The Tories' Brexit deal puts undue focus on the British border in Ireland and is out of step with public opinion, argues Reuben Bard-Rosenberg
One of my favourite characters in Peaky Blinders was Inspector Campbell (Sam Neill), the Irish Protestant police officer charged with bringing Birmingham to heel. The authorities were losing their grip on the city, and hoped that bringing in the ultra-reactionary moral fervour of their imperial frontiersmen - along with their experience of counterinsurgency - would give the state the upper hand at home.
The motif is a familiar one. It was white "Africanista" troops who formed the cutting edge of Franco's insurgency against the Spanish Republic. It was Prussian Junkers, who'd expanded German power eastwards at the point of the sword, who were brought in to crush the German revolution. The imperial frontier alters the domestic political balance. After last year's election, the people of England were reawakened to the fact that their state continued to sustain a large overseas colony; the DUP, the sort of hard-right political force that a confessional occupation creates, now held the balance of power in Westminster.
What makes the present situation interesting is that Orange influence over Westminster has expanded at a moment when English Unionism has never been weaker. If you were to exclaim "Home Rule is Rome Rule!" to the average denizen of London, they would be probably look at you very quizzically indeed. Just as Belfast is no longer a key part of Britain's commercial system, the cause of "Ulster" is less-and-less a prominent part of popular British patriotism. And this was the case even before English people had suffered prolonged exposure to Arlene Foster.
And this has implications for the politics surrounding Brexit. What is striking is how little grandstanding there has been in England over the cause of our bowler-hatted brethren. The issue continues to excite Tories - both because they need Unionist votes in Parliament, and because of the party's historic connection with the Orange cause. Yet within society at large, politicians have not placed great reliance upon the Ireland connection to popularise their view of how Brexit should be done. When commentators talk about "taking back control" they are not talking about Derry.
As such many people - Brexiteer and Remainer - will be wondering why on earth Britain's future relationship with the EU currently appears to hinge on the issue of Britain's relationship with its colony in Ireland. Amidst negotiations that have huge social, economic and democratic implications, people will wonder why Ulster Unionism, of all things, is the issue that so many Tories have picked to play hard ball over. People will look with incredulity at Arlene Foster’s demand for a Schroedinger’s Northern Ireland, that is at once outside the customs unions, whilst simultaneously benefitting from frictionless trade with the rest of Ireland, and still in the UK. People will wonder why these people hold the balance of power at Westminster. I dare say an English border poll on our constitutional relationship with the six counties might produce some very interesting results indeed.
The argument that imposing different regulatory regimes on Northern Ireland than those that pertain in the rest of Britain doesn’t even make sense in its own terms; the government of the six counties has always been a special case within the United Kingdom for the simple reason that it is a colony. This is why some people were granted two-votes for the Stormont Parliament right up to 1968, why its police force was a paramilitary organisation from day one, why its current parliament operates on a special communal basis of power-sharing, aimed at keeping in check the tensions that have been produced by an occupation based upon confessional supremacy, and why the province is currently governed by civil servants amidst the breakdown of the quasi-parliamentary system.
Without a doubt, progressive opinion has been split on many matters concerning Britain’s relationship with Europe. But one thing we absolutely should be able to unite upon is that the only sensible way to resolve the Irish issues thrown up by the negotiation is to get rid of the British border in Ireland. The idea that Britain and Ireland should, in perpetuity, have their trade and economic policies aligned by the external, unelected force that is the EU, so that the dysfunctional Good Friday system can continue limping on is eminently ridiculous. It is time to demand something better.
Reuben Bard-Rosenberg is a socialist activist and radical folk music promoter.
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