Is Ireland wasting its Brexit moment?

Brexit: The Facts

Is Ireland wasting its Brexit moment?

The UK voted to leave the European Union on June 23rd, 2016 by a majority of 51.9 to 48.1 per cent, with a turn just under 72 per cent. This set the UK on course to leave the EU, but left all the details of its exit still to be decided.

The timetable was set the following March 29th, when British prime minister Theresa May took the formal step, required under EU law to start the exit process, of triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

Boris Johnson succeeded Theresa May as British prime minister in July 2019 as a withdrawal deal she had made with the EU on the terms of the UK’s departure was rejected by the House of Commons. Lengthy negotiations followed on the details of the UK’s departure and revisions to the withdrawal agreement.

Boris Johnson succeeded May as Conservative leader and British prime minister in July 2019 after she failed to break the deadlock over Brexit and her withdrawal agreement with the EU was rejected three times in parliament.

 Johnson’s election threw the manner of the UK’s exit by the next deadline of October 31st in doubt given that during his campaign to become leader he described the withdrawal agreement as a “dead letter” and demanded that the backstop be removed from the withdrawal agreement.

Brussels and Dublin have insisted the withdrawal agreement would not be renegotiated and the backstop would not be removed from the agreement. 

In his first speech as British prime minister Johnson described the backstop as “anti-democratic” and said that he was convinced he could do a deal with the EU without having to have checks at the Border.

Where are we now?

The UK is due to leave the EU trading regime and other co-operative arrangements at the end of December 2020. This is the end of the transition period, which was agreed as part of the withdrawal agreement, under which the UK left the EU at the end of January 2020.

The transition period was to give time to work out what rules and arrangements would apply to trade between the EU and UK in future and how co-operation in areas security and energy would work. However talks have been protracted and were ongoing at the end of November 2020.

Why this is complicated?

For a country to leave the EU is unprecedented ‑ and the extent of the complications has slowly become evident in the last couple of years. EU membership is a central part of the economy and society of all its members and unscrambling this and setting out how things will work in future is very complex.

The EU operates as a customs union, a free trade area which allows goods to circulate freely, and a single market, with common rules and regulations. A trade deal would give the UK access to EU markets without tariffs, but it would not replicate current arrangements.

So, new bureaucracy and cost is inevitable on trade between the EU and the UK whether there is a trade deal or not.

The exit deal

In late 2019 the two sides concluded the withdrawal agreement, setting the terms of the UK’s departure and a non-binding political declaration outlining how they saw the future relationship developing.

The UK had been due to leave the EU at the end of March 2019 but the date was subsequently extended to the end of January 2020. A transition period was agreed to allow a formal deal on the future relationship to be negotiated, with trade the central topic. This will end on December 31st, 2020.

An extension of the transition could have been agreed by the end of June, but this did not happen as the UK insisted it did not want one.

Why does the Irish Border matter so much?

The UK’s departure from the EU means Northern Ireland is leaving the bloc too so, without another arrangement, checks would be required along the 499-kilometre Irish Border as different trade rules would apply north and south after Brexit. The Border in Ireland will become the only land border between the UK and the EU after Brexit.

The 1998 Belfast Agreement, also known as the Good Friday Agreement, laid the foundation for Northern Ireland’s peace process with many all-island rules and institutions.

Neither side wants the return of border checks because of the risk to peace whereby a physical border infrastructure would be considered a potential target for paramilitaries.

Imposing Border checks would also severely disrupt life in regions on both sides of the Border where people have been able to conduct their lives relatively freely since the end of the Troubles and the dismantling of security apparatus at the Border.

In order to avoid all of this, an effective insurance policy called the Backstop was originally agreed by the EU and UK to be included in the withdrawal agreement. It was seen as a last resort to be triggered in the event of no better solution being found to avoid a hard border in a EU-UK trade deal.

