Living With Brexit


From top: Simon Coveney and Boris Johnson in Brexit talks last November: Brendan Ogle

I suppose I better write something about Brexit. In fact, in the months to come we are all going to have to focus a lot on Brexit and I will return to the issue on many occasions. But I have been somewhat reluctant to write on it to date.

My reluctance does not stem from any lack of interest in the matter, still less from any lack of appreciation of the massive ramifications of current Brexit ‘negotiations’. No. My reluctance here stems from two things.

One is the sheer breadth of the issues and conversations that need to not only happen, but to manifest themselves in a whole series of trade agreements, customs arrangements and treaties. And the second is that, in having that discussion, it is necessary to do so in a way which may seem critical of the parties involved for, to date, the ‘debate’ at a political level has been somewhat surreal.

Let’s begin today by looking at the main positions of the protagonists so far.

They appear to be, in no particular order, the European Union, the Government of Britain and Northern Ireland, the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland, and the government in the Republic of Ireland.

The reality however is that this issue will have lasting and profound effects on the people, the citizens, of Ireland, Britain and the European Union. So how well are those people being served in the process to date?

The European Union

I well remember the night of the Brexit count. A knife edge vote that swung this way, then that, and resulted in a very tight, but profound, outcome – Britain had decided to leave the European Union.

The relationship between the European Union and Britain had always been fraught, and not just from Britain’s side either. Many now forget that Britain’s initial applications to join the then European Economic Community (EEC) in 1963 and 1967 were vetoed by France.

Charles De Gaulle explained this by suggesting that the British economy was ‘incompatible with Europe’, and that he suspected that Britain retained a deep seated hostility to the pan-European project.

It was Edward Heath’s Conservative Government that ultimately brought Britain into the project in 1972. An uneasy ‘union’ was born. When Britain voted to leave the EU on 23 June 2016, it was but the latest of many trysts that country had had with the notion.

In fact, there has hardly been an election in over 40 years there where Europe wasn’t a massively controversial issue. There had even been a previous referendum that voted to ‘Remain’ in 1975, and of course Britain also refused to join the single currency project.

But whether the European Union likes it or not, the massive continent-wide support for a peaceful alliance of nations creating a social project of mutual benefit to citizens is simply not translating into widespread public support for what is now a militarised economic union pursuing aggressive policies of neoliberalism, and behaving in an increasingly anti-democratic manner.

One would have hoped that, in addition to the understandable frustration at EU level with the downright dishonesty that characterised the Brexiteers’ campaigning, the EU would have found this a moment for necessary critical self-analysis too.

For is there not widespread public concern across much of Europe with the current direction of travel? For example, are people not tiring of an elected European Parliament being routinely ignored by an unelected Commission?

Is the EU not increasingly looking like economic imperialism where banks have simply replaced tanks?

And does the 2008 economic catastrophe and the resultant bullying by the EU of Greece, Cyprus and – whisper it – Ireland not sound some type of alarm about whether a ‘one size fits all’ economic model is not just being used as a big stick to punish smaller, less, powerful, nations?

Put bluntly, is the EU currently developing a deeper union-wide democracy, or eroding it? An EU analysis of these questions and suitable reforms that go beyond ‘brit-bashing’ is surely required as even a minimal response to Brexit.

Britain Votes to Leave

Notwithstanding my criticisms of the European Union, the fact is that Britain did not vote to leave it in order to swing back towards socialism, or an alternative to neoliberalism. On the contrary, much of the ‘leave’ campaign was constructed by the far right using nationalism and race hate as electoral battering rams.

Brexiteers like Bill Cash, who campaigned within the Tory party for a referendum for years and who ensnared a gullible David Cameron into conceding one, are overtly on the ‘far right’ of even neoliberal Europe. They sit on their seats, and in their estates of privilege, knowing that they are well-protected from the economic effects of their jingoistic ravings.

That massive sections of what used to be the working (as in, they used to have jobs and industry to work in) class fell for blunt empty nationalism is a sadly predictable consequence of the hollowing-out of industrial Britain, not only by Thatcher, but by her successor Tony Blair and his ‘New Labour’.

