Will someone please shout stop to Brexit!

27 Nov 2017

Belfast city skyline. Image: Henryk Sadura/Shutterstock

It is not too late to put an end to the looming Brexit catastrophe, argues John Kennedy.

Politicians have a tendency to make a pig’s ear of things. We saw this in Ireland when the economy overheated in 2008. The subsequent inept fumbling led to the IMF rolling in, the betrayal by spineless EU leaders saw our country unfairly shoulder 42pc of Europe’s banking debt, and now we have the spectre of a potential pre-Christmas election to look forward to because of more fumbling by politicians.

Ireland is a small country, sometimes a mere sideshow on the global stage. However, when it comes to a bigger disaster caused by even more political fumbling – and I mean Brexit – we could be centre stage again for all the wrong reasons.

‘What we’ve seen in recent days is how unprepared May and her ministers actually are around Brexit. There is no plan. None. Nada’

There is nothing especially special about getting up at the crack of dawn at the start of winter. The gloom at 6am is only slightly gloomier than what greets you at 8am. However, last Thursday, en route to Belfast to attend a Virgin Media briefing on Digital Evolution, our little island was in the grips of a polar vortex.

I was already on the road for the best part of 45 minutes and could still feel the cold in my knees and toes despite the best efforts of my car’s heater. As I turned off the motorway at Ardee and trudged north to Belfast, the sight of rows of cars parked near the entrance to the motorway looked eerie for some reason and I thought they were the debris of the previous day’s flooding. It turns out that tradespeople who work in Dublin like to carpool. Clever, I thought.

Dawn broke as the Cooley Mountains that tower over Carlingford swept into view and before I knew it, I was in the North. The only evidence that I crossed any border were the road signs that took me back to before we went all European and jettisoned miles for kilometres.

Borders are only inventions, but they hurt

Every time I traverse the border and head north, to Donegal or elsewhere, strong emotions and memories of growing up in the Republic in the 1980s flood my mind. I remember Bobby Sands graffiti on walls of my hometown. On family holidays, British paratroopers with battle rifles and war paint stood at border crossings. Orangemen on parade stared quizzically at my late dad’s banged-up southern car as we waited for them to pass on a searing July afternoon. Not all especially pleasant memories, but they are mine and I was with my dad for most of them.

This time as I surged north, I was feeling very much alone. My GPS warned me of a bit of congestion on the A1 on the way into Belfast but somehow, Ulster efficiency intervened and it turned out that the feared traffic jam was a walk in the park.

Belfast itself is an intoxicating confection of the old and the new. The Harland and Wolff cranes, Samson and Goliath, stand like sentries over the city, while brand new motorways seem to swirl with graceful good manners as if in a dance around timeless Victorian buildings that I believe will still be there when we too are just dust and memory.

The bustling environs of the Titanic Belfast centre – again conjuring up the old in the time of new – give you the feeling that the North is on the move, striving for progress.

At the Virgin Media event, I listened attentively about the data age, storytelling through data, how we are in the age of a machine learning and AI revolution, and how to make sense of algorithms and real-time marketing, but Brexit was barely mentioned. People were looking to the future and hoping to get on with business.

At the same time, it was as if no one wanted to acknowledge the painful stupidity that lies ahead with Brexit.

Does the UK really have a compelling post-Brexit plan or is it all just bluster?

Again, politicians make a pig’s ear of things continuously and the ill-judged gamble by David Cameron that saw Britain vote to leave the EU by the slimmest of margins is really a betrayal by the old against the young; the anger of bereft and neglected regions against prosperous cities. London didn’t want to leave the EU, no young person that knows the value of being part of a European community without borders wanted to leave, and thousands of British expats who enjoy the freedoms of being European (even if they don’t wish to admit it) will soon enter a forest of bureaucratic friction.

Sitting at a bar overlooking Valletta in Malta a few years ago, I eavesdropped on a conversation between a pair of old expat servicemen sporting Maltese crosses on their suntanned chests. One of them intoned, almost with tears in his eyes: “I remember that bay when it were full of our ships.” He was living in the past.

And that’s the thing that is most curious about the stubborn determination with which Theresa May and her government are pressing ahead with Brexit, with the sole, single-minded purpose of kamikaze headed to their destruction. How much of this is sentimentalism, ire at alleged nannying by European bureaucrats? How much of this is actually rooted in hard logic? How much of this is about responsibility and preparing the way for future generations?

Blundering and blustering politicians such as Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson – who probably never expected the Brexit vote to pass when it did – say, ‘We got this.’ They are masters of the sound bite, but very little else.

In fact, what we’ve seen in recent days is how unprepared May and her ministers actually are around Brexit. There is no plan. None. Nada.

They are not reasonably prepared to enter trade negotiations over Northern Ireland.

The British economy is slowing. Its government is badly divided and the disaster of Brexit will condemn generations to a questionable future.

Already, UK education institutions and science researchers in universities are feeling the pinch from being unable to access vital EU-wide programmes such as Horizon 2020. On Friday (24 November), IDA Ireland reported that UK-regulated marine liability insurers The Standard Club and North P&I Club have chosen Dublin for their EU subsidiaries as a direct result of Brexit, subject to regulatory approval.

I, for one, however, do not believe Brexit portends any economic gain for the Republic. Yes, it could mean more multinationals, but I know it is already hurting SMEs who need to trade with their nearest neighbours.

The mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea

No one wants to go back to the past but, for many, that’s what a hard border means, whether we like to admit it or not.

It was a bright Saturday evening in August 1998 and people were out trying to enjoy themselves when I first heard of the Omagh bombing earlier that day. The incongruous sight of a pale girl with tears in her eyes while others around her jived and drank is still burned into memory. The movements of the dancers that night now seem mechanical, not lithe or joyous.

If I learned one thing about the Peace Process having lived through a fair portion of the Troubles, it is impressive just how much things change when prospects for people improve. The dignity of a wage, fair opportunities and a comfortable home mean more to people than guns, bibles, creeds or bullets.

It isn’t just the fact that British political blundering gives little confidence in the run-up to trade negotiations, it is the symbolism and practical realities of a hard border returning to this island. Apart from Gibraltar, it will be the only real border between the EU and the UK in the entirety of Europe.

If and when Brexit comes to be, Ireland will also be the last pure common law system left in Europe, according to The Irish Times.

And what of the UK’s digital hopes? In recent weeks, May’s government revealed plans to invest £61m across a number of areas to boost the UK’s tech credentials, including turning the London Tech City initiative into a Tech Nation endeavour. Throwing chunks of cash here and there is only temporary, but it seems to be what politicians are good at, whatever country they belong to. What is really needed is national and political will, and I am not certain that the UK or May and her cronies really have the stomach for the job.

I am not confident that anyone has the stomach for the disaster that Brexit will be.

The professionalism and pure focus on digital that I witnessed among business executives in Belfast last week contrasts harshly with the plodding and lack of preparedness of the UK government in the run-up to negotiations. The difference is stark and disheartening.

Someone please shout stop to this madness.

And so, with mixed emotions, the afternoon’s sun in my eyes and the poignant strains of Percy French’s The Mountains of Mourne in my mind’s ear, I hurtled south and was back over the border without realising it. That border today is just a line on the map.

I hope the next time I travel those roads, there is still no physical border.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years