Tag Archives: Brexit

Ireland is already united – it’s just that a lot of people haven’t noticed.

2 Jan

The prospect of a united Ireland has moved up the political agenda in the midst of Brexit uncertainty, but Ireland already has been united – to all intents and purposes – for many years. This united Ireland is one forged in the everyday activities of millions of people on the island. It is a united Ireland of travel patterns, family relationships, businesses, sport and culture that work around (or more precisely – across) the border. It is a united Ireland that is embodied, enacted and lived.

This notion of a united Ireland is based on a sociological understanding of politics and society that sees politics (and most aspects of life) as a verb – something to be enacted through everyday living rather than a noun – something that is declared by constitutions and political leaders.* The actual behaviour of many people on the island of Ireland is one that traverses the political and economic border and renders it an anachronism. Examples of this abound: people working in Belfast but living in Dublin (less than two hours journey time in the car), over a million passengers per year from Northern Ireland using Dublin airport, the thousands of northerners who attend stadium concerts in Dublin every year, and the all-island sports of rugby, GAA and many others that see people cross the border every weekend. Added to this are the thousands of businesses that trade on both sides of the border, the huge number of northerners with second homes in Donegal (in the Republic of Ireland), and the countless shopping trips that criss-cross the border on a daily basis.

Those waiting for formal united Ireland – one enshrined by a constitution and recognised by the United Nations – may have some time to wait. Brexit uncertainty has made the prospect of a vote for a formal creation of a united Ireland more realistic, but it is hard to see a united Ireland coming about without opposition from Northern Ireland’s unionist population. And the Brexit-supporting English political elite would probably re-discover the value of the Union if it was really in jeopardy. The blue-prints of project fear, which worked so well during the Scottish independence referendum, would be dusted off and the massed ranks of the pro-Union media and the English Establishment (it really does exist) would be energised.

The beauty of the de facto united Ireland is that trenchant unionists can avoid it. They don’t have to travel south if they don’t want to. They can fashion lives that are British, unionist and have little to do with the Republic of Ireland. It is still possible (indeed all too easy) to lead lives that are segregated from political and religious others; 90 percent of children still attend either all Catholic or all Protestant schools. Social housing is still overwhelmingly segregated according to religion – as is the private sector. The cultural hegemony of a British unionist identity has taken a battering as Irish (or Catholic nationalist) identities have grown in confidence (and gained economic power). Yet, it is still possible to be proudly British and avoid the de facto united Ireland.

To some extent this united Ireland has been enabled macro-political developments – most importantly the removal of the hard security border in the wake of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. And there have been some formal cross-border cooperation in the health and energy sectors. But, to a large extent, this united Ireland has occurred in spite of macro-political developments: people have just got on with their lives. People want to see Bruce Springsteen playing in Dublin so they cross the border; they want cheaper booze in Tesco in Newry so they cross the border; they want to spend their summer holidays in Donegal so they cross the border. This ‘getting on with it’ is the default activity of most people where circumstances allow. Despite the Troubles, people still had to hold down jobs, get the kids to school and engage in elder care. The border was a massive inconvenience during the dark days of the Troubles, but many people ignored it as best they could. The same is true today.

Brexit has simultaneously complicated and clarified things. The complication comes from the fact that no one – and certainly not the British government – can tell the impact of the withdrawal from the European Union on everyday lives. The clarification comes – if it were ever needed – in making it clear that the vast majority of people in England know nothing about, and care even less about, Northern Ireland, Ireland and border life. Indeed, British Home Secretary Priti Patel’s comments on food shortages in Ireland in the event of a crash out Brexit make clear the extent to which a couldn’t care less attitude sits comfortably at the apex of government. In the face of such attitudes, and in the face of similar attitudes over the decades, people have just got on with living an all-Ireland life as best they can. This has accelerated in recent years as people have become richer, safer, more mobile, and gotten used to free movement across Europe. This united Ireland is here to stay – and very probably will become more entrenched – regardless of the ‘un-care’ from Downing Street.

