‘I wasted time, and now doth time waste me;/For now hath time made me his numbering clock . . .” Shakespeare’s Richard II, the powerless king of a land without authority, is perhaps the most eloquent spokesman for Britain’s current dilemma.
Brexit has been the most spectacular exercise in time-wasting in the annals of international diplomacy. The numbering clock that Theresa May recklessly set in motion when she triggered article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is ticking down hour by hour towards Friday, March 29th, 2019. But while time is moving unstoppably forward, the negotiations on a withdrawal agreement are moving backwards. The Irish border backstop and the divorce bill – both apparently agreed last December – are again being called into question by the British.
It took two years for the British to produce an opening position for the negotiations and then it almost immediately went backwards into a prior state of indecision
The pace of Brexit has been a weird mixture of hurtling and dawdling, an apparently unstoppable rush towards the edge of the cliff combined with an unruly ramble through all the byways of the English nationalist psyche.It sometimes seems that the British have watched too many episodes of Doctor Who and imagine themselves to be Time Lords, creatures from another planet who are not bound by the earthly laws of time. Brexit seems to be unfolding simultaneously in two parallel universes, one (inhabited by the rest of us) in which wasted days cannot be recovered and the other (inhabited by the British state) in which everything can be reversed and revisited.
It took two years for the British to produce an opening position for the negotiations and then it almost immediately went backwards into a prior state of indecision, confusion and contradiction. Now they amble off for their summer holidays even as the days drift by on their passage to October and the supposed deadline for a withdrawal agreement. The no-deal zealots have been allowed to talk down the clock. The result is that time itself is now the enemy – in revenge for being so prodigiously wasted, it threatens to lay waste to the UK in the form of a catastrophic crash-out Brexit, with Ireland as collateral damage.
There may be a reluctance to give the reckless Brits the time of day but that is exactly what they need and it is a vital Irish interest that they get it
Time ought to be on the side of sanity – the further Britain moves on from the simplistic ecstasies of the 2016 plebiscite, the more obvious is the buyer’s remorse. But reality is seeping in slowly and gradually while the time available for this process to take effect is running out. With every passing day, we get closer to an outcome that no sane person actually wants (though the swivel-eyed loons are in a lather of sadomasochistic desire). No-deal may happen, not for want of understanding of its terrible effects, but simply, in the end, for want of time.
And this, perhaps, is something the Irish Government can actually help with. There may be a reluctance to give the reckless Brits the time of day but that is exactly what they need and it is a vital Irish interest that they get it. Article 50 sets a two-year limit for the completion of the UK's withdrawal from the European Union. But this can be extended with the agreement of all 27 remaining member states. It is up to the British to ask for this extension and, in formal terms, Ireland has no business taking the initiative. But this is very much Ireland's business. Fifty thousand Irish jobs and the future of the Belfast Agreement are at stake.
So while Ireland can’t make Theresa May ask for more time, it can try to make it clear that more time will be given if she asks for it. Ireland should lobby all the other member states to join us in a declaration to the effect that a British request for a six-month extension of Brexit from March 2019 to September 2019 would be accepted without preconditions. This may be seen as rewarding bad behaviour and perhaps it is. European patience has already been tried – why demand yet more of it? Because the stakes are too high for moralising. At this stage, with disaster looming, we do not have the luxury of asking what anyone deserves. We have to concentrate on what everyone – especially Ireland – needs. And that’s time.
There is a serious danger that the Irish question will get squeezed in a frantic rush for a last-minute agreement
That extra six months could be a very long time in British politics. There is a risk, of course, that the Tories would simply use it to wallow in the self-indulgence of a challenge to May and a leadership contest. But that hazard exists anyway – the zealots are perfectly capable of doing this in the autumn regardless of the consequences. And there is, on the other side, a decent chance that the slow dawning of reality will gather pace and that the gradual shift in public opinion that is already evident will acquire a critical mass.
Resetting the clock would be very much in Ireland’s interests. As things stand, there is a serious danger that the Irish question will get squeezed in a frantic rush for a last-minute agreement – and an equally serious risk that no deal can be done at all. There is nothing to lose and a great deal to be gained in an offer of precious days, weeks and months. It is just possible that in that breathing space, second thoughts might take hold. It would be about time.