In 2010 a mining accident in Chile came to global attention. This potential disaster, and subsequent rescue, are remembered with pride by Chileans because it was their own rescue services, using their own equipment, who got the trapped miners out.
It was also Chile’s fault that the mine collapsed to begin with, but that is not the point. Chile is still living the dream of every post-colonial country – showing itself more capable than its former (Spain) and present day (USA) colonial masters, even if only in dealing with this one self-inflicted wound.
The Republic of Ireland shares that dream. It has been independent from the UK for almost a century, but you would never know it. Its main political parties are the descendants of the sides which fought the Irish Civil War over what the proper relationship with the UK should be post-independence. Irish who want better lives still routinely emigrate to the UK or North America, even at times of domestic prosperity, and live in the well-established “Irish quarters” of cities, which are usually amongst the poorest neighbourhoods, despite the strength and popularity of a specifically Irish culture worldwide.
Now Ireland is finally living that dream, just like Chile, and in much bolder terms. Unlike Chile however it hasn’t actually done anything. The most incompetent British government in living memory, or perhaps ever, has turned the relationship between the two countries completely on its head through its mishandling of Brexit. It has given Ireland the keys to the whole project, even as it unravels before everyone’s eyes.
All the post-Soviet countries seeking to shake off their Russian heritage must be dancing Irish reels. This poor little European outpost, whose people are the butt of jokes about being thick and stupid, now has the upper hand and will exploit it to the full. If the UK government had had any idea what it was doing, we would never have seen this day, as it still holds extraordinary advantages over the Republic. But day after day it has behaved exactly the way the Irish are supposed to behave in all those jokes, and may well have left itself no way out of its present infirmity.
Laughing on the other side of their faces
Typical Irish jokes run something like, “an Irish fella saw a man with two dogs. He told him “those two dogs are very much alike, especially that one””. Sometimes Irish politicians themselves live up to the stereotype – it is recorded that a former MEP, speaking to his constituents in 1990 about the impending introduction of the European Single Market, stated, “My friends, there is no doubt that 1992 is going to happen. The only question, is when.”
The pubs of Dublin must now be resounding with English jokes along the same lines. “What’s the difference between a hard border and a soft border? It depends what time it is in London!”
The EU is rightly determined to defend its borders after Brexit. If the UK is no longer a member, this includes the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Some sort of customs control must be established which will make it a “hard border” – unlike the present one, which hundreds of Irish on either side cross daily for work, shopping or tourism due to their common EU citizenship.
Theresa May’s minority government is being kept in power by a “confidence and supply” arrangement with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), May herself having squandered her party’s majority. This basically means that the DUP is given lots of money for Northern Ireland projects in exchange for voting with the government if the opposition tables a Motion of No Confidence, thus ensuring it survives.
Northern Ireland voted for Brexit, and the DUP represents the largest section of the majority unionist community there. But even though its supporters want Northern Ireland to remain in the UK and not join the Republic, they also want to keep going across that border daily. Whenever border controls are tightened in any country we are told it is to “combat terrorism”. Northern Ireland has seen more terrorism than almost anywhere, yet now it wants to maintain the same open border which facilitated much of it.
Theresa knows her government will disappear if the soft border does. But her attempts to cut a deal acceptable to all have predictably let the cat out of the bag. Offering a special regulatory framework to Northern Ireland, which would in effect mean that it alone remained with the Single Market and Customs Union, was met with outrage in Wales, which had nevertheless voted for Brexit, and Scotland and London, which hadn’t.
Local political leaders argued, quite sensibly, that if Northern Ireland can get a special deal, why can’t their regions? Even the DUP had a problem with Theresa’s offer, as it threatened Northern Ireland’s position as an integral part of the United Kingdom. It wants a soft border, but not one which gives it a different status from the rest of the UK, and thus makes a united Ireland more likely.
On December 8th a “breakthrough” deal was finally agreed, which will allow further Brexit negotiations to proceed . The DUP has cautiously welcomed it, but has had to compromise on the border, despite claiming the contrary. Theresa May has had to compromise on almost everything, including accepting European Court of Justice jurisdiction. The Republic of Ireland however says “all goals have been achieved“.
Until now, the Brexit talks have foundered over the issue of the Irish border. They are only now able to restart because Ireland has told the rest of the EU it is happy with the UK’s revised position – although all the UK has gained is an agreement to hold further talks, which may again break down over any number of issues. Irish PM Leo Varadkar has every right to fly to Westminster and parade around saying as Hitler is alleged to have said when he entered Poland – “So, WE are the masters now, huh!”
