On Brexit, Theresa May risks talking, walking into political oblivion

UK Prime Minister Theresa May. [Photo, File]

The word ‘Brexit’ is probably the latest addition to the English dictionary. Two years of debating and planning have ended in stalemate, and it now appears that Britain will crash out of the European Community on March 29, rather than leave with a dignified exit. The consequences of non agreement appear disastrous, but the most threatening is that of the restoration of a hard border between Ireland – EU member – and Northern Ireland, which is legally part of the UK, but will thereafter not enjoy the benefits of membership like the other 27 countries that are in the union. 

Membership of the European Union had offset the impact of political divisions along the border and resulted in free movement of goods and people between the two parts of the previously divided island. That relaxation of controls was reinforced by the Good Friday Peace Agreement of 1998, and for two decades, normality was restored to living, if not to politics.

However, the possibility of a hard border with security and customs checks not only threatens freedoms and peace, it also negatively reminds the Irish of how painful and impoverishing living under borders created to protect British interests really was. Half a century ago, the British army cratered hundreds of roads leading from the North to the South of the Island. Every weekend, our local communities in a harambee effort refilled and reopened the same roads in protest. Confrontation and resistance continued for up to a year.  Eventually, Westminster approved the bombing of bridges on rivers linking the two jurisdictions and only a handful of controlled crossing points remained linking the people of the small island. 

The thought of returning to a hard border with its customs and security restrictions is unacceptable to the people of Ireland. They would almost certainly tear down with their bare hands any wall or structures intended to control business and movement. It could also pretty soon lead to a referendum, whereby voters north and south would be given voice on the unification of the country, ending the union with Britain and a united Ireland retaining membership of the EU.

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Ireland’s relationship with Britain has been very ambiguous over the years. Closest neighbours, fiercest rivals, Ireland was Britain’s first colony and remains its last, 800 years later. However, England has provided a home and work for millions of Irish, while inter-marriage has gone on for decades. There are of course some who delight in the mess that their more illustrious neighbours have found themselves in. However, most acknowledge that it is sad to see that no one is able to prevent the inevitable self-harm and destruction that Britain seems determined to inflict on itself.

As political commentator Fintan O’Toole says, Britain is a country that once had colonies all over the world, but is now redefining itself as an oppressed nation that needs liberation from the European nations. The re-emergence of nationalism on a global scale impacted Britain tremendously due to the imaginary oppression blamed on the influx of European citizens and Brussels bureaucracy. 

But no reason can adequately explain why Britain chose the route it has and Theresa May is incapable of conveying what she and her government really want. What is at the basis of the chaos? It appears there are two conflicting notions that might explain the mess. On the one hand is the sense of superiority, whereby Britain cannot accept to be an equal member of a union that has its foundations on the principle of equality. After centuries of Empire, being top dog was the norm; now it is difficult to tolerate other views. Many desire a return to the glory days of the Empire or to launch Empire Mark II. On the other hand, there is this sense of grievance that they are getting a bad deal. Put that together and Britain appears to be setting out to dominate the world again while throwing off the shackles of dominance of the EU. Bizarre and crazy, but that is the deadly concoction. 

In particular, there is the strong lament that after winning two world wars in the twentieth century, they must now bow and yield to Germany who have emerged as a strong and united country, while arguably being the most important member of the EU. March 29 is fast approaching and despite her bravado and relentless energy, Teresa May will talk and walk herself into political oblivion while leaving a divided, shattered nation in her wake. The Irish are meanwhile watching carefully and planning for every possible outcome.

- Gabriel Dolan [email protected] @GabrielDolan1

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