by Martin Odoni

The European Union has every right to run out of patience with the United Kingdom over its meaningless negotiating position on ‘Brexit’, including the decidedly indecisive stance on the fate of Northern Ireland. Sure enough, the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, is drafting a formal ultimatum for the British Government to make a decision on what Northern Ireland’s relationship with the Republic of Ireland will be after Brexit. The lack of clarity or conviction from the British so far in negotiations has probably been the biggest sticking-point in the whole process, and is doubtless maddening to many in Brussels.

However, I am going to offer a rare moment of sympathy – or at least understanding – to our embattled Prime Minister, Theresa May, and her Brexit Secretary David Davis. In truth, the Conservative Party as a whole has brought the logjam on itself, but however one might get there,  it is never pleasant being in a no-win situation. And there is a possibly insurmountable problem over settling the Irish border that I do not envy them the task of untangling.

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The Good Friday Agreement is irreconcilable with a ‘Hard Brexit’

The six counties of Northern Ireland endured nearly three decades of Protestant/Catholic sectarian conflict – frankly civil war – from the late-1960s to the late-1990s. Although a complete peace has never really been achieved, the province has had two decades of unusual stability, and remarkably little bloodshed, thanks to a treaty agreed between the UK, Eire, and the various factions representing the (mainly Protestant) Unionist and (mainly Catholic) Nationalist communities in 1998. That treaty, known as The Good Friday Agreement, was one of the finest triumphs of European diplomacy in the Twentieth Century. It found a workable process for serving the interests of Ulster communities, those who wished to remain British, and those wishing for unification with Eire, including a devolved power-sharing Assembly of elected representatives at the Castle of Stormont. The details of the GFA are quite complex.

The problem that may prove insurmountable is that a total breakaway from the EU by the UK appears completely incompatible with the GFA. Literally, the two policies cannot exist side-by-side; they actually contradict each other.

One of the rules of the GFA was that trade conditions on both sides of the Irish border have to be pretty much identical, mainly to deter smuggling. Whatever the British choose to do, the Irish Republic does not want to leave the European Union. Whether we think Eire would be better off outside of the EU, as some suggest (it would not), is neither here nor there; they are not leaving the EU any time soon. So this means that, in order to maintain cross-border market-harmony, Northern Ireland has at least to stay in the EU Customs Union.

Northern Ireland must share market conditions with Eire

But if the UK opts for a ‘Hard Brexit’, that means, by definition, detaching from every feature of the EU, including the Customs Union. So to maintain the harmony with Eire, Northern Ireland would have to leave the UK. But that cannot happen either, as the GFA also guarantees the right of Unionists to remain British if they so wish. The majority of Unionists remain ‘loyal to the crown’, so to speak.

One idea that is sometimes floated is that Northern Ireland should remain in the Customs Union while the rest of the UK does not. Sadly, this also looks unworkable, as there would have to be border controls between Northern Ireland and the British mainland. That would violate Article VI of the Acts of Union of 1800. The whole of Ireland, under these Acts, became part of the UK, and, despite the secession of the rest of the island in the 1920’s, the Act still remains in effect in the north today. Article VI created a British customs union, one that would be violated by introducing border controls between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Meanwhile, not imposing such border controls would defeat one of the stated objects of Brexit, which is to “take back control of our borders.” It is a nonsense platitude anyway, but the pertinent point here is that anyone wanting to sneak into the UK could just enter unchecked through Ireland.

Border tensions

A hard border within Ireland will cause a lot of anger for social reasons too. Nationalists and Republicans will be rightly outraged if free access to their fellows in the south is curtailed, and will feel that they are being forced back under direct and exclusive British governmental control. It is therefore no exaggeration to suggest that there is a real danger of a ‘Hard Brexit’ restarting war in Northern Ireland.

These problems would be largely avoided if the British Government opted for a ‘Soft Brexit’ i.e. to stay in the Customs Union. But of course, that looks a remote possibility at best too. The lunatic fringe of the Tory Parliamentary Party, and the extremist Brexit supporters around the country, appear unwilling to tolerate anything less than a complete British severance from the EU, and any attempt May makes to move away from that will trigger a rebellion in Parliament, and probably the collapse of her Government.

One cannot please any of the people all of the time

Hence the ongoing deadlock over finding an Irish border settlement. It is almost impossible to find a solution that will please enough people, and is just one of the many reasons why the ‘Brexit genie’ should never have been allowed out of its metaphorical bottle. The Conservatives created this mess, largely for internal party reasons, so it is right that they should be the ones to have to clean it up. But it is also wrong that they are, because they show such profound inability to carry the process out in a competent fashion.

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by Martin Odoni

Irrespective of whether we think Brexit is a good idea or a bad one, there can be no escaping the reality that its execution is going incredibly badly. After Monday’s utterly shambolic wall-crash over finding a new settlement for the Irish border – perhaps the single most important conundrum that needs solving – matters somehow plumbed even danker depths today. David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting The European Union, finally revealed in Parliament what many of us had been suspecting for weeks.

Answering questions from the House Of Commons Exiting the EU Committee, Davis admitted that neither he nor anyone else inthe Government had carried out the so-called ‘Brexit Impact Assessments’ i.e. the many complex and detailed calculations about how leaving the EU is going to affect British society, particularly its economy. This was after over a year of his repeated assurances to the House and the wider country that over fifty such assessments had been completed.

This deceit amounts to Contempt-of-Parliament, and could have dire repercussions for Davis’ future as an MP. Quite rightly, other MPs such as David Lammy, anti-Brexit campaigners such as Gina Miller, mainstream media commentators such as Rafael Behr, and many left-wing bloggers such as my old comrade-in-arms Mike Sivier of Vox Political, are calling for Davis’ resignation, and for the DExEU Committee to press for formal charges of contempt.

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Yes, David, that’s pretty much everybody else’s reaction, to every aspect of Brexit.

I certainly do not oppose such demands. Davis’ behaviour has been outrageous, and in most industries it would not only mean summary dismissal, but also possible legal proceedings. Thanks to Parliamentary Privilege – neither House of the Palace Of Wesminster is subject to the Law of the Land – fraud charges may not be possible. But the Speaker of the Commons, John Bercow, does have it in his power to suspend Davis from the House, or possibly refer the matter to the public under the Recall Of MPs Act of 2015.

Parliament is already a bad comedy thanks to its domination for decades by shallow, media-friendly, image-obsessive automata. For it to retain any credibility it has left, it has to sanction Davis, and sanction him hard. If an MP can be found to lie casually within the House of Commons on this scale, after all, what point will Parliament have at all? Its first purpose is to hold incumbent Governments to account, and that cannot happen if the precedent is set that there are no consequences for measurable deceit.

But I would not stop at Davis. Nor would I stop at his department. The entire administration now has to go.

Every MP on the Opposition benches, in Labour, in the SNP, in the Liberal Democrats, in Plaid Cymru, Caroline Lucas of the Green Party, and all the ‘Others’, must now unite to demand that the whole Government of Theresa May resign. The position of the entire administration is untenable, and not just because of Davis’ fabrications. The Government’s position has in fact been indictable since the day Article-50 was activated in March, and so the whole Government has to stand down.

What Davis has admitted is even more serious than some people realise; no one in the Conservative Party has been making necessary assessments of Brexit’s likely effects. The Referendum was effectively called in May 2015 when the Tories won that year’s General Election, including it as a gesture to ‘buy’ up assurances of support from the party’s extremist fringe. Since then, two-and-a-half years have passed, during which the Referendum has been and gone, the Leave vote won, Article-50 has been activated, and we have had approximately six months of fruitless negotiations in Brussels. In all of that time, no one in either Cameron’s Government or May’s has even bothered to assess what the actual impact of Brexit will be?

That admission is even more appalling than Davis’ fictitious boasts about what a thorough assessment his department had carried out. After all, if the country does not know what impact ending the current settlement with the EU will have, how can it know what it will need from the new settlement? Little wonder therefore that negotiations with the EU’s representatives are going so badly, when British officials and politicians do not even know the implications of anything they ask for, or even precisely what they need to ask for, or for that matter what will happen if they do not get what they ask for. They have been driving in the dark without headlights for half a year, which has meant progress has not only been difficult, it has been logically impossible; how can progress be made towards a destination that has not even been identified or defined?

These details were central to everything about how Brexit is to be carried out, and until they were properly calculated, it was insanity on Theresa May’s part choosing to activate Article-50 so soon. It started a two-year countdown, and over half of the first year of precious negotiating time has been wasted on a reckless General Election backfire, and aimless thrashing-about when finally at the table. There is no point in childishly continuing to blame EU officials for the logjams, the fault is entirely on the British side.

Have we ever known chaos in Government quite like this? In living memory, the UK has seen infighting, economic tribulations, weak Governments and social unrest. But the current instability is something of a quite unusual order, and as yet, we have not even withdrawn from the EU. Can you imagine what will happen when we do? Brexit has exposed incompetence unprecedented in any British Government since before the World Wars, and Theresa May’s whole administration is implicated in it from top to bottom.

By failing to carry out the Brexit impact assessment, the Conservative Government is guilty of dereliction-of-duty, and so must resign and call a fresh General Election for early in the New Year.