Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: Sacrificing middle ground in this election is no guarantee of scuppering Brexit

The mistake is to think this poll is about Brexit: it's not. It's just like all the other ones before it.

Emma Little-Pengelly
Emma Little-Pengelly

By Malachi O'Doherty

This was supposed to be a single-issue election. Nothing seemed plainer than that about two weeks ago, but elections change their meaning very soon after they are called. The last blatant example of that was just two-and-a-half years ago.

Theresa May had wanted a mandate to deliver Brexit. Actually, she was probably more interested in making her party strong enough to deliver a compromise, a soft Brexit, but she wasn't going to say that at the time.

The issues which tempered the result included the 'dementia tax' and a Labour promise to scrap student fees, which delivered the student vote. So, there is no excuse for party leaders kidding themselves that Brexit is the defining issue of this election, or even that it might function as a sort-of second referendum.

And that's as true in Northern Ireland as in any part of the neighbouring island.

Ask most nationalists in north Belfast why they want to topple Nigel Dodds, and the motive for wanting to poke the DUP in the eye is hardly going to be much different from what it would have been two years ago, or 10 years ago.

If you are a nationalist, or a republican, your main gripe with the DUP will be that it is unionist. And that will be coloured, too, by a sense that the DUP is culturally strange, and morally and socially conservative.

Still, you might have voted for the SDLP in the past and let Dodds slip in because, like Sinn Fein, you don't think it matters very much whether an MP takes a seat or not.

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Isn't that a glorious paradox? Sinn Fein doesn't need to take its seat to make a difference, but Nigel Dodds taking one is a misfortune to be avoided.

What we are seeing in GB is that huge issues of concern are likely to determine how people will vote and, while Brexit is in the mix, it is of declining importance.

Boris Johnson says he just wants to "get Brexit done". This is a slogan that is as fatuous and meaningless as "take back control".

All getting Brexit "done" will achieve is move us to the next stage of negotiations and one can easily imagine the heart-sinking sigh of despair that will sound around the country when that reality dawns.

What really matters is the practical welfare of the people, and substituting Brexit for that is the equivalent of presuming to eat a flag.

There was a little news item on Channel Four during the week which made me almost fall out of my chair. A woman was interviewed about the horror of having to wait six months for a hip replacement. Six months!

I know people who would think a six-month date for a hip replacement was equivalent to a lottery win. Here, patients are told that they have to wait two years.

Many are going private, or they are going to Vilnius or Sligo, paying upfront and hoping to recoup from an EU fund.

Right enough, that is a perfect example of how concern about Brexit intertwines with health and wellbeing.

So long as we are in the EU, you might be able to get your hip job done, or receive other urgent but inaccessible care, pay for it and get some of your money back.

One might wonder at what sort of self-interest is at work in the demand for Brexit. Certainly not the self-interest of the arthritic, the lame and the halt.

At the last Brexit election, one of the burning issues turned out to be the question of whether Jeremy Corbyn would eradicate Russia in the event of a nuclear war.

Jeremy does tend to be a bit sluggish in his responses. So, if Russia had, say, taken out Manchester, would he incinerate the entire Russian population, as our defence strategy requires?

Jeremy wasn't all too clear about that. Not really convinced that it would be for the best. Would, perhaps, give it some thought.

My own opinion is that deterrence is even more chimerical than the promised benefits of Brexit. But you would have no trouble at all finding otherwise sensible politicians in Northern Ireland, or GB, who would say that Corbyn is unfit to lead the country if he hasn't got the genocidal gene in his make-up.

But, of course, the deterrence strategy only works to deter if Russia is convinced that Britain would return nuke for nuke. Once the missiles have come down on us, there is nothing to deter.

And, if Russia thinks that a British prime minister hasn't got it in him to burn the planet, then it is likely to think it has some room for manoeuvre. So, a doctrine is compromised before it is even tested.

At the heart of the debate in 2017 and today is the magic money tree. Amber Rudd argued in debate that it simply does not exist.

Now, both Labour and the Tories claim to have found it. They only disagree on the size of it. Labour thinks it is much bigger than Johnson imagines it to be. Much, much bigger.

Of course, the only way that we can influence the choice of money trees is by adding votes to support Labour or the Tories in the event of a hung parliament.

But the choices we make will have nothing to do with any budgetary calculations made here at home. We are extraneous and irrelevant until our MPs are there and until they are needed.

So, what is our election about, when it is not about Brexit? It is about the three-corner fight between nationalism/republicanism, unionism and the middle ground.

One may argue, of course, that it is still mostly about Brexit and that jeopardising a challenge by letting Dodds and Emma Little-Pengelly back in is reckless. Except that the indications are that they may morph into Remainers now to save the Union.

I would personally advise them that would, indeed, be a good strategy for saving the Union.

I am not persuaded that sacrificing the middle ground in this election is a safe bet for scuppering Brexit.

In the end, no doubt, the polarities of nationalism/republicanism and unionism will prevail, but if there are no votes for Alliance, then the same reporters and commentators who said such votes were pointless will be claiming that the middle ground has collapsed. And they will have such smug bakes on them.

I wouldn't give them that satisfaction, but would prefer, instead, to treat this election like any other.

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