However, when the withdrawal agreement was published in 2018 by then British prime minister Theresa May the inclusion of the backstop sparked furious opposition from Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) which said it was an effective “border down the Irish sea” and risked the break-up of the United Kingdom. 

Ultimately Ms May's agreement was rejected and the Backstop was replaced by the Northern Ireland Protocol. 

The Northern Ireland Protocol

As part of the withdrawal agreement, the two sides signed an agreement on Northern Ireland, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol. This is designed to avoid a trade border emerging on the island of Ireland, whether the two sides agree a deal on a future relationship or not.

For this to happen, a way had to be found to control and monitor goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, so that they could then flow freely into the Republic without putting the EU single market at risk.

The protocol does this by ruling  that some checks will be undertaken on products as they cross the Irish Sea from Britain to Northern Ireland, to ensure safety standards, particularly in the area of food and live animals and to make the necessary customs checks.

The North will  continue to apply EU single market rules in some areas, though it will remain in the UK customs union.

How these arrangements work in practice was being negotiated in a separate committee to the main talks, though final agreement on the rules governing trade between Britain and Northern Ireland will be heavily influenced by whether there is an overall trade deal.


The protocol also says that after four years Northern Ireland’s politicians must be asked to give consent on whether the new arrangements should continue. This would involve a vote in the Assembly. If there is a vote in favour, then the issue would come up again for decision after another four years, or eight years if the vote includes sufficient numbers from both the Unionist and Nationalist communities. If the vote is against the arrangements, then there is to be a two-year cooling off period when an EU/UK committee considers how to proceed, respecting the Belfast Agreement and makes recommendations.

The negotiations

The two sides agreed that they want trade to continue on the basis of no tariffs – or import duties – applying on goods and on commonly agreed standards. However challenges have emerged in agreeing what rules the UK will accept in order to get tariff-free access to the EU market, particularly in what constraints will apply on State aid to UK companies.

The EU is demanding what it calls a level playing field, to ensure that British firms cannot compete unfairly. There are also sensitivities about how future disputes between the two sides will be settled, with the UK seeking to escape the jurisdiction of the EU courts.

Agreeing future fishing rights has also been a contentious and difficult issue  and one of vital interest to the industry in Ireland, which will want to retain current access to UK waters and current quota levels for fish.


Further tension has been added to the talks by  a decision of the Johnson government to get parliamentary approval for a piece of legislation called the Internal Markets Bill, which would allow it, under certain circumstances, to escape from legal commitments made in the Northern Ireland protocol.

What is at stake?

If there is a deal, then trade between the EU and UK will take place on an agreed basis ­and further negotiations to improve the deal are possible subsequently.

However trade between the EU and UK will still be subject to a whole new range of rules and checks as the UK will become a “third country” outside the EU single market.

There could also be delays at ports as the new system beds down, although a new deal could seek to avoid this by agreeing that new arrangements could be phased in.

If there is not a deal, then there could be significant delays at ports and some products not arriving on supermarket shelves as the UK crashes the EU trading regime. Irish trade coming through the UK landbridge to Continental markets could be disrupted as the new regime takes hold.

A no-deal would also mean that trade between the UK and EU would be governed by World Trade Organisation rules, meaning tariffs would be applied by both sides. This would threaten the viability of some Irish exports to the UK, particularly beef and other food products which would face heavy tariffs.

The Northern Ireland protocol is designed to avoid an Irish trade border whether this is a deal or not.

However if there is no overall trade deal and the UK an EU cannot agree how the protocol should operate, then it is not clear what would happen or how the control of goods entering the North and going on to the Republic would be managed.

The Department of Finance has calculated the cost to the Republic’s economy of a no trade deal situation could be up to three percentage points off the 2021 GDP growth rate.


The Brexit deal is done – but many crucial issues are unresolved

Is Ireland wasting its Brexit moment?

