Most Brexit voters feel a hard border with Northern Ireland would be worth it to leave the customs union â" we shouldn't ...
Recent polling from Conservative peer Michael Ashcroft suggests that two-thirds of pro-Brexit voters would rather leave the customs union than avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland, and that six out of ten people surveyed âwould not mind either wayâ if Northern Ireland voted to leave the UK.
This shouldnât actually come as a great surprise. While not frequently acknowledged by those on the Remain side of the argument, Brexiteers believe passionately in their project. Itâs easy to deride such people for being duped by the simplistic slogans and promises of the Leave campaign but that underestimates both their argument and their determinatio n to see it through.
The hope that they will âcome to their sensesâ once the full implications of the UKâs decision to leave the EU are recognised is most likely a forlorn one. These people are frustrated, anxious and increasingly bitter about what they see as an attempt to undermine the Brexit negotiations and thwart the process of the UK leaving the EU. The shrill invective that can be seen on social media, where Irish politicians have been accused of âweaponisingâ the debate on Brexit, is in part driven by a concern that their Brexit dreams may be dashed.
But there is little evidence that the ir strength of feeling has lessened as a result of the political incompetence of the UK government and its negotiating team over the past 18 months. Nor is it affected by the fact that indicators from credible sources suggest the UK is heading for a disastrous economic outcome. Brexiteers are determined it seems, reminiscent of Alfred Lord Tennysonâs Charge of the Light Brigade, to keep âCharging an army while all the world wonderedâ.
In this context â" and for those who do not live there â" the spectre of a hard border in Northern Ireland may be a price worth paying to keep the Brexit project on the rails.
A place apart
But there is another explanation for Ashcroftâs poll finding. This is less flattering, not just with respect to Leave voters â" but for the country as a whole. It reflects a belief about the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It is Team GB you see flying the flag at the Olympics â" not Team UK, despite the fact that Northern Ireland competes under that flag â" and what goes on in the Olympics mirrors a broader public consciousness of the ânationâ.
Northern Irelandâs invisibility in sport is a painful metaphor for those of a unionist persuasion. Put bluntly, Northern Ireland i s different. It exists on the political, economic and cultural periphery of the UK, rather than being an integral component of Britainâs understanding of its own self-interest or self-image.
The phrase Britain has âno selfish strategic or economic interestâ in Northern Ireland, was one of the golden keys that unlocked peace in Northern Ireland and was a key mantra of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The British government has never said this about Scotland, Wales or any other part of the UK. It is hurtful to unionists who feel that Britain should have a selfish interest in Northern Ireland. But it doesnât and it is unlikely that it ever will.
Team GBâs politicians have frequently demonstrated their willingness to consider all options in private, regardless of what they may say in public â" so we should not be surprised if public opinion follows suit. Churchill and Thatcher both reportedly considered dumping Northern Ireland at moments of political expediency.
Churchill contemplated trading it for the support of the Irish Free State in World War II and made a number of overtures on this basis to the Irish taoiseach of the time, Eamon de Valera. In 1983 meanwhile, Margaret Thatcher asked the then Northern Ireland secretary James Prior if he thought her government should prepare for a âtactical withdrawalâ from Northern Ireland. She signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement two years later, which ga ve the Irish government a consultative role over key policy decisions in the North. It was a massive blow to the unionist psyche, but their feelings were less important to Thatcher than a potential alliance with Dublin and improved diplomatic relations with America.
Despite the popular adage often attributed to Thatcher, that Northern Ireland was âas British as Finchleyâ (her former constituency), in practice it never has been. When it comes to Northern Ireland, different rules apply. Itâs Team GB first and âTeam GB and Northern Irelandâ, a distant second.
Itâs not surprising that polling today over Brexit demonstrates that at this latest moment of national upheav al, Northern Ireland is still seen as politically expendable by Team GB.
Feargal Cochrane is a professor of international conflict analysis at the University of Kent. This piece originally appeared on The ConversationSource: Google News Ireland | Netizen 24 Ireland