Not for the first time, the issues of Ireland and Europe are causing a massive crisis for the British government
This is no way to run a whelk stall. The sight of Theresa May having to scrap carefully orchestrated plans to announce a deal with the European Commission President, Jean -Claude Juncker, and rushing out to confess that that was now on hold because of the opposition to it from the Democratic Unionist Party, leaves her a laughing stock in Europe. The Irish Prime Minister who believed the issue of the Irish border had been settled as left fuming. At home, she looked even more like damaged goods and the anger on her back benches was palpable.
This all followed the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, giving her own press conference where she told Theresa May, several hundred miles away in Brussels, that a deal envisaging close "alignment" between Northern Ireland and the European Union, and therefore the Irish Republic, was unacceptable. The DUP is the Conservative’s coalition partner whose votes in the House of Commons gives May a majority, following her botched June snap general election.
What May was signing up to was that, effectively, Northern Ireland would remain part of the EU’s single market and customs union in all but name, in order to avoid a hard border between it and the Republic. The DUP rejected any notion that there could be a different regulatory settlement for it and for the rest of the United Kingdom. They also rushed to point out that the Scottish and Welsh governments and the Mayor of London had rushed to say if this was the case then why not for them.
But increasingly it looks like May was not opting for a different set up in Northern Ireland and that she and her top EU official, Olly Robbins, were prepared not just to concede close “alignment” between Northern Ireland and the EU, but also “regulatory alignment” where EU and British rules essentially mirror each other, what finance and corporate capital wants.
In other words, a “soft” Brexit. Brexiteers have already been alerted to this by talk of a €50 billion pay off to the EU by the British government and reports that during a transition period while Britain leaves the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice will still apply (and it might always be there to represent EU citizens living in Britain). This flies n the face of what Brexiteers meant by “taking control.”
If it emerges that May is prepared to see the UK permanently tied into EU laws and regulations then civil war threatens in the Tory Party. The divisions over the EU in the Tory ranks are as gangrenous as ever. The Brexiteers are ready to blow their tops. Remember, it’s not just the likes of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, or even the Brexiteer backbenchers, the majority of the Tory membership voted Leave.
This is why people like Jacob Rees-Mogg suddenly discovered his support for the DUP.
May claims she can resume talks in Brussels later this week and seal a deal. It seems a hard order.
The Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar is not just furious but he has his own domestic problems, facing a likely General Election because of a domestic political scandal which has shaken his government. He can’t be seen to back down over border controls because that will be seized on by his opponents.
If a soft Brexit deal covered not just Northern Ireland but the whole of the UK that might satisfy the DUP but then create a domestic crisis on the other side of the Irish Sea.
What May has done here is intertwine two of the biggest historical problems facing the British state over the last century and a half: the Irish Question and the issue of Britain’s relationship to Europe. It is true that the Irish Question is not so serious as it was back in the days of Gladstone and Asquith when it effectively destroyed the Liberal Party and solidified the Conservative and Unionist Party as the party of empire and the ruling class. The reason why it is not so serious lies in the decline of Britain and of Northern Ireland.
When the Six County state was created (leaving three counties of Ulster under Dublin rule) the Belfast area was home to major shipbuilding, engineering and textile industries and as of key strategic importance for British control of the Atlantic. Today that’s history.
But the partition of Ireland remains unresolved business. The fact that Northern Ireland voted to Remain in the EU, despite the DUP championing Leave has strengthened what many see as the inevitability of Irish unity.
It also created the problem for the British government of how to square Brexit with the commitments it made in the Good Friday Agreement which copperfastens the Northern Irish peace process.
It is hard to see Theresa May navigating these stormy waters. Few believe she can lead the Tories into another general election having lost her overall majority in June. What is keeping her in Downing Street is the lack of any credible replacement, and the Tories’ fears that a leadership contest would deepen divisions.
Another factor keeping the Tories knifing May now is their fear of Corbyn winning an election, which would have to follow a leadership switch. That is an ear shared by the DUP who know Corbyn and McDonnell both champion Irish unity.
For those of us who want an end to Tory rule, the key thing is not just to sit watching all this chortling. By all means do that, but let’s mobilise to drive May and her crew out.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.