Downing Street’s chief Brexit negotiator, Lord Frost, exhausted from months of intense talks, could not hide his glee on Saturday as he hailed the Brexit deal struck between the EU and Brussels as “one of the biggest and broadest agreements ever”. Its effect, he said, would be to allow the UK to “set its own laws again”.

“There’s no more role for the European court of justice, there’s no direct effects of EU law, there’s no alignment of any kind, and we’re the single market and the customs union, just as the manifesto said we would be,” he declared. “This should be the beginning of a moment of national renewal for us. All choices are in our hands as a country and it’s now up to us to decide how we use them and how we go forward in the future.”

Frost was right to emphasise the importance of reaching some form of agreement.

By avoiding no-deal, the two sides have ensured that trade between the UK and EU will not be subject, routinely, to tariffs or quotas, as would otherwise have been the case.

The resulting higher costs to business and consumers on both sides have been avoided, though Brexit will of itself lead to more bureaucracy, form-filling and checks on goods traded, and therefore delays.

UK policing has forfeited some of its most valued tools. Chief among these is the Schengen Information System, a vast database providing alerts to locate terrorists

But no one should believe that this marks the end of wrangling between the EU and UK. It does not represent finality. It was, as the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said on Christmas Eve, a “thin deal” that leaves much not settled, struck to avoid catastrophe by kicking much down the road.

The UK under the government of Boris Johnson pursued Brexit – he always claimed – to take back control of our laws, borders and money.

But even after we have left, his government still wants to benefit from European programmes, including those affecting our security, our financial services sector and our data, and to enjoy the benefits of the European single market wherever it can.

Johnson wants UK professionals to be able to work freely in other EU countries, but this deal achieved nothing for them. Those arguments are to come; the tussles will go on. Toby Helm


Mark Townsend
Priti Patel wasted little time in claiming the deal made the UK safer. Her assessment left most security analysts wondering what the home secretary knew that they didn’t. Few have avoided the conclusion that, in the short term at least, the deal leaves Britain less secure.

Not only are key lines of cooperation severed, but UK policing has forfeited some of its most valued tools. Chief among these is the Schengen Information System (SIS), a vast database providing real-time alerts to locate terrorists and serious criminals. On an average day, British police access the SIS more than 1.65 million times.

With no obvious sign of a substitute system, urgent negotiations are needed to agree a scheme that can fill this huge intelligence void.

Similarly, losing a seat at the EU’s policing agency, Europol, where the UK was a forceful presence, creates potential complexities with fast-moving cross-border criminal and terrorism investigations.

New agreements might be required with each EU member state to restore previous relationships – again, holding out the promise of more long-winded negotiations.

Extra talks will also be needed to replace the work of Eurojust, the agency responsible for judicial cooperation in criminal cases across member states.

Downing Street claims Britain had got more than it had envisaged on security and policing matters – and it is true there are some noteworthy victories, including a fast-track extradition system to replace the European arrest warrant and the continuing exchange DNA and fingerprint data. But it is also true that much still needs to be negotiated – and won. In the meantime, Britain’s law enforcement apparatus is diminished.

Data sharing

Jamie Doward
Ensuring the smooth flow of data between the EU and the UK is crucial to the future prosperity of both.

The Institute for Government notes that “volumes of data entering and leaving the UK increased 28 times between 2005 and 2015, and three-quarters of these data transfers are with EU countries. Any restriction placed on data flows would act as a barrier to trade, putting UK businesses at a competitive disadvantage.”

According to the summary issued by the UK government, “the agreement confirms strong data protection commitments by both the UK and the EU, protecting consumers and helping to promote trust in the digital economy.”

However, much has yet to be resolved. Experts say we should expect to hear a lot more about an “adequacy decision” that will relate to data transfers between the UK and the EU.

Data adequacy is a status granted by the European commission to countries outside the European Economic Area. When a country has been awarded this status, information can pass freely between it and the EEA without further safeguards being required.

This will not be sorted out quickly. The quickest data adequacy agreement between the EU and another country – Argentina – took 18 months to finalise. So, there will be an interim solution under which the UK will suspend its own data protection rules. This solution will run for a maximum of six months, according to EU sources.

