Newton Emerson: The hysteria of Irish nationalists over Brexit is irrational

Very little will change in UK leaves the EU unless Scotland becomes independent

The EU is cited nine times in the Belfast Agreement but only in passing. Brussels has no formal role in any of the agreement’s institutions. Even the all-Ireland EU funding body is not specified in the agreement’s text – and EU funding can continue by treating Northern Ireland as a border region. Photograph: Dan Chung/Reuters

The EU is cited nine times in the Belfast Agreement but only in passing. Brussels has no formal role in any of the agreement’s institutions. Even the all-Ireland EU funding body is not specified in the agreement’s text – and EU funding can continue by treating Northern Ireland as a border region. Photograph: Dan Chung/Reuters

 

The British people were traumatised, the institutions of the UK were shaken, and nothing was ever going to be the same again. For about a week, anyway. Then Princess Diana was buried and everyone realised they had been caught up in a classic episode of mass hysteria – perhaps the first in the United Kingdom since the Ulster Revival of 1859.

So embarrassing was this realisation that the events of 19 years ago still induce a national cringe. All we have now to remind us of the People’s Princess are a tacky shrine in Harrods, a grotty fountain in Hyde Park and at least one legitimate heir to an unperturbed throne.

The aftermath of the EU referendum has not been quite so overwrought, but it is already carrying a strong sense of overreaction. Some of the totemic fears of the past few weeks are simply wrong: The European Convention on Human Rights and its court at Strasbourg have nothing to do with the EU. Young British people can continue to study abroad – that fabled Erasmus programme has been open to the whole world since 2009.

Taking a calmer look at existing compromises around the edge of Europe, it is clear that the UK can get any deal it wants. It just has to agree on what that is.

Turkey trades freely in goods without free movement of people via the EU customs union. The six Nordic countries keep their common travel area, despite three being outside the EU. Switzerland is a global financial centre. EU scientific and academic bodies offer associate membership to non-EU countries. Greenlanders left the EU but retain EU citizenship.

Regional citizens

Another example? Finland’s Swedish-speaking Aland islanders have EU-recognised “regional citizenship” – an intriguing precedent for Scotland and Northern Ireland. Alternatively, the UK can get a uniquely good deal of its own, as that is how all these precedents were set.

If there are any grounds for hysteria, it is the regional question. How different would Brexit feel if there was no prospect of Scottish independence? The UK would still be looking at an expensive and disruptive decade of negotiating itself back to roughly where it is now, but in the grand scheme of things that is merely a nuisance.

What makes it a crisis is the threat of the UK breaking up – a threat issued solely from Edinburgh, irrespective of how much London provoked it.

The 2014 Scottish independent bid was dubbed “the Ajockalypse”. What the UK now faces is its blockbuster sequel, Ajockalypse 2: The Brexiting.

Scottish reapply

However, while Brexit is a great excuse for the SNP to try again, it only strengthens the arguments that defeated independence last time. The Scots now face a near certainty of having to reapply for EU membership and join the euro. There will also be the prospect of a hard border in Britain, although that should recede as a deal is worked out to avoid one in Ireland.

Any country facing two existential threats in as many years is still in serious trouble. But faltering relations with the neighbours are just the symptom of an internal problem.

The trouble with Ireland’s Brexit hysteria is that it bemoans the symptom while half-welcoming the problem. Everything will the fine if the UK holds together, but is that what Ireland wants?

Dublin seems conflicted on Scottish independence, going well beyond the ambivalence called for by diplomacy. Taking the Spanish line of outright hostility to the SNP agenda is inconceivable. The Republic has as much at stake as Spain in discouraging UK separatism, but Celtic solidarity and sentiment appear to trump that logic.

Within Northern Ireland, the Irish nationalist population feels distraught at being dragged out of the EU against its wishes and aghast at the UK’s cavalier disregard for the European context of peace. Yet in the Brexit referendum, nationalist-majority areas of the North recorded by far the lowest turnouts in the UK.

Before the referendum, the European dimension of the peace process had scarcely been mentioned since the 1990s, when John Hume was crucified by Sinn Féin for referring to “post-nationalism”. The EU is cited nine times in the Belfast Agreement, but only in passing. Brussels has no formal role in any of the agreement’s institutions.

Even the all-Ireland EU funding body is not specified in the agreement’s text – and EU funding can continue by treating Northern Ireland as a border region.

I would not wish to downplay genuine concerns, but nationalist hysteria over Europe seems more wind than candle. For the Irish as for the British, it is, as honest partisans will concede, all about Scotland.

If the SNP fails again, the likeliest long-term outcome of Brexit for the island of Ireland is that daily life will be unaffected apart from the creation of another exaggerated grievance.

And sure, what’s one more of those?

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