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Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Brexit and Ireland

At least since the time when the only English pope 'asked' King Henry II of England to take full possession of his Lordship of Ireland, there has been an endless and fascinating sequence of tense relations between the rulers based in Westminster and the people of Ireland. Several times, kings and the Cromwellian republic tried to settle conformable populations of Scots and English in Ireland, and between 1670 and 1690 the great Sir William Petty wrote extensively about his plan to resettle half the Irish population on the island of Britain and/or in British colonies elsewhere, replacing them in Ireland with Brits, so that a short period of interbreeding could eradicate the difficult characteristics of the native Irish. Often, British policy in Ireland has been highly revealing about the actual character of British government and the real intentions of British policy.

Thus the publication yesterday of a less-than-half-baked paper on the future of the Irish border under Brexit is in that revealing context. As I have commented previously in this blog, the present UK government can not possibly give effect to any sort of Brexit that involves leaving the European Economic Area whilst retaining the policy of austerity. Actually to erect realistic customs borders and controls on the passage of people all around the UK - which would be necessary before Britain could begin to trade with anybody under the rules of the World Trade Organisation, outside the EU - is totally incompatible with austerity.

Yesterday's UK government paper on the Irish border rejects any hegemonic physical line, either on the land border between the Republic and Northern Ireland or enforced by frigates in the middle of the Irish Sea. One radio commentator summed up the potential control methods as "an iPad in every truck's cab". Interestingly, this looks as if it would put the primary cost of compliance with any new system of "technological" border and customs control onto the private sector; but, of course, billions of pounds would have to be spent for the government to acquire the equipment and train up and pay the skilled people [who probably do not exist anyway] who would be needed to create and maintain the records that would be needed of the passage of people and goods over the borders. The notion implicit in yesterday's paper is simply potty.

Both the British and Irish government are adamant that there cannot be a hard border in Ireland: not just prosperity, but also peace is dependent on free movement of people, goods and arguments.

Ireland will prove to be a sticking-point: the first - and probably the most fundamental - of all. Any genuine Brexit is not affordable to the British state, even if Osbornian austerity were relaxed. Corbyn will not understand this; but, more importantly the headbanging Tory Brexiteers - on whom Mrs May relies for her parliamentary survival - will not understand it: some because they do not want to, and some because their intellectual capabilities do not stretch that far.

The Irish Question will again be a determining factor in British history: and [as Sellars and Yeatman said, in their inimitable 1066 and All that] the English will never solve the Irish Question because whenever they come up with an answer, the Irish change the question. This is certainly the present situation, where the new Irish Prime Minister has set new terms for the discussion of the border: and we can be sure that the great bulk of the European Union will back him to the hilt. Nigel Farage and the 'hard Brexiteers' will claim that the electorate is being betrayed as a 'transition period' mutates into continuing membership of the European Economic Area [but without membership of the Brussels political set-up]. The 'betrayal' will come from the incomprehension and incompetence of the political class: against which a majority of the nation voted on 23 June 2016. Hence, the political class - the very people who are least trusted by the nation - froth and posture about 'taking back control'. They don't know how to do it, because there is no affordable way to achieve it within their mental universe.

Interesting times indeed.

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