For this reason there is pressure to achieve an adequacy agreement before the interim solution expires.

Cecilia Bonefeld-Dahl, the director general of Digitaleurope, a trade body representing more than 35,000 businesses in Europe, said: “The EU has yet to reach an adequacy decision regarding the UK – there is an urgent need to make progress here so that data can continue to flow between our economies and our businesses. Our recent study showed that 6 10 European companies transfer data between the EU and UK.”

The service sector – including The UK’s huge financial services industry – was largely left the deal. Photograph: John Sibley/Reuters

Services sector

Phillip Inman
The government must return to the negotiating table to secure access for services companies excluded from the “thin” Brexit deal, business leaders have urged.

Professional services firms and City banks, insurance companies and accountancy firms are among thousands of businesses that face restrictions on EU trade from 1 January unless ministers can expand arrangements in a further round of talks in the new year.

The services sector accounts for 80% of the UK economy and was largely left the Brexit deal, which centres on eliminating tariffs and quotas on goods shipped between the UK and EU. But while the UK had an overall trade deficit of -£79bn with the EU in 2019, it had a surplus of £18bn from the trade in services.

TheCityUK, the lobby group for the financial services industry, said that while banks had an agreement covering basic transactions, there were up to 40 treaties affecting cross-border activities in the financial services industry that needed to be renegotiated.

“We have known for some time that the services sector was going to be left the initial deal. The hope is that now some of the political heat has gone from the discussions, we can tackle other important issues,” he said.

EU leaders, fearing that the UK will seek to undermine regulations in the single market and customs union, have also blocked agreement on data rules that allow firms to keep information on their customers.

Brussels has indicated that, on many issues affecting services companies, it wants to wait until later in 2021 to see if the UK diverges with existing EU regulations before striking further deals.

While the EU agreed to allow business executives to move from the UK to EU countries to manage their continental operations, it remains unclear whether UK professionals will be able to do the same after professional qualifications were excluded.

Michael Izza, chief executive of the accountants’ professional body, the ICAEW, said an agreement covering legal services was welcome, but should be extended to other professions, including accountants, surveyors and architects.

British ski instructors’ qualifications were recognised across the EU before Brexit. Photograph: robertharding/Alamy Stock Photo

Professional qualifications

Jamie Doward
From accountants to ski instructors, before Brexit the British qualifications of UK citizens who work abroad in EU countries were recognised across all member states.

Now, though, things will change and it will become harder for UK citizens seeking to work in the EU to prove that their qualifications are the equivalent of those recognised elsewhere in Europe.

This is a setback for the UK. Proposed drafts from the British side clearly show it wanted mutual recognition of qualifications.

“The UK had originally asked that the EU would agree that UK qualifications would be automatically recognised, perhaps subject to a further test if necessary,” said Sam Lowe, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform. “Instead, what we have is a framework that allows for qualification bodies in the EU and the UK to put forward a proposal for mutual recognition to exist in the future.”

This is similar to what the EU has permitted under other trade agreements. But Lowe is not convinced of its merits. “It relies on fairly protectionist – often private – bodies deciding to recognise each others’ ability to grant qualifications in a specific field.”

However, the UK did agree an important caveat.

In the absence of an EU-wide agreement, Brussels will allow UK bodies to pursue other ways of agreeing the mutual recognition of qualifications on a bilateral basis.

So, a UK-based qualification body working with its counterpart qualification body in an individual member state – say Ireland or Germany – may be able to negotiate its own agreement.

But there is no guarantee of success. These talks could be complex, protracted, and only achievable on a country-by-country basis.

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It’s time to break up Britain

Is Ireland wasting its Brexit moment?

I cried into my under-salted porridge.

We’d got back from a midwife’s appointment to find our free baby box from the Scottish government on the doorstep, and unpacking it brought a bubble of joy.

