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Kathy Sheridan: In Britain, the B-word is the biggest taboo of all

The chaos Britain has visited upon itself is not about Brexit, you see – not at all

Britain is expected to announce plans to issue temporary visas to truck drivers to alleviate an acute labour shortage that has led to fuel rationing at some filling stations and warnings from retailers of significant disruption ahead of Christmas.

So how is arguing with the Brexiteers working out for you these days, a reader asks? I don’t, is the answer. Good, he says; all “you people” ever did was drive them deeper into their trenches.

It’s our duty to listen, nod sympathetically and shut up, apparently. I’ve seen many good people try it with Brexiteers. But gentle explanations of Theresa May’s three red lines and their disastrous implications could never compete with shiny slogans about sovereignty, border controls and the violent revolution forecast if the will of the people was denied.

On a good night there might have been room for a quick reminder that the people of Northern Ireland actually rejected Brexit, plus a mention for the role of the virulently pro-Brexit DUP and the vast sums this tiny Northern Irish party injected into the Brexit campaign in Britