DUP can avoid most of the responsibility and blame for the consequences of Brexit: a no deal Brexit, where all responsibility and blame for a new customs border within Ireland can be placed on the the inflexibility of the Irish Government and the EU trying to "thwart the democratically expressed wishes of the British people".
Little matter that neither Ireland nor the EU are trying to stop Brexit - merely looking after their own national interests. Not giving the UK all the benefits of the EU without the costs may not be what the Brexiteers had in mind, but it is they who promised that to the UK electorate, not the EU.
However the inability of the DUP (and the Tories) to take responsibility for their actions still leads me to consider the no-deal Brexit scenario I outlined in How a no deal Brexit could happen (Wed Oct 18th, 2017) to be the most likely outcome. How else can you blame the emerging clusterf*ck on someone else?