The basics were reassuring: ear and bath thermometers (we hadn’t thought of those), a changing mat, reusable nappy tokens, cheery gender-neutral baby grows. The box doubles as a cot.

Books about hungry caterpillars and traffic awareness were nice, but it was the art that brought tears: a National Orchestra of Scotland app with music for your baby; a poem from the Makar, the national poet. And a picture from the National Gallery. “Hello wee one,” it says on the back. “We chose this print especially for you.”

The Scottish government says the box “is designed to give every single baby in Scotland an equal start in life”. But it does more than that. A nation is an imagined community, and the Scottish state has worked hard to ensure that we feel our child will be loved by that community.

We don’t hear that from the British state.

Before 2020, a poll showing Scottish independence ahead was our men’s football team scoring: celebrated magnificently by fans, but not indicative of a consistent lead. But all 14 surveys since 1 June have independence ahead, on average by 7%.

Something is changing, and not just in Scotland. This autumn, the pro-Welsh independence group YesCymru has grown from 2,000 paid-up members to 16,000.

As new member Siwan Clark told me, until recently, independence “wasn’t on the agenda … Now, it’s crossed the threshold”.

Support for Welsh independence has risen from 10% in 2012 to 23% today, not far off levels seen in Scotland before 2014.

That year, the year of Scotland’s independence referendum, polls in Northern Ireland said that 65% wanted to remain in the UK. By 2017, in the wake of Brexit, young Protestants in Coleraine were telling me that although it made them sad, joining Ireland to stay in the EU probably made sense. Support for the status quo has fallen to 34%, with 35% preferring a united Ireland outright.

“The gears have shifted so much,” said Seán Fearon, a Northern Irish climate activist and PhD student who I recently spoke to over Zoom. “Particularly among younger people, there is a much, much stronger desire for Irish unification.”

In the north of England, after the unly rebellion from Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, over pandemic funding, a new party, the Northern Independence Party, has sprung up demanding an end to Westminster rule.

Meanwhile Dick Cole, the leader of Mebyon Kernow (The Party for Cornwall), tells me that his home-rule party has had an injection of “new young members”, and says that a current Cornish council consultation has turned up significant support for “decisions in Cornwall being made in Cornwall”. “People want more power,” he said.

Over the past decade I’ve interviewed people from Derry to Norwich, Cardiff to Harris, Jerusalem to Madrid about the break-up of Britain. But my conversations for this piece uncovered a new mood among those who want to leave the UK: calm confidence that the centre cannot hold.

More and more people are seeing through the bluster of the ancient British state and concluding that their respective parts of the UK would be better off governing themselves. That the politics cultivated by Westminster does more harm than good, and that it’s time for something new. It’s harder than ever to avoid a simple truth: they’re right.

The unmaking of a state

The United Kingdom has been a contested idea ever since it began to form.

But it was the Marxist theorist, Tom Nairn, who first seriously traced the current fault lines in his 1977 book ‘The Break-Up of Britain’. Now 88, he’s usually cautious about predicting timelines.

But speaking to me for this piece, he finally got specific. “Within the next five years, in one form or another, break-up is ly to come about”.

As Nairn identified, some forces driving this process move slowly. One is geopolitics. Three centuries ago, English and Scottish elites joined forces to colonise the world.

During the Cold War, Britain’s family of ‘home nations’ huddled under the protection of nuclear weapons.

Today, after Iraq, Brexit and genuflecting to Trump, the advantages of presenting as British rather than, say, Scottish are fading.

Another is communications technology. Modern nations were birthed in part by 19th-century innovations such as the printing press, followed by radio and television in the century after. Social media disrupts that process.

More than ever, people are inventing new identities and putting old ones to new use. Every Welsh independence supporter I interviewed mentioned the lack of a Welsh press. Their movement is gathering online.

The production of ideas and identities is less top-down than ever.

