Fintan O’Toole: Botched departure from EU should not lead to botched exit from UK

If a united Ireland is on the horizon a decent departure from the UK must be planned

Knowing how to make a grand entrance is all very well but, as the Brexit saga reminds us, the ability to make a dignified exit is even more important. There is a lovely French phrase, l'esprit de l'escalier, that signifies the moment at the bottom of the staircase when you think of what you should have said as you were leaving. The Brexiteers have not yet decided what it is they should have said before the decision to depart was made in June 2016. The words of Capt Lawrence Oates, as he left the tent to walk into the blizzard near the bitter end of Robert Falcon Scott's doomed expedition to the South Pole, seem to be as much as they can manage: we are going out now and we may be some time.

But there is more than one exit taking place now, more than one union that is about to be left behind. One certainty in these days of confusion is that whatever Boris Johnson is camping up most ludicrously is the thing that is in deepest trouble. When Johnson, like some tinpot dictator awarding himself decorations and accolades, granted himself the hitherto unheard-of title of minister for the union, there could be no more convincing proof that the union is in deep doo-doo. If you have to have a minister for potatoes, it can only be because there is potato blight. If the state you’re in needs a minister to affirm its very existence, you in a pretty bad state.

Historic challenge

This creates, however, a historic challenge for Ireland, North and South. It may seem, on the face of it, to promise the fulfilment of the old Irish nationalist dream – a unitary insular state. The end of a century-long story is in sight: partition is about to be undone. Perhaps it is, but not in the way that Irish nationalism always imagined. What we may be about to experience is not so much Northern Ireland leaving the UK as Northern Ireland (and Scotland) being abandoned by England. The grand narrative of Irish nationalism has always been that perfidious Albion was desperate to hold on to the great prize of the Six Counties and had to be forced or cajoled into giving it up. This was never true but it is now starkly and demonstrably false.

Every single survey of both Leave voters and Tory party members over the last three years has shown that they are not unionists. They want Brexit, and if the price of Brexit is the end of the union, so be it. The biggest study, done by Survation for Channel 4 last November, asked voters what their feelings would be: “If Brexit leads to Northern Ireland leaving the United Kingdom and joining the Republic of Ireland”. Sixty-one per cent of Leave voters said they would be “not very concerned” or “not at all concerned”. Fifty-four per cent of people who said they voted for the so-called Conservative and Unionist Party in 2017 said the same thing. The results when asked how they would feel if Brexit led to Scottish independence were on very similar lines: let them go.


Act of departure

So the story here is not Irish nationalists overcoming at last the doughty resistance of Ulster unionists to a united Ireland. It is English nationalists saying "here's your bowler hat, what's your hurry?" The act of departure is coming from the "wrong" direction – it is England's exodus from its long, voluntary self-exile in the imperial state that the brilliant Scottish thinker Tom Nairn calls Ukania. And it is not the severing of a union – it is the implosion of a union.

Ukania was created in the 18th century to serve a particular purpose – the creation and governance of a global empire. One of the world’s first and most aggressive nationalisms – Englishness – was folded into it. There is a long-term logic to the idea that, with empire gone, Englishness will unfold itself again. The problem for the rest of our archipelago is that it is doing so in a form (Brexit) that is both chaotic and self-contradictory. The Leave voters are saying “we don’t give a monkey’s about the union”; their champion Johnson is telling them “the union comes first”.

Outside our control

Karl Marx wrote that people "make their own history, but they do not do so in circumstances of their own choosing". History, including Irish history, is indeed being made – but not in circumstances of Ireland's choosing. If unity is indeed a live possibility, it is being driven by forces outside of our control. We are in a movie we did not write and are not directing. But what we do know is that we are all too capable of botched exits ourselves.

In one of those little jokes that history likes, we will be facing all of this while marking the centenary of a very bad Irexit from the UK, one that gave us partition, a civil war, a sectarian Protestant state in the North and an economically miserable and socially oppressive Catholic state in the South. If the next Irish exit from Ukania is to be better than the last one, we cannot wait to talk about it until we are the bottom of the stairs.