Only the English
Leo Varadkar has gained much international publicity for being openly gay. In a very conservative society such as Ireland, where divorce and access to contraception are still hot political issues, his supporters see his elevation as evidence that Ireland is now a progressive country, more in tune with the ways of the world and thus better positioned to prosper than the UK.
Like May, Varadkar is kept in place by a confidence and supply agreement, though his is with the main opposition party, Fianna Fail. So he should be on equally shaky ground every time he proposes anything Fianna Fail doesn’t like. But he survives because, most importantly for the Irish, he is not behaving like the clowns in London are doing.
For the past year, UK Brexit Secretary David Davis, once touted as a future Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister, has said that the government has conducted impact assessments into the effect Brexit will have on different sectors of the economy. He has repeatedly refused to release these on the grounds that this would harm the UK’s negotiating position. Both within and outside parliament there has been growing disquiet about what those assessments say, and how the government can proceed with Brexit without telling the public what it thinks the consequences will be, good or bad.
Finally parliament demanded that Davis release these assessments to the relevant select committee, though not the general public, so it could do its job of providing oversight of the work of government. He then said that these assessments were not individual documents, as he had implied, but were embedded within other work. He also missed a deadline for releasing them to parliament, despite being warned by The Speaker, the non-partisan chair of parliamentary debates, that he would be in contempt of parliament, a serious offence, if he did so.
When the assessments demanded were finally released, in partial form, much of the information had been redacted. This wasn’t good enough for the committee, which asked whether the documents presented were actually the impact assessments it had asked for. In response, Davis said the exact opposite of what he had been saying for over a year – the impact assessments he had been asked to hand over did not exist, never had existed and had never even been begun .
Whether this is true, or the documents have been shredded, no one knows. But it is obvious that if any studies really had been undertaken, and they supported the government continuing with Brexit, we would know all about them. Davis also then tacitly admitted that some sort of assessment had been made after all, by stating that leaving the EU would be a “paradigm shift” of the same scale as the global financial crisis of 2008. He says he doesn’t like economic modelling, but he worked this out somehow.
Davis has avoided a contempt of parliament charge because The Speaker asked a committee with a Conservative majority on it to decide the matter. But whichever version of his story is closest to the truth, he has lied to parliament all along, in his capacity as a government minister. Ireland has had its own share of political scandals, one of which recently almost toppled the Varadkar government. But while these have an impact on Irish governments, Theresa’s minority administration is still in office because the British political culture has become so bad that no one can get rid of it.
So which country is the best positioned to prosper in the geopolitical world? Ireland joined the then-EEC in 1973, the same year as the UK, in the hope this would reduce its traditional dependence on the UK. It could not have imagined then that, through no positive action of its own, it would be reaping such benefits from this decision.
No cure for stupidity
When the Soviet Union collapsed its former satellites saw opportunities to get their own back on the Russians. Some have joined the EU for this reason, and in the most successful cases (such as Estonia) they are no longer automatically thought of as “ex-Soviet” states, still struggling to emerge from the shadow of that era.
But can you imagine a situation in which modern Russia, whatever its problems, was being dictated to by Estonia? Where the future of Russia was dependent on decisions made by Estonia, which served Estonian interests? Even in the final days of Communism the government of what was left of the USSR was considered more powerful than that of its independent satellites. Now the once-mighty British are lurching from one crisis to another and displaying unparalleled weakness and incompetence at every turn.
When the UK joined the EU this hit a number of parts of its former empire badly. New Zealand in particular was affected by the new trading regime, and was given a special arrangement to help it continue exporting its agricultural products to the UK.
These countries built better relations with their regional neighbours who were not of British descent and diversified their trade. These neighbours also helped them develop, while the British ignored the effects their decision to join the EU was having on former colonies who thought of them as family.
The UK is now going back to these countries asking for similar trade deals to the ones they had prior to 1973. Increasingly, these countries are telling them where they can stick their trade deals. Forced out of a special relationship with the UK, they have found new partners including the EU as a whole. These don’t walk in and claim some sort of right to their lands and resources, even in the case of the US, which is notorious for this.
The UK is the past, the EU still the future despite its problems, and the former British colonies are better positioned to prosper in that future than the UK is. If Davis really did conduct those now non-existent impact assessments, this is what they would have said.
Many of history’s empires, like the old Russian one, still exist culturally if not in terms of borders. Ireland has finally destroyed the remains of the British Empire by calling the shots when no one ever thought it would be able to. But it is not the strength of Ireland, but the British behaving the way they say Irish people do, which has brought this about.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.