Unfortunately almost two years on, while the EU finger wags furiously, the debate in Britain continues to be conducted in these terms. Just listen to Jacob Rees-Mogg – if you can bear to.

With a Prime Minister now utterly lacking in authority, and a riven Tory party steering the ship of state headlong into a glacier, one can only hope that Labour get into power soon and that their recent sensible positioning regarding the required customs union is a portent that sense may yet prevail.

Here’s an interesting thought. Do you suspect that even Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney now wish to see Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street?

I do.

Northern Ireland

While all this goes on, reports suggest that it is the people of Northern Ireland who will suffer economically more than any others post-Brexit. These reports make no differentiation between Orange and Green. They do not differentiate between those who support marriage equality and those who don’t, or those who want an Irish language act and those who don’t.

And the economic effects of Brexit on the people of Northern Ireland will not differentiate between those who admire Arlene Foster, or those who think she has serious ethical questions to answer about the Renewable Heat Incentive overspend.

The DUP have overplayed their hand. Theresa May cannot deliver an open border in Ireland without a customs union, and the EU cannot agree to one without the other. To suggest otherwise is to conduct the debate in an atmosphere of unreality.

What is more, it is an unreality that everyone is aware of yet is playing along with anyway. And, if the DUP’s ‘real’ position turns out to be that they could well live with a ‘hard’ border despite their protestations to the contrary, that must be seen in the context of Sinn Féin having viewed Brexit in the exact opposite way. Since the day of the vote, they have viewed Brexit as a sort of ‘trojan horse’ for a border poll as envisaged by the Good Friday Agreement.

The DUP and SF have so far not managed to work together, even on Brexit alone, in the common interests of the citizens in Northern Ireland as a whole. Such a political consensus has never been more necessary, and it is to be hoped for everyone’s sake in the coming months that it is not as remote as it seems.

Republic of Ireland government

Things are not as good as certain sources would have us believe in the Republic either. To begin with, what was presented as an ‘agreement’ on the Irish aspect in phase one is nothing of the sort. In addition, I can’t get my head around a conundrum which has been on my mind for almost two years now.

What is going to happen if (I think it may be a ‘when’) what emerges is as follows – we either have border-free, tariff-free trade with the EU, or, we have border-free, tariff-free trade with Britain?

But we can’t have both.

What happens when the fantasy notion that everyone in this mess can have everything they want, simultaneously with their neighbours having the exact opposite, dissolves in the smoke and mirrors that it is? We in the South have not had a single discussion that I have heard about that potential outcome.

We haven’t even positioned ourselves between both sides as we ought to have, instead lining up with the EU in a partisan manner which may yet come back to haunt is. After all, if the hard border we are determined to avoid happens anyway, it will be on this island that it will happen.

And, when it comes to installing it and protecting the needs of the EU big guns, don’t be surprised if – just like after the crash of 08 and the austerity that followed – it is the EU which is again punishing us to save the overall project.

Brendan Ogle is a Right2Water Co-Ordinator, Unite’s Political, Education and Community co-ordinator. and blogs every Thursday here

22 thoughts on “Living With Brexit

  1. Andyourpointiswhatexactly?

    Just noting that Simon Coveney looks like he’s thinking “Would he ever just FUPP OFF” in the top photo.

    1. missred

      I think most people feel that way about Boris Johnson at any given time, but yes, his face is holding in some expletives.

    2. Neilo

      Coveney would be better employed telling the parties in the Assembly to fupp off back to the grindstone and wheel. Didn’t need to eyeball this piece as I can live without another dose of Brendan’s alternately soporific and enraging logorrhea. And yes, I’m aware of the irony inherent in highlighting Mr. Ogle’s lack of brevity while using big, fancy words meself. :)

      1. A person

        Its a seriously flawed analysis. Most of the Labour heartlands voted to leave – by up to 70%. Other areas such as London which might be considered more right leaning votes to stay.

        Mr Ogle, again economical with the truth to suit his own agenda. How many houses have he provided since Apollo House?

  2. miserable

    If you were doing your job you would realise the Brexit agreements don’t cover labour rights – only customs union and single market rules. The agenda for the Tories, for the DUP and even it seems for the EU is to allow britain and NI to trade into Europe and in particular Ireland with low labour, environment, and consumer rights – giving them competitive advantage. A race to the bottom about which you and the Unions are utterly unaware. Why use your space for this breezy stuff when you could have addressed this real tangible issue about which the public are in the dark? The unions need to be more professional, and represent their members on this. And don’t say I didn’t tell you

    1. some old queen

      Agreed. Even now, the working conditions of people in the north is appalling. They may have tighter employment laws but they are rarely enforced.

      Unemployment benefit is just above £70 a week and the state abuse to even claim that is shocking. 16% live in social housing, most of whom have no hope of employment because there is no jobs.

      Meanwhile, SF demand a language parity which most of their members can’t even speak let alone read.

      1. ReproBertie

        For the 2,735,284th time, Sinn Féin are not the only party supporting the Irish Language Act. Also, I support gay marriage even though I’m not gay. I support rights for the disabled, even though I’m not disabled. Feel free to add your own “I support X, even though I’m Y” examples. Sinn Féin don’t have to speak a language to see the value in supporting it. If you really want a meanwhile, how about “meanwhile the DUP are pretending the whole cash-for-ash scandal, which collapsed the Assembly, never happened”.

        1. some old queen

          I am all for as gaeilge but it should not be politicised. It certainly should not be used to block the assembly at the most important time in the history of NI because that is the place to utilise the majority opinion on Brexit.

          SF should have made equal marriage the red line issue because that would have garnered support in places they never had before. It would have broken the old guard and once a liberal consensus was achieved, things like parity of the Irish language would have been much easier.

          As for the DUP, they are a lot more Irish than they care to admit because to extract money from the British they have more fiddles going on than in an orchestra.

  3. ReproBertie

    “the European Union, the Government of Britain and Northern Ireland, the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland, and the government in the Republic of Ireland.”

    Government IN the Republic of Ireland? Is that a typo or political statement?

    Ireland is lined up with the EU because the EU is on our side on the issue of the EU/UK border. It’s not that hard to understand. The EU position is one that Ireland has given them. After Sasmach became a reality Ireland spent months discussing the border with the EU before realising that Ireland and the EU coming up with a border solution would potentially cost Ireland political leverage while leaving the British Taoiseach doing nothing to tidy up her own mess. That’s why the emphasis coming from the EU, which speaks for Ireland on this, is that Britain need to come up with an acceptable solution or the border is in the Irish Sea.

  4. Gringo

    Well done, Brendan. The charades will have to stop sometime. We may yet see European police patrolling the border.

    1. some old queen

      The English resistance to the economic migration of eastern Europeans is their own business.

  5. Truth in the News

    The reality is that EU is on a self destruct course and rather oddly the British right wingers don’t want
    to be ruled by Germany and their emerging but well concealed right wing, at the end of the day the Brits
    have done us favor, as whats coming down the tracts is the population shift in the North and the demise
    of Unionism and if the Brits exited Europe about a bill over 11 billion, how long will it take the penny to drop
    when the count up the 8 odd billion the North costs them….coming events cast their shadow and in this
    well in advance…interesting article, keep them coming, and by the way Irish Water has not gone away
    they are still sending out bills, Had one in the post today:

  6. Matt Lucozade: The Only Reader of the Village

    Gwan Brendan. Tell us about trade union co-option during your time at the ESB.

  7. Owen C

    “and the government in the Republic of Ireland”

    I prefer my advice on all things Brexit to come from people who actually know what the name of the country is (and he says it twice, so its not just an oversight)

  8. John

    What about the misery Brendan inflicted on thousands of tax paying commuters when he was involved with ILDA and regularly brought the rail network to a standstill.

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