British people may, in time look back at yesterday’s political disarray and see it as point when things started to change. The inglorious moment when Britain unintentionally stepped back from the Brexit precipice and Westminster politics began to regain its composure.
In a day full of misinformation, misrepresentation, dithering and indecision, the sensible intervention made by Sir Ken Clarke, one of the few sane and reasonable voices left in British politics, stands out.
In two short paragraphs he summed up the quandary facing Britain, saying:
“On the question of Europe, this House is divided not just into parties; it is divided into factions. It becomes clear that, at the moment, there is no predictable majority for any single course of action going forward. Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that no other Governments are going to start negotiations with us on any new arrangement while the British continue to explore what exactly it is they can get a parliamentary majority to agree to?
Furthermore, we are strictly bound, quite rightly, to the Good Friday agreement and the issue of a permanently open border in Ireland. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is particular folly for a large faction in this House to continue with their argument that we should insist to the other Governments that the British will have a unilateral right to declare an end to that open border at a time of their choosing? That is why the backstop remains inevitable.”
It is a sad reflection on the current generation of British politicians that the most calm, considered and constructive comments on Brexit come from Clarke and from long retired political leaders such as Major, Heseltine, Brown and Blair.
As one wag observed on Social Media yesterday if this crop of British political leaders had been handling the 1921 Treaty negotiations we would have ended up with a united and independent Ireland that covered the whole island along with half of Wales and the Isle of Man. A result that would have meant no need for today’s Backstop.
The Backstop exists and must exist because of the political reality of the division across this island that established the six northern eastern counties of Ireland as Northern Ireland, a division considerably eased by 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Any attack on the Backstop is de facto an attack on the Good Friday Agreement. It is as simple as that. The Backstop is the default/fallback setting within any Brexit deal that ensures that the border across this island is kept as open and frictionless as possible.
The only way for Westminster to be entirely rid of the Backstop, is to stop Brexit. There can be no Brexit without the Backstop, as that would mean entirely dismantling the Good Friday Agreement – an international agreement between Britain and Ireland.
While there are some in the DUP, Tory and (sadly) the British Labour party who would happily sunder the Good Friday Agreement, they are a tiny minority in Westminster – though there have been moments over the past few weeks when one has wondered whether Corbyn fully grasps this fact.
No amount of misrepresentation and dishonest positioning on the Border and the Good Friday Agreement from the DUP can obliterate the fact that in Northern Ireland voted to Remain in the EU in 2016.
A recent survey from the NI polling firm LucidTalk shows that the majority in the Northern Ireland for remaining in the EU has increased in the intervening two and a half years – from 56% in favour in 2016 to 64% in favour today.
Yet the DUP continues to speak and continues to be heard as if it spoke for the whole of the people of Northern Ireland. It does not. Where once a generation of DUP leaders were content to disregard the views of a sizeable minority, their successors are gleeful in disregarding those of the clear majority.
In such a scenario, how can anyone argue that the views of Westminster must prevail?
A few weeks back I argued here that a second Brexit Referendum, the so-called #PeoplesVote, would be more in Ireland’s national and strategic interests than the Withdrawal Agreement.
That was a time when the Withdrawal Agreement was in the intensive care ward but was at least able to sit up and eat a boiled egg. Today the Withdrawal Agreement has all but flat-lined.
Its only slim hope for survival lies in a heart transplant on the Rond-Point Schuman, but one that can only be executed without breaking the skin or making the slightest incision.
Barring a massive volte-face by the British Labour Party, Westminster looks certain to reject the post-op Withdrawal Agreement, complete with codicils and clarifications, when the “meaningful vote” is eventually called.
That then leaves just two viable options: a No-Deal Brexit, with Britain leaving the EU on WTO terms or, a Second Referendum, where the choices are Remain or the No-deal Brexit.
A No-Deal Brexit represents the worst of all possible worlds for us. It means no transition period, a hardening border, increasing cots for imports and exports. It means political and economic turmoil across this island.
Thankfully, most speakers in the House of Commons yesterday ruled out a No Deal Brexit and this is why I believe yesterday was pivotal.
It was the day on which the Second Referendum became a realistic prospect, not because people became convinced of its merits, but rather because it is the one remaining pathway out of the current impasse.
While there is a third option, a general election, nominally Corbyn’s preferred one, as Ken Clarke says, given the division Brexit has caused within parties, given the range of factions within and across the two main parties, how could an election between resolve Brexit?
Let’s be clear, however. A second referendum will not resolve the Brexit question.
Hard line brexitism is a sizeable movement across British politics, it covers the spectrum from the Tory Right, Rees-Moggian days of Empire brexitism to the Bennite brexitism of Corbyn and the London labour left that sees the EU as the tool of corporate capitalism.
Brexiteers of all these hues will be not be quietened by a second vote that resulted in a Remain majority.
The most (and best) that a second referendum can do is to hit the reset button. It allows both sides to bring the debate back to some pre-2016 point, with both leavers and Remainers keeping their ambitions and hopefully gives time to allow a longer, deeper and better informed Brexit debate, one informed by the emerging mayhem of the past two years.
A second British referendum that backed Britain remaining in the EU for the foreseeable future is every bit as in Ireland’s national interest as it is in the interests of Northern Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales. We should not be so constrained in saying so.
Heaven knows it operated the other way around for long enough.
Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. His column appears here every Tuesday Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney