November 12, 2019

The Paradoxes of Brexit

“During the debate on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s new Brexit deal in the United Kingdom’s Parliament on Saturday—which ended, as these things often have, with a vote calling for another delay—Johnson exposed the most basic blindness of Brexit itself. Nigel Dodds, the parliamentary leader of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, had just denounced the deal that Johnson arrived at with the European Union last week as a deep, bitter betrayal. The deal includes customs checks in the Irish Sea on goods travelling between the rest of the U.K. and Northern Ireland. Where, Dodds asked, was the chance for both sides in Northern Ireland—unionists like him, who want to remain an integral part of the U.K., and the nationalists, whose ultimate goal is to unite with the Republic of Ireland—to consent to such a deal? After all, the 1998 Good Friday agreement, which put an end to the period of sectarian violence known as the Troubles, calls for cross-community support for major, controversial changes in Northern Ireland’s status quo.

In rising to respond to Dodds, Johnson acknowledged the coöperation his government had hitherto received from the D.U.P., which supports Brexit and has helped to supply the Conservatives with their majority in Parliament. They also enabled Johnson’s rise to power by helping to scuttle an earlier deal that his predecessor, Theresa May, had reached with the E.U. (That deal was defeated in Parliament three times, forcing May’s resignation.) If it were not for the D.U.P.’s resolve, Johnson said, he wouldn’t have been able to convince the Europeans to make the compromises that he believed his new deal represented. But, “in all frankness,” he said, he found it “a pity that it is thought necessary for one side or the other in the debate in Northern Ireland to have a veto on those arrangements.” As he said this, there were cries of protest in the House, as Johnson arrived at the heart of Brexit.

“The people of this country have taken a great decision embracing the entire four nations of this country”—that is, England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland—“by a simple majority vote that went 52–48, which we are honoring now.” (This was the 2016 Brexit referendum.) Johnson continued, “And I think that principle should be applied elsewhere. And I see no reason why it should not be applied in Northern Ireland, as well.””

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