From top: British Prime Minister Theresa May surrounded by Brexit covers of ‘The Irish World’ newspaper from the past two years; Bernard Purcell
If we have learned anything since 2016 it is that Theresa May – the worst and most charmless consensus builder since Ceausescu – will say, promise, and do anything just to get through the day.
She brought with her from the Home Office a bunker or silo mentality that had no truck with managing expectations or triangulating agreement.
She sowed the seeds for the utterly shaming scandal of the Windrush affair, exposed last year, as the architect of the ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants.
The sole prism through which she regarded Northern Ireland while Home Secretary – and subsequently – was one of containing a potential security threat, certainly nothing ambitious or aspirational.
That fairly low bar was lowered even further when she came to depend on the DUP for a Commons majority.
Today she is in the unusual position of getting mainly positive headlines for once, cheering on her Commons ‘victory’ – the one in which she urged MPs to vote against her own negotiated agreement, the one containing the red lines upon which she insisted – on the advice of her now discredited advisor Nick Timothy, the person who helped her lose the 2017 snap general election.
Her dependence on a small cohort of advisors – the most trusted of whom, and the last remaining, is her financier husband Philip – actively excluded sound, professional advice from experienced and competent diplomats whose careers were damaged if they told the truth.
But today, Mrs May, who had to date achieved her last stay of execution by promising not to lead her party into another General Election, is still in Downing Street having pandered to her party’s hard right Brexiteers, the European ‘Research’ Group and the DUP and this country is closer to either crashing out of the EU with no deal, or the sub-optimal deal she has already agreed with a couple of add-ons.
Given how MPs so singly failed to take control of the Brexit process last night despite a brief hope that they would – save for a non-binding resolution to avoid no deal – the third and fourth options that existed until this week, the prospect of another referendum or general election, appear rather less likely.
In the run-up to it we saw an intensification of the attempts to pin the blame for the mess in which the British government finds itself over Brexit on everybody else, not least Ireland and the rest of the EU.
If one had only the reporting of the main British news outlets to go by, for instance the BBC, or some of its newspapers, one would be left with the impression that Ireland and the EU are imposing the so-called back- stop on the UK.
The backstop, in plain English, is a binding requirement to keep Britain – originally it was just Northern Ireland – in customs and regulatory alignment with with the EU until a better way is found to avoid customs checks on the only land border with the UK.
Nowhere would it be made clear that it was drawn up entirely at the request of Theresa May’s government – as proof of London’s bona fides over Northern Ireland – and endorsed by the cabinet including those who are among its most vocal critics today.
Or, to quote the EU’s deputy chief negotiator Sabine Weyand’s remarks in Brussels this week:
“The result of the negotiation has been very much shaped by the UK negotiators, much more than they actually get credit for. This is a bit like snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. The backstop was very much shaped by UK.”
But that same Withdrawal Agreement drawn up in a tight, secret circle by Theresa May was rejected by a crushing two-thirds majority.
The new unspecified alternative – to placate the ERG and DUP – calls for the backstop to be replaced by unspecified, time limited alternative arrangements that either rely on non-existent technology or allow London to walk away from the commitment unilaterally.
Ms Weyand has said the EU would certainly be prepared to consider “alternative arrangements” on their merits if Downing Street was prepared to suggest them.
As Ms Weyand put it:
“We looked at every border on this earth, every border EU has with a third country – there’s simply no way you can do away with checks and controls. The negotiators have not been able to explain them to us and that’s not their fault; it’s because they don’t exist.”
Mrs May has thrown her lot in with narrow-minded, xenophobic, deluded English nationalists who have weaponised the ignorance of their voters and supporters – some of them in pursuit of high office, others in pursuit of the fortunes to be had from deregulation and disaster capitalism.
And make no mistake, Jeremy Corbyn shows no appearance of coming to the rescue – just as, in these last years of the second decade of the 21st century Tory Brexiteers are wedded to a 19th century fantasy of British exceptionalism and international power, Mr Corbyn is wedded to 19th century understanding of Marxism and economics.
In the EU it appears to be recognised, for now at least, that between reopening the Withdrawal Agreement and a hard Brexit – both of which come at significant political, economic and opportunity cost – a hard Brexit is the lesser of two evils.
That makes it less likely that Ireland will be thrown under the bus.
But if ever there was a time for as many as possible of Ireland’s politicians, north and south, to speak with one voice it is now.
Ireland and the EU will weather it, but it is getting a lot colder over here.
Bernard Purcell is editor of the London-based The Irish World
Theresa May pic: Rollingnews
Last night: Border! Border!