*This notion of everyday politics lies at the heart of the Everyday Peace Indicators research programme (everydaypeaceindicators.org)

Brexit and Borders

28 Nov

There is a lot of noise about Brexit and the UK-Irish land border. It is not helped by injudicious comments by grand-standing politicians. Pro-Brexit Labour MP’s Kate Hoey’s Trumpian remark that the Irish government would have to pay for any border wall was probably the most injudicious of all. But if we stand back and take a look at the situation then a few things become clear.

The first is that this will be a hard Brexit. By its very nature the EU is a members’ only club. Forms of associate membership are available but the key dividing line is whether you are a member or not. The act of leaving the club, and of leaving a club whose fundamental aim is the standardisation of rules (and values) across member states, ensures a hard Brexit.

The second point that is emerging from behind the political noise is that the technical negotiations are a long way off finding viable solutions for the border issue. The UK-Ireland land border – like all borders – is a political creation. Crossing the border is an everyday activity for many people who live along the border (they cross to fill the car up with diesel, go to college, go to work, go to see their relatives). Many people cross the border multiple times a day. In order for that to continue to happen a seamless system has to be in place. Such a system will probably rely on technology (perhaps a smart pass system like in toll roads or London’s congestion zone). But the technical details, let along the infrastructure of cameras and the crucial detail of who pays for and polices this) have yet to reach the feasibility study phase. Quite simply a smart pass border relies on smart politicians to mandate very smart technocrats to work on this. So far, the politicians are still grandstanding.

The third point is that Northern Ireland will be different in terms of both the UK and EU contexts. The point is important and matters a great deal to Northern Ireland’s unionists. For them, it is crucial that Northern Ireland remains within the UK and its people have the same protections as everyone else in the UK. This is a bit of a fiction. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement already awarded Northern Ireland special status on top of its place in the UK. Citizens in Northern Ireland have the right to dual citizenship (British, Irish or both), and Northern Ireland’s position in the UK is conditional on people actually wanting it to remain in the UK. The 1998 Agreement authorises a referendum on the constitutional issue.

Whatever the outcome of the EU-Ireland-UK negotiations on the UK-Ireland land border it is clear that Northern Ireland will be different from other EU-non-EU land borders. We have never had a situation in which a member state leaves the EU – a member states that contains many citizens with everyday links across that border. That will require all sorts of deviations from the normal.

It is worth remembering that communities along the border have lived with political boundaries for generations. They have found ways to subvert political borders through everyday activities of trade, love, family and culture. Those ‘subversions’ will continue. At the height of the Troubles, the British military had a chain of watchtowers and checkpoints along the border. They also blew up many roads to make sure that people only crossed the border along designated routes. Communities made their own roads across the border in order to avoid the checkpoints and the hassle. It is a useful reminder that people can be ingenious in finding ways to subvert political boundaries.

A final point is that there are few countries that can match the UK-Irish inter-governmental relationship. Attempts to find a way out of the Troubles from the mid-1980s onwards have meant that generations of civil servants have developed close working relationships. These reached a zenith in the mid to late-1990s and early 2000s as the Good Friday Agreement was being negotiated and bedded down. Many of the key players have retired and a few have died. But there is still a good institutional memory in permanent government to allow imaginative solutions to be found. The political timetable (possible election in Ireland and a precarious UK government) and grandstanding politicians don’t seem to help matters.

Why I am still abstaining from the EU referendum

7 Jun

THIS IS A RE-POSTING OF A BLOG FROM 4 MARCH 2016. IT SEEMS MORE RELEVANT NOW. I HAVE NOT CHANGED MY MIND, EVEN THOUGH THE OPINION POLLS ARE CLOSER THAN WHEN I WROTE THIS. THE REFERENDUM IS STILL A HUGE AND UNNECESSARY DISTRACTION FROM POVERTY, INEQUALITY, AND THE DISMANTLING OF STATE RESPONSIBILITY FOR EDUCATION, HEALTH AND WELFARE. I AM SIMPLY NOT GOING TO PLAY THE GAME THAT POLITICAL ELITES WANT ME TO PLAY. THE SENSIBLE CHOICE IS TO IGNORE THIS RICH, WHITE, MALE ELITE.

