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Brexit and the border

Comment & Opinion

MAY’S METTLE During a gruelling press conference last Thursday evening, Theresa May vowed to fight on as UK Prime Minister Thursday, holding firm amid a wave of resignations and demands for her to step down.

NO matter what one’s political persuasion, the tenacity and calmness displayed by British Prime Minister Theresa May over the last week must be admired. As the latest crisis in the Brexit debacle unfolds she remains on message. Whether standing at the despatch box in the House of Commons answering a barrage of questions for three hours last Thursday, or in a radio studio the following morning reassuring a caller that the draft deal – published the previous day – would ensure his medicines were still available, Mrs May was composed.
Indeed, she explained to the caller, with an almost maternal warmth that she herself is a diabetic and that her daily insulin injection was manufactured in Denmark.
The latest twist in the saga led to the resignations of two of her ministers, Dominic Raab, who was Brexit Secretary, and Esther McVey, who was Work and Pensions Secretary, as well as a slew of other MPs. Meanwhile MP Jacob Rees-Mogg leads the charge regarding a vote of no confidence in May.
Ironically, this melodrama was all unfolding while the draft plan was being welcomed broadly on this side of the Irish Sea. This was fundamentally due to the fact that the ‘soft border’ between the Republic and Northern Ireland would be maintained through the backstop. Significantly, this essential protection ensures the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement and Northern Ireland’s status within the EU’s regulatory and customs arrangements.
Northern Ireland’s special privileges within the draft plan is one of the key bones of contention for hardline Brexiteers. It is obviously now a hot political potato because of the DUP’s confidence and supply leverage by its ten MPs’ support for the minority Tory government.
It is unsurprising that Irish Times columnist, Stephen Collins explored the parallels between the challenge that faced Michael Collins almost a century ago and that facing Mrs May now over ‘the border question’. Collins too faced a divided cabinet on his return from London with the terms of the Anglo Irish Treaty which, within a year, had led to the bitter Civil War whose legacy still reverberates in Irish party politics.
Indeed, Michael Collins proved prescient when in the hours after signing the Articles of Agreement for a Treaty between Britain and Ireland, he said: “I tell you this, early this morning I signed my death warrant.”
Whether Theresa May survives the threatened vote of no confidence is a moot point in the chaos that continues to envelope the UK’s attempted divorce from the EU. Brexit is bigger than any one politician or, moreover, political party at this stage.
However, it appears that Theresa May will survive in the medium term despite the threats from within her party because, fundamentally, who really wants to take on the poisoned chalice that Brexit has proven to be?
Perhaps the bigger question is, what is causing the rise of nationalism and, moreover, nativism in many European countries? The so-called migrant crisis – a key factor in the Brexit referendum – has led to a swing to right-wing parties and far-right support in a number of European nations. But closing borders, as Donald Trump is attempting to do in the US, will not resolve this complex issue.
Nor will replicating the traditional and tribalist ‘No Surrender’ mantra of Edward Carson and Ian Paisley in Northern Ireland. Rather, it will prove to be a retrograde step in the progressive ethos of pluralism and tolerance that all of us – no matter what our creed or colour – should espouse.