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Brexit ‘purity’ is breaking up the union. Just ask the people of Belfast | Nick Cohen


Brexit is the plague that will still be infecting Britain when Covid has gone. It spreads unnoticed because neither government nor opposition shows the smallest interest in finding a vaccine. The public doesn’t blame them because it is sick of hearing about the sickness. I understand why. I am sick of writing about it. But given that the Labour party won’t hold our leaders to account, it remains a matter of democratic propriety to remind voters that the Brexit movement lied to them.

The crisis Brexit brought to Northern Ireland passes most people by as well. But the possible breakup of your country should not be a small matter, nor should the danger that it might bring violence with it.

Before the 2016 referendum, Arlene Foster said it was “disgraceful” of Tony Blair and John Major to warn Brexit could jeopardise the unity of the UK. Foster was then first minister of Northern Ireland and leader of the Democratic Unionist party, which enjoyed hegemonic control of the Ulster unionist vote. In the space of a little over a month this spring the DUP deposed her, then deposed her successor, Edwin Poots, and is now looking for a new leader and a coherent strategy as the consequences of Brexit destroy the party and the unionist cause.

In 2016, Kate Hoey, a nominally Labour and de facto ultra-Ulster unionist politician, was bustling round the TV studios to announce that Major and Blair’s warning of national disintegration showed their “economic illiteracy”. Last week, she was reduced to trying to explain to angry loyalists in the market town of Newtonards, County Down, how the hard Brexit she had championed had partitioned the UK and put a border in the Irish Sea.

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“I refuse to blame Boris,” she said, even though anyone not lost in self-delusion could see that “Boris” had sold out Northern Ireland to appease the English right in Ukip and on his own backbenches. As I have said before, it’s not the liars you need to worry about, it’s the people who want to be lied to. Their number includes not just a large proportion of Conservative voters but the supposed hard men and women of Ulster unionism.

For all their flag-waving, they don’t understand that the Conservative party is a unionist party in name only. English Tories are fine with the UK as long as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland let them have their way. Whenever there’s a choice between the need to keep the United Kingdom united and the imperatives of Brexiter posturing, the posturing always wins. Conservatives will not make the smallest concession to hold the country together.

“In 50 years’ time,” one Belfast politician told me, “students will be writing essays on what on earth unionists were thinking when they went along with Brexit.” There isn’t a rational answer now and won’t be in the 2070s. Brexit has made a united Ireland possible, maybe inevitable. It has pushed young and bright voters from the Protestant tradition away from the DUP towards the more moderate Ulster Unionist party, the centrist Alliance party and, in a few cases, the nationalist SDLP.

Johnson could ease the tension in Ireland and remove the need for checks on 80% of the goods crossing into Northern Ireland by accepting European Union food safety and sanitary standards. The Irish government reported that Joe Biden had told Johnson at the G7 summit that a temporary agreement on food standards would pose no barrier to a UK-US trade deal.

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Johnson won’t do it, because an agreement with the EU would dilute the doctrinal purity of Brexit. Conservatives once accused the left of being in thrall to the utopian fantasies of continental philosophers. Now, sovereignty has become for Tories what Marxist-Leninism was for communists: a perfect theoretical idea that cannot be questioned, whatever the suffering or cost.

Even now, as unionism disintegrates in the 100th anniversary year of the creation of the Northern Irish statelet, Ulster unionists join with Conservatives in refusing to accept compromise. The DUP says it hates the border in the Irish Sea but it is not demanding that Johnson accepts EU standards to mitigate its worst consequences. Compromise on the border has become like compromise on the use of the Irish language in Northern Ireland, which did for the career of Poots (who, after his 21 days as leader of the DUP, will be lucky to be the answer to a pub quiz question in 50 years’ time). The DUP wants the border’s complete destruction or nothing and as so often in the history of Ulster unionism will likely end up with nothing.

Alternatively, Johnson might tell the people of Northern Ireland the truth that they are in a great position. His hard Brexit left them in the EU single market. They can say to any multinational company that, uniquely in Europe, an investment in Northern Ireland offers unconstrained access to both the British and EU markets.

Johnson cannot tell the truth and not just because a history of charlatanry renders him incapable of speaking plainly. To please his base, he needs to pick a fight with the old enemy of the EU and to boom out threats to tear up agreements he signed and break promises he made. What else can he do? If he sold the advantages of staying in the single market to one part of the UK, the rest of the UK might wonder why he had gone to such lengths to take us out of it.

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The consequences are still coming, however bored the wider public is with the unfolding of Brexit and the fate of Northern Ireland. Last week, figures arrived showing British food and drink exports to the EU fell by £2bn in the first three months of 2021 and yet more businesses reported that they could not operate at full capacity because EU workers had vanished. Meanwhile, the OECD warned that the UK could suffer more economic damage than other G7 industrialised nations because the impact of leaving the EU heightens the disruption brought by the pandemic.

Stupidity marches doggedly on, whether we ignore it or not, weakening individuals’ capacity to rebuild their lives and threatening the integrity of the country the right professes to love and is doing so much to destroy.

Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist



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