On most days, the main news story in the UK involves a rich middle-aged white man saying that the sky will fall on our heads if we leave OR remain in the European Union. The outcome is always catastrophic. It is never a case of ‘If you leave/remain in the EU there will be mild consequences’.

What is driving me to abstain from this whole referendum campaign is that the staging of this argument suits those in power. It suits them to divert our attention onto the EU issue while they continue with an anti-people agenda of privatising the National Health Service, taking benefits from the poorest in society, de-regulating the City of London, and dismantling universities. Every second of airtime given to this issue is a second that does not scrutinise a government of millionaires presiding over increasing homelessness, less care for the mentally ill, fewer police officers on the streets, and shoddy treatment of doctors.

So I am not playing the game. And this is a game. The issue of whether the UK remains in the EU is essentially an internal Conservative Party issue that the Prime Minister has decided to turn into a campaigning issue. It is an issue of choice. It is an unnecessary indulgence for a man who will leave office in three years and resume being what he is: a multi-millionaire elitist. It was entirely his choice to turn this into a major political issue. And to give him and his coterie attention on this issue is to play into his hands. Obviously, the media are playing into his hands. They love this issue. It is a simple binary choice. It pits supposed allies against each other. It touches on weather-vane issues beloved by the right-wing gutter press such as immigration, welfare, and ‘foreigners’.

If I were to vote (and I will not) I would vote to remain in the EU. My confidence in the European project was severely shaken by the patently undemocratic treatment meted out to Cyprus, Greece, Ireland and Portugal by the European Commission and the European Central Bank (but really by the German government). This foisting of bankers’ debt on populations was a crime against decency and democracy. This issue aside, the European project has generally been a good thing. The central message – that cooperation between states is better than unilateralism and nationalism – is an important one. After all, nationalism cost tens of millions of European (and other) lives in the twentieth century. The EU has been an important tool in blunting that on continental Europe.

What we are seeing with this UK referendum campaign is essentially theatre. The UK will vote to remain in the EU. If there is any doubt about this, take a look at what happened during the referendum on Scottish independence. The extent to which the people of Scotland were bludgeoned on a daily basis by London-based corporations, media and political parties was something that had to be seen to be believed. The corporations, media and political parties united to form a massive steamroller that bullied and threatened people about the ‘benefits’ of remaining in the UK. Cynically, the remaining in the UK campaign called itself ‘Project Fear’ – it was predicated on the notion that it would win if it scared people about tax, cost of living, pensions, and security. And it worked. Prime Minister Cameron and his rich white boy allies know this. Project Fear II will prevail and the UK will remain in the EU. And safe in that knowledge, I am going to concentrate on issues that matter – not on a sham referendum campaign.

Why I’m abstaining from the EU referendum

4 Mar

On most days, the main news story in the UK involves a rich middle-aged white man saying that the sky will fall on our heads if we leave OR remain in the European Union. The outcome is always catastrophic. It is never a case of ‘If you leave/remain in the EU there will be mild consequences’.

What is driving me to abstain from this whole referendum campaign is that the staging of this argument suits those in power. It suits them to divert our attention onto the EU issue while they continue with an anti-people agenda of privatising the National Health Service, taking benefits from the poorest in society, de-regulating the City of London, and dismantling universities. Every second of airtime given to this issue is a second that does not scrutinise a government of millionaires presiding over increasing homelessness, less care for the mentally ill, fewer police officers on the streets, and shoddy treatment of doctors.

So I am not playing the game. And this is a game. The issue of whether the UK remains in the EU is essentially an internal Conservative Party issue that the Prime Minister has decided to turn into a campaigning issue. It is an issue of choice. It is an unnecessary indulgence for a man who will leave office in three years and resume being what he is: a multi-millionaire elitist. It was entirely his choice to turn this into a major political issue. And to give him and his coterie attention on this issue is to play into his hands. Obviously, the media are playing into his hands. They love this issue. It is a simple binary choice. It pits supposed allies against each other. It touches on weather-vane issues beloved by the right-wing gutter press such as immigration, welfare, and ‘foreigners’.

