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Fintan O’Toole: Brexit walked all over North's delicate construct of ambiguity

Instead of using North for proxy wars, Britain and EU need to get back to living with ambiguity

The capital of Texas declared its independence from the culture of the rest of the state by adopting the motto: Keep Austin Weird. Northern Ireland needs its own slogan: Keep Ulster Blurry.

Neither zealots nor technocrats like fuzziness. But Northern Ireland needs it. Its peace process is founded on the understanding that living with ambiguity is better than dying for certitude.

"A foolish consistency", wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, "is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen". Few places on earth have been so tormented by consistent fools as Northern Ireland has been over the century of its existence.

Northern Ireland desperately needs not to be defined by any either/or mentality

The statelet formed by partition in 1921 had to be one thing or the other: either a stolen part of Irish national territory or a heroic redoubt of Britishness.


Making peace has been about blurring the edges of consistent but mutually exclusive identities and allegiances. “Confusion”, as Hugh puts it in Brian Friel’s great play Translations, “is not an ignoble condition.” That’s what peace comes down to – an option for not-ignoble confusion over foolish – and fatal – consistency.

Brexit trod all over that delicate construct with its sturdy English Doc Martens. The brutal binary of the 2016 referendum – in/out, leave/remain – brought with it (as a mere afterthought) the return of a dualistic mindset to the problem of Northern Ireland’s future.

Behind all the tedium of backstops, frontstops and protocols has been an attempt to rescue the hard-won truth that Northern Ireland desperately needs not to be defined by any either/or mentality. Resistance to the reimposition of a hard border on the island was not primarily about customs or tariffs. It was an insistence on the openness of mind and the fluidity of movement and contact that make a shared life possible.

Out of that resistance came, eventually, the Northern Ireland protocol. It is nobody’s idea of a desirable invention. It is salvage from the shipwreck of Brexit.

But this rescue is not a mere technocratic fix. It has to cloak itself in that language because the things it must deal with – rules and phytosanitary arrangements and endless form-filling – are of that nature. But at its core is something much more important. Its job is to save the constructive ambiguity of the peace process from slipping back into the deadly binaries of conflict.

They have given Northern Ireland a glimpse of what the worst of both worlds might look like

Hence, it creates a deliberately ambivalent space. Northern Ireland is both and neither – inside and outside the EU, the same as and different from Britain. It has left and still remains. It is, purposefully and properly, neither one thing nor the other.

The protocol helps to keep the peace process afloat. Its metaphor of a border in the Irish Sea is actually not a bad one – the protocol is a flotation device, created to keep the crucial ambiguity of Northern Ireland from going under the high waves of the Brexit storm.

The problem is that, in their different ways, both the British and the EU are landlubbers. They want to feel solid ground – the union, the sanctity of the single market – under their feet.

Hence, in the past few weeks, the guardians of this delicate newborn architecture of ambivalence have been rotten parents. The EU and Boris Johnson’s Tory government have behaved like the worst squabbling couple, using the child as a way to get at each other, with little concern for its own welfare.

Having promised Northern Ireland the best of both worlds, they have given it a glimpse of what the worst of both worlds might look like: being treated by both sides as a useful little needle with which to prick each other.

The EU’s threat of a sudden and unilateral suspension of the protocol was both stupid and outrageous. It undid in hours what the EU had managed to do over the years since 2016, which was to establish itself, in contrast to the Brexiteers, as a responsible actor in relation to Northern Ireland.

Reprehensible as this was, there is one thing that has to be borne in mind: it didn’t happen. It took about nine hours from word of the plan first emerging for the EU to drop it entirely. The EU was wrong-headed. It was not pig-headed.

But let’s not forget that Boris Johnson was playing this reckless game weeks before the EU’s ridiculous demarche. On January 13th, he told the House of Commons that “we will have no hesitation in invoking Article 16”.

He was doing this, not because he gives a flying frig for a part of the UK he has no interest in, but because it feeds some meat to his right-wing media fans and gets the old gang back together – the ERG, the DUP and Nigel Farage can reprise their synchronised flag-waving act.

This is a proxy war. There are some real difficulties with the operation of the protocol, but they are perfectly capable of being dealt with by competent officials acting with goodwill and applying common sense. Northern Ireland has had enough of real wars; it doesn’t need to be the battleground for proxy ones.

To avoid this fate, everyone will have to get back to living with indeterminacy. We know from horrible experience that contradiction is vastly better than consistent despair. Keep Ulster Blurry.