Economics is yet another. In ‘The Break-up of Britain’, Nairn defined nationalism as “mobilisation against the unpalatable truth of grossly uneven development”.

Waves of capitalism break differently on different shores, intensifying regional variations and driving demand for independent governance. If this is generally true, then it’s very true in the UK, Europe’s most geographically unequal country.

The City in London and the housing bubble in the south-east suck in investment, wealth and youth, and blow out debt, austerity, stress and regret.

And there are events.

After the banks crashed, Scotland and Wales voted for the steady hand of Gordon Brown but got David Cameron’s axe. Social security was the duvet under which we all snuggled. It gave millions a direct relationship with the British state. But that security was snatched away by the humiliating cruelty of Universal Credit.

Older English voters, infuriated by the status quo but unable to escape the cage of the British state, broke their heads against its bars, and Brexited. A younger generation radicalised by reality – war, climate change, austerity, housing – spent a dozen desperate years demanding change. Corbynism was the Westminster establishment’s chance to compromise. It didn’t.

Then came the virus. For many, the pandemic has been one of those moments that clarifies a question: do we want decisions about our lives made in Westminster – or in Holyrood, the Senedd, Stormont, or the Oireachtas?

Healthcare, once seen by Westminster as a ‘soft’, feminised issue that could be safely devolved while the British state hung on to the big boy stuff security, has turned out to be the defining factor.

If you’re Scottish, your government has been blessed by comparison with Westminster. If you’re Welsh, your first minister is suddenly a prominent figure.

In Northern Ireland, it makes practical sense to collaborate with Dublin, whatever your tradition – and if you’re English, you get jealous.

Whatever the failings of leaders in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, they have at least struck the right tone. They have given the impression that this crisis is something other than a chance to shake up our public services, and spray their mates with a fizz of private contracts.

Britain’s leaders, by contrast, shelter behind a myth of ‘competence’ and hard-headed realism.

But the borders of their ‘real world’ don’t extend far beyond London’s Square Mile, the headquarters of corporations Shell or BP, estate agents in the Home Counties, and the editorial offices of right-wing newspapers. COVID-19, however, shows that politics isn’t about their fictional universe. It’s about our lives. And deaths.

Shifting borders

Every country is a card-house of contradictions; every nation a disputed story, every state, a battlefield of institutions. So most claims about Britain have some truth.

Unionists often say that the UK is about pooling and sharing resources. In a sense, they’re right. Much of modern Britain was built by Labour in 1945, with its institutions of organised justice. But that settlement is being dismantled.

For many, Britain is an aid-giving, democracy-defending global goodie. To see through this, we need to travel 5,000 miles away.

In 2016, 214,488 papers were leaked from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca, detailing an offshore network of secretive deals, money laundering and tax avoidance.

Headlines shouted about dictators and drug lords in the Global South getting their comeuppance.

But less widely reported was that most companies mentioned in the Panama papers were registered in the UK, its Overseas Territories or Crown Dependencies.

Last year, academics Reijer Hendrikse and Rodrigo Fernandez analysed this growing offshore world. “Together with the wealth of the world’s billionaire class”, they concluded, it now “effectively constitutes the backbone of global capitalism”.

After 1945, as former colonies wriggled free, Britain was reinvented as something approaching a modern nation-state.

But Westminster’s imperial detritus – Bermuda, Gibraltar, the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands and the Channel Islands – form the wheel turning Earth’s main money laundry.

Hundreds of billions wash through it every year, wealth stolen from the workers of the world, impoverishing the planet.

Yet while London is the global financial hub through which much of this wealth travels, the vast majority of the population are excluded from it, regardless of their attachment to the stories and symbols of Britain.

It was spring 2015, at the depth of both Tory austerity and a grim hangover, when I first went to Cluan Place, east Belfast.

Loyalist flags lined the fortified street and many of the women I spoke to checked their neighbours weren’t listening before whispering surprisingly similar opinions.

As one put it, “I sometimes think that their lot” – nodding to the Sinn Fein-voting Short Strand over a vast iron fence – “do more for us than our lot.”

What’s now Northern Ireland has long been treated as a colony: first during the plantations, then as a useful ship-building outpost. When the minority Catholic population demanded civil rights in the 1960s, British soldiers who’d just put down an uprising in Kenya arrived to inflame the conflict.

But as the Cold War melted, geopolitics changed. Having fought and tortured to keep its Hibernian enclave, British enthusiasm waned.

In November 1990, Thatcher’s Northern Ireland secretary Peter Brooke said the UK government had “no selfish strategic or economic interest” in Northern Ireland. The qualifying clause would prove redundant.

It soon became clear that Britain had no interest in Northern Ireland.

There’s a sign on west Belfast’s Shankill Road telling you that you’re in “the heart of the British Empire”.

In the community centre nearby, staffer Ian McLaughlin told me in 2018 that people regularly come in with post, asking: “here, what does that say?”. A 2015 study concluded that one in five Northern Irish adults has “very poor” literacy skills.

Working-class loyalist communities were taught they could depend on jobs building ships – until they couldn’t. Their loyalty has not been reciprocated.

A year earlier, I had watched Theresa May detonating Article 50 on the TV of the Bogside Bar on Free Derry Corner, republican flags outside.

The man who’d bought my pint showed me an old photo on the wall of a balaclava-covered teenager carrying a makeshift bomb. It was him.

Headlines about hard borders flashed across the screen, and it was clear that May had just done more to unite Ireland than his old IRA comrades ever had.

But it’s not just Brexit. To the south, in the Republic of Ireland, an inquiry into child abuse crumpled the country’s once-dominant Catholic church. Magnificent referendums on marriage equality and abortion rights transformed its image.

In 2017, the year that unionist parties lost their majority in Northern Ireland’s assembly for the first time, Sinn Fein campaigned on a pro-LGBT rights platform.

Taking their cue from the social changes across the border, the Irish republicans positioned themselves in stark contrast to the Democratic Unionist Party, which is still heavily influenced by its conservative religious roots, and uses its veto power to block reforms on gender and sexual equality.

Suddenly, Britain seems the conservative backwater. Dublin rule no longer means Vatican rule. Ireland looks towards Europe, and the future.

Northern Ireland’s infrastructure looks more eastern European than western; the only decent trains go to Dublin. Around 21% of children live in absolute poverty. One in every 120 people there is homeless. More have died by suicide since the end of the civil war than died from violence during it, and more miles of security wall divide the two communities now than did twenty years ago.

I first met Seán Fearon when he was student president at Queen's University, Belfast. For him, Irish unity is not just about the 1.9 million people who live in the north joining a state of 4.

7 million; it’s about “effectively restructuring that political configuration on the island of Ireland”, and bringing “an injection of new progressive ideas and new progressive, democratic weight”.

The current arrangement, he told me, “is not capable of dealing with the climate crisis and the green economic transformation that has to happen.”

In December this year, Sinn Fein launched a campaign for a united Ireland. “A new Ireland,” it says on posters across Belfast “will work for you” – pledging “EU membership, jobs, prosperity, and an all-Ireland health service”.

“It’s time,” the party says, “to plan.”

What was once a fight about the past has become a debate about the future.

After the defeat

In Wales, socialists and progressives disappointed by Labour’s election defeat at the end of last year are starting to plan ahead, too.

Siwan Clark is one of the many young people who moved home for lockdown. A few years ago she had left Cardiff for London because of “a feeling that you have to be there, that it was the centre of things”. The pandemic has changed all that. “For a lot of people who've moved home, their sphere is turning to more local things,” she said to me over Zoom recently.

Before COVID, Clark said, she wouldn’t have expected most people in Wales to know the name of the first minister. (It’s Mark Drakeford.) “I was extremely ignorant about the Assembly. I just didn't really engage with it,” she said.


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