If I were to vote (and I will not) I would vote to remain in the EU. My confidence in the European project was severely shaken by the patently undemocratic treatment meted out to Cyprus, Greece, Ireland and Portugal by the European Commission and the European Central Bank (but really by the German government). This foisting of bankers’ debt on populations was a crime against decency and democracy. This issue aside, the European project has generally been a good thing. The central message – that cooperation between states is better than unilateralism and nationalism – is an important one. After all, nationalism cost tens of millions of European (and other) lives in the twentieth century. The EU has been an important tool in blunting that on continental Europe.

What we are seeing with this UK referendum campaign is essentially theatre. The UK will vote to remain in the EU. If there is any doubt about this, take a look at what happened during the referendum on Scottish independence. The extent to which the people of Scotland were bludgeoned on a daily basis by London-based corporations, media and political parties was something that had to be seen to be believed. The corporations, media and political parties united to form a massive steamroller that bullied and threatened people about the ‘benefits’ of remaining in the UK. Cynically, the remaining in the UK campaign called itself ‘Project Fear’ – it was predicated on the notion that it would win if it scared people about tax, cost of living, pensions, and security. And it worked. Prime Minister Cameron and his rich white boy allies know this. Project Fear II will prevail and the UK will remain in the EU. And safe in that knowledge, I am going to concentrate on issues that matter – not on a sham referendum campaign.

David Cameron’s wonderfully fantastic superb victory (as scripted some weeks before the event)

21 Feb

There was something very scripted about David Cameron’s EU negotiations on Thursday and Friday of last week. It is as though the media unit of 10 Downing Street sat down beforehand and wrote the script. It went as follows:

Thursday Morning: Plucky David Cameron faces tough negotiations against the massive EU bureaucracy and various politicians from EU member states that want to protect their vested interests;

Thursday Afternoon: The leaders from members states are putting up stout resistance to Cameron’s common-sense ‘reforms’ but Cameron is persistent;

Friday Morning: Stories are released during the talks that show that the negotiations are tough but Cameron is prepared to hold-out. So we are told that Cameron had only 4 hours sleep on Thursday/Friday night and that UK negotiators needed ‘proper teabags’ to keep them going through the night;

Friday Afternoon: Downing Street – which usually only releases upbeat stories about how well everything is going – issues press releases mentioning that there are delays and that a deal is in jeopardy;

Friday Evening: Finally, Cameron’s persistence pays off and he gets a fantastic deal. Cameron returns to the UK to announce the date of the UK referendum.

The whole thing sounded suspiciously scripted. After all, the real negotiations were conducted by ‘Sherpas’ or civil servants who do the detailed negotiations. The term ‘Sherpa’ is somewhat self-regarding as real Sherpas risk their lives, carry enormous loads, and are often poorly rewarded. I doubt if we can say the same for senior civil servants, despite the privations of over-night negotiations. But the main point is that these negotiations were probably always going to succeed because of the prior-negotiations but the media story of ‘talks in jeopardy but rescued by tenacious Prime Minister’ plays well at home for a Prime Minister who must start a referendum campaign.

This issue of the pre-planned media opportunity masquerading as reality is by no means new. Evelyn Waugh’s novel Scoop (1954) features Lord Copper, a London newspaper magnate telling the novice war reporter William Boot how an ongoing African war is to be reported in his newspaper, The Beast:

“I never hamper my correspondents in any way. What the British public wants first, last and all the time is News. Remember that the Patriots are in the right and are going to win. The Beast stands with them four-square. But they must win quickly. The British public has no interest in a war which drags on indecisively. A few sharp victories, some conspicuous acts of personal bravery on the Patriot side and a colourful entry into the capital. That is The Beast policy for the war” (Waugh 1954: 42).

The 2006 Israeli war against Lebanon had a similar pre-determined media plan. The only problem was that the ground war and the media story did not match. Israel’s military suffered an unexpectedly large number of casualties and so the carefully-planned media story of a quick and easy victory fell apart.

In Cameron’s case, the heavy-lifting had been done by the senior civil servants, Angela Merkel was on-board, Cameron had already been on a diplomatic charm offensive in a range of European capitals, and so last week’s Brussels negotiations were largely theatre. There was dotting of ‘i’s and crossing of ‘t’s but was the outcome ever in any doubt?