As someone who thinks that Brexit is a rare case of a country opting for its own national decline, there has not been much to laugh about in our politics of late. But at least Brexit has given us a great new Twitter account, namely @BorderIrish, which gives The Irish Border a human voice.
The first thing you see on calling up @BorderIrish is a picture of a classic negotiation scene, three people on either side, between them a giant elephant, and the simple message – ‘there’s me in the room.’
Scroll down a bit and you come across a clip of Theresa May’s recent visit to Northern Ireland and her quote: ‘I will always govern in the interests of the whole community of Northern Ireland.’ ‘Well that’s bollocks,’ @BorderIrish has helpfully, and accurately, commented. And the reason, if I may mix my animals, is that thanks to her majority-losing election gambit, she now relies on a DUP tail to wag the Conservative and Unionist Party dog.
Mrs Foster is not currently First Minister, yet you would not have thought so from Mrs May’s visit. How many of the watching British public would even be aware that it is Sinn Fein, not the DUP, that has the greater representation in the border areas? What effort has Mrs May, or for that matter Mrs Foster, made to bring other parties into the debate about how to deal with the gigantic elephant in the room?
And what progress has been made in resolving the concerns of firms like Lakeland Dairies, whose lorries cross the border 150 times a day, picking up milk at 2,200 family farms? Or the many community groups which have benefited from EU financial support trying and failing to find out where such support comes from in the future? Or the business groups who met recently and spoke of their reliance on the single market, their need for workers from the EU, and the free movement of capital? Or border farmer John Sheridan who has met EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier, and fears if the pro-no deal Brextremists get their way, the UK will become – Mr Sheridan’s words not mine – ‘a third world country.’
It was scandalous during the referendum, and has been since it, how little the politics of Northern Ireland seems to concern the Brextremists hellbent on Brexit whatever the cost and the chaos. But the issue has certainly played its part in shifting public opinion throughout the UK, not least on the issue of whether the government seems to know what it is doing. On the latest poll, more in a moment.
The huge questions asked by people like Mr Sheridan have not had adequate answers, beyond platitudes, despite Mrs May and Mrs Foster having over two years to think of them. You can get a lot done in two years. I think back to the build up to the Good Friday Agreement, when Tony Blair made rather more visits to Northern Ireland than Mrs May has managed. We took some very difficult questions, and tried to find answers that could command widespread support. Decommissioning. Early release of prisoners. A new police force. New political relationships and institutions. None of them easy. All of them fraught. And certainly, none of them adequately solved by everyone saying ‘we’ll work it out somehow’ as deadlines loomed.
Brexit gave Mrs May’s government one very big question regarding Northern Ireland … how to maintain the frictionless border, such an important part of the Good Friday Agreement, when the two parts of Ireland become separate political and economic entities, and the Irish border the UK’s only land border with the EU? It was Mrs May with Mrs Foster’s support, not the EU, or indeed the people who voted Leave, who decided Leave meant leaving the single market and the customs union, inflating the size of the elephant many times over.
Two years on, they are still in ‘we’ll work it out somehow’ mode. Forgive me if I am unconvinced. And forgive me for scepticism turning to fear when ministers blithely tell us that ‘technology’ will solve the problem for them.
One by one, the Brexit fantasies have fallen away. Our special relationship with the US would insulate us against any downside from leaving Europe. Well, how does that look two years on, with America First and Britain way down the list of Trump’s priorities, and Putin looking like a closer ally than May? We would be able to strike trade deals before leaving, so that the gap left by departure from the Single Market would be filled quickly and ‘easily’ (Liam Fox’s word.) Mr Fox has become one of the world’s most travelled men, and the deals he can show for his air miles? The words ‘virtually nil,’ spring to mind – the same words Boris Johnson used to predict the financial cost of leaving. Forty billion pounds later …
The Brexit scene so bad, frankly, that when criminality is exposed, both sides in Parliament barely react. The illegalities of Vote Leave, the data abuse, the possible Russian collusion, huge questions about the financing of the DUP’s role in the Leave campaign, shrug of the shoulders, nothing to see here, move on.
There is an awful lot to see when you are talking about the most important issue facing our country since the Second World War.
All they have left is ‘will of the people,’ and fatalism. That is it. But what if the will of the people changes? Polling from late May 2018 shows that the 61% of the population of Northern Ireland are in favour of staying in the Customs Union and Single Market. The same polling also showed, that if presented with the opportunity, 69% of the population would vote to remain in the EU. This is an increase of 13 percentage points from the 2016 referendum. Have recent events, such as the Cabinet implosion over the so-called Chequers agreement, done anything to reverse that trend? I doubt it. And Sky Data’s poll indicates clearly that despite the Government, the Labour Party and most of the media saying for two years that Brexit is a done deal, and all will work out, the public are not buying the message.
Just one in ten thinks the government are handling Brexit well. More and more people are feeling gloomier about what Brexit seems to mean. And the argument for a People’s Vote on the final deal is clearly gaining ground with the public. According to Sky, which gave voters three options, staying in the EU beats both Mrs May’s Chequers deal and no deal.
The country has not come together behind the government’s Brexit vision. Hardline leavers see Chequers as an unworkable compromise (and they are not wrong.) More reasonable opinion has been somewhat spooked by talk of stockpiling food and medicine in the event of the no deal which the Brextremists campaigned to be out there as an option, but from which they now want the actual impact to be hidden.
Leavers won the vote on June 23 2016, but they have been losing the argument ever since. The Brexit they promised is not on offer. The claims made for it are not materialising. The lies told for it are being exposed. The tests set for it are not being met.
That is why, with Cabinet, Parliament, both main parties, and above all the country as divided as ever, the case for a People’s Vote on the final deal is growing. And it is precisely because they sense the will of the people changing that Brextremists fear the people having the final say. The people want the right decisions made. The politicians prefer to live with unicorns, delusions, and gigantic great elephants. Or go and holiday, and wish it wasn’t happening. It is. It is a mess. And that is why the change of course offered by a People’s Vote is becoming more and more attractive to patriots who do not wish for the UK to go into decline and chaos.