Belfast Telegraph

The mask slips... Theresa May is revealed as the hardest of Brexiteers

The consequences of the PM's Tory conference speech will be disastrous for the Union she claims to cherish

Theresa May's hardline stance on Brexit has shocked many who wanted to remain in the EU
Theresa May's hardline stance on Brexit has shocked many who wanted to remain in the EU
James Brokenshire's appointment as Secretary of State was seen as a positive sign
Sinn Fein faces a challenge over the Prime Minister's stance

By Tom Kelly

In the early hours of June 24 it became apparent in the Titanic Centre, Belfast, that the people of Northern Ireland had delivered - with a clear and unequivocal voice across the traditional boundaries and divisions of our scarred society - their desire that Northern Ireland remain within the European Union. Watching the results elsewhere, particularly from the north of England, it also became clear that our victory in battle was about to be squandered in the war across the Irish Sea.

When the final results came in, like many others I had feelings of loss, frustration, even outrage. In fact, I felt betrayed by a political system that had allowed a victory to be achieved based on a mountain of lies, untruths and unfounded fears.

In the days that followed those feelings turned to mounting anger as the Leave campaign lies unravelled and were denied by those who led on the Brexit side.

When David Cameron fell on his sword and Theresa May succeeded him as Prime Minister, I had a sense of relief that she would seek to reunite the various deep divisions within British society and among the nations revealed during a referendum campaign that at times felt like a civil war. It was a reasonable expectation.

After all, the new Prime Minister had been on the same side of the referendum debate as me and my campaign team hosted her here in Northern Ireland, where she made it clear to local businesses and the media that a hard Brexit resulting in borders and tariffs would be deeply damaging to Northern Ireland.

Naturally, as Prime Minister, it was not unexpected that she would have to respect the result of the mandate from across the UK, however it was expected that she would handle any exit from the EU in a manner sensitive to the regions of the United Kingdom which voted overwhelmingly to Remain: Scotland, with its effective and highly independent parliament, with a dominant political force in the shape of the SNP. Northern Ireland, with its high dependency on EU subsidies, divided national outlooks and land border with an EU member state; and, of course, London, capital of Europe's financial markets, but overwhelmingly pro-EU membership.

She even sent her pro-Remain colleague James Brokenshire to replace the divisive Leave campaigner Theresa Villiers to be Northern Ireland Secretary of State in order to pour oil on the wounds of disappointed Remain campaigners in education, business, farming, the voluntary sector and politics.

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The new Secretary of State went as far as setting up a talking shop on Brexit to keep the local chattering classes occupied. So far, so good.

Even the appointment of the three Brexit stooges of Johnson, Fox and Davis seemed to suggest that Mrs May had decided to hand these bungling knuckleheads the task of unravelling the political conundrum they had so wished for and, if they failed, she could then work towards a more manageable Brexit on mutually favourable terms with the EU.

But then came this missile at the Conservative Party conference from the woman dubbed "the submarine" by the staff of her predecessor: "I will never allow divisive nationalists to undermine the precious Union between the four nations of our United Kingdom."

These words could have been uttered by Chamberlain, or Balfour, or even Harold McMillan, or Douglas-Home.

But the thought that they came from a Prime Minister in 2016 shows just how detached the Tory leadership is from the realpolitik within the politically disintegrating Union that is Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

What is even more shocking is the lack of acknowledgment by Mrs May that it was the narrow agenda of English nationalism that has led us to this unhappy juncture of separation from Europe.

The haughtiness of Mrs May's matron-like rebuke that she will "never allow" is as repugnant as it is high-handed. But what's next? It's clear that Mrs May's pre and post-referendum platitudes about soft borders on the island of Ireland were just that. She has given primacy to the prejudices of little Englanders over those of us living in other parts of the UK.

She has caved into the most rabidly xenophobic and anti-EU section of the British Right - both within her own party and outside of it. Bizarrely, she has allowed the most divisive of all nationalism - English and imperial nationalism - to unpick at the delicate threads which hold her beloved but fragile Union together.

With her proposal to control the UK borders and leave the single market, she has opted for a hard Brexit. She will adopt all existing EU legislation within her Great Repeal Bill, but wants to ditch the protections of the European Court of Justice.

The consequences for Northern Ireland and Ireland are now very real. No amount of tea and sympathy at Stormont House hosted by the Secretary of State will compensate for the on-the-ground effects of a hard Brexit.

The short-term gains for cross-border retail from a collapse in sterling is not a long-term economic strategy for job-creation and investment. Hard borders will inevitably mean Customs posts and tariffs.

It will also mean immigration controls, and commuters across the border had a taste of that near Dundalk last week with long queues and checkpoints.

Local politicians will have to take action soon.

Those in Westminster will need to join forces with those in England, Scotland and Wales opposed to May's Great Repeal Bill - her majority is wafer-thin.

Sinn Fein has a particular challenge. Its votes in Westminster only count by going through the lobby - not sitting in it. It will be challenging, too, if Sinn Fein's role at Stormont is taken for granted by either the British Government, the DUP, or both.

All pro-EU and pro-Northern Ireland parties must be emphatic with the EU, the British Government and the Irish Government - there can be no hard borders within Ireland, no tariffs on cross-border trade and no punitive immigration controls between Northern Ireland and Britain.

Many in Northern Ireland may now look to the Irish Government for solutions. This British Government has set itself on an inevitable collision course - not only with the EU, but within the Union itself.

Dr Tom Kelly is chair of the Northern Ireland Stronger In Europe campaign

Belfast Telegraph


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