Northern Ireland and Brexit: the elephant in the room

I have been listening to more debate than usual on the topic of Britain’s exit from the European Union as the hour approaches today when Parliament promises to settle the matter with a final vote on PM May’s motion in favor of the deal negotiated over the past two years. This has led me to an epiphany: Britain could and perhaps should leave the EU and Ireland simultaneously.

Ever since I first lived in Britain during the Thatcher years, it has been evident to me that the English are of two minds where involvement in the European Project is concerned. This taciturn attitude has deep roots. Thus, in the current debate, there is a strong feeling that, for all the advantages of membership in the EU, the perceived loss of sovereignty weighs heavily. The last straw was the immigration issue though it is more the Brussels provenance of policy than the policy itself which grates on the British soul. The UK attempted repeatedly over decades to change the EU. Its failure led to the referendum which is the basis for Brexit.

One of the benefits of membership in the EU has been the softening of the border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the island. Now, with Brexit, the extremely unpleasant question of Northern Ireland’s separation is resurrected. In truth, the matter was never fully settled.

Were it not for the Irish question, Brexit could be managed in a straightforward manner. Britain seeks independence from Europe at the political level. Free trade is another matter. In the end, a status similar to Norway’s could be negotiated easily except for Northern Ireland.

The Brexit debate has befuddled all involved, I submit, because the core issue at stake, Northern Ireland’s status, cannot be discussed. Instead, the issue is referenced unhelpfully as a “backstop” provision of May’s proposed deal. Brexiteers see through this deal as an exit which is not an exit: the compromise reached to keep a soft Irish border means that, for all intents and purposes, the UK remains within the EU. The solution, I submit, is for the Irish question to be debated as part and parcel of the Brexit question.

Free of Brussels as well as the Irish problem, Britain will be free to position itself in the next great free trade project: the Silk Road (clumsily aka Belt and Road). Connecting China with Europe through Eurasia is the largest and most global project ever undertaken. It incorporates some of the world’s most politically and economically isolated regions: from Kazakhstan to Serbia. Britain’s contribution, as always, will be its keen sense of commercial organization, finance, and law. An enormous opportunity for a new world order.

Notable replies

  1. ACD says:

    Britain would have to deal with the politics of Protestant voters residing in N Ireland. Conceivably, Britain also would experience large immigration and would have to absorb them into an initially smaller economy. Eventually, the economic opportunities for Britain would be difficult to overstate as its scope of free trade possibly is expanded globally. Ireland’s economy would grow and its island integrity would enhance sovereign powers.

  2. When I read each sentence of your comment I am at a loss for what each actually means. It seems each is a thought on a much larger and more complicated situation. Things involving religion and politics and history. Is there a common state of existence that the people are looking for or is this such a mess that it can not be collectively resolved and people must just learn to live with those they get along with and build tall walls to keep everyone else out? The United States has 50 different collections probably as rich and diverse from each other as any in the world and we manage just fine. What is the problem with England or is it Great Britain or the United Kingdom or whatever it is called. Why can’t everybody just get along? Is it all just a religious war between different Gods? Are there no adults in the room?

  3. ACD says:

    Update (8 April '19). It now appears likely that Britain will revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU, as this writer persuasively argues:

    If Britain does remain, then the logical next step would be to repeat the referendum. For the sake of avoiding the Northern Ireland problem, the odds are that a repeated referendum will be indefinitely and inimically postponed.

  4. I had relatives there in 910 (the year) and GB will last longer than humanity. The AIs will keep it going until the end. The end. Where the universe ends.

  5. ACD says:

    This is nonsense. Please stop.

  6. ACD says:

    Some historic perspective:

    “London merchants and traders had been thriving on duties and profits reaped from their absolute control of the wool trade, and the new arrangement sought by Giano would have blown their monopoly sky-high… even though the country no longer produces much in the way of commodities, the idea of a fortress England, self-interested and protectionist, patrolling its own borders, rebuffing overtures from foreign interlopers like poor Giano, still lives on.”

  7. @ACD I’m currently in Ireland. I’ve been here for almost two months, and will be here until the end of August. So it has been very interesting to see this Brexit situation up close. We’re so used to absorbing everything in the context of the media, which is always so different from a first hand glance. But I have talked to many people in Ireland about it and the responses are all the same, fear of a hard border returning and all the militants that might come with it. It’s easy to understand that, naturally. The country has been through a lot, and though there’s histories on both sides, I think it’s unfortunate that after all the fighting and agreements that sense of peace and independence is still a gathering storm.

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