When I was a university student, I remember waiting outside my prof’s office to review a paper I was working on. From inside the office I heard weeping. A fellow classmate was inside, sobbing. They were asking for an extension on the class assignment – citing everything from unruly roommates to the sniffles. It was a sad sight. They left, red-eyed and without the desired extension. As Brexit draws near, more and more British MPs seem to be working up some water works for EU officials, and preparing arguments for why the UK should be granted an extension on Article 50.
Unlike my university era example, the consequences resulting in not granting an extension could be damning. The main sticking point remains the Northern Ireland backstop. For those unfamiliar, the backstop is designed to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This would mean that Northern Ireland would remain tied to EU customs and regulations while the rest of the UK goes it’s own merry Brexit way. British MPs, especially those from the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), are crying foul.
The nonsense of the DUP, and other hard-line Brexiteers, have underscored a lesson that needs to be understood by those in Westminster, as well as those commenting on the proceedings. The lesson is simple: The Good Friday Agreement, also known as the Belfast Agreement, is just that – an agreement. The document is NOT a peace treaty. As with any agreement, there are obligations on both sides. If one side fails to adhere to their obligations, the agreement is null and void. Brexit and a hard border would be a failure of the British government to fulfill it’s side of the Good Friday deal.
In a recent BBC interview, Health Secretary Matt Hancock would not specifically rule out a return to martial law in the UK if a no-deal Brexit became a reality. For Republicans in Northern Ireland, such statements recall memories of days when internment without trial or charge were official British government policy. The idea of a hard border and a return to ‘the bad ol’days’ have already stirred discontent
On January 19, a car bomb detonated outside the Derry courthouse. Shortly before, the bomb was called in to local authorities and the area was evacuated. The bombing was claimed by a group calling itself The New IRA. The fact that the threat was called in, and that it was a car that was blown up, and not the courthouse itself, suggests that more than an attempt to kill, this was a message aimed squarely at the squabbling MPs in Westminster, and more, for the hardline DUP. The message is simple: implement a hard border, and all bets are off.
All sides rightly condemned the attack, but despite disagreement over the method, the grievance and warning it carries should be duly noted. Attempting to spin the attack as a senseless act of violence undermines the consequences of political grandstanding and the childish antics currently on full view in the British parliament. As Simon Coveney, Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade said this week – it’s time to stop playing games of chicken with Brexit
Since 1998, the argument for a political solution to the problems in Northern Ireland has been advocated as the only legitimate means open to discussion. This understanding has been maintained by the Good Friday Agreement that laid the roadmap and framework by which all sides could cooperate. A hard Brexit undermines this understanding. Although no right thinking person would wish to see a return to violence, in the absence of a political framework for progress, politicians on all sides will find themselves hard-pressed to argue against the more violent constituents within their communities.
One of the problems with the Brexit debate is that all sides seem to be clear on what they don’t want, yet vague on what they will accept. Like ill-prepared undergrads crying for an extension, they have been unable to provide a reasonable alternative, or justification as to why the work of Brexit is not yet complete – despite more than two years advance notice of the due date.
There is an old joke in Northern Ireland: speaking to a crowd, the late and fiery Rev. Ian Paisley, former leader of the DUP, railed that there would be, ‘much weeping and gnashing of teeth’. One old woman in the crowd piped up, “but Mr. Paisley, I have no teeth”. The Reverend’s response came, “teeth will be provided!”. The Republic of Ireland, and the EU, have both made it clear that there will be no renegotiating the backstop. To do so would signal a green light to those looking for an excuse to return to the gun – a reality the Derry bombing underscores. It is time for the Brexiteers in Westminster to get it through their thick sculls that no amount of weeping and gnashing of teeth will alter this reality. If they want their Brexit, and avoid a ‘no-deal scenario, they’ll have to accept the Irish Backstop to get it – the end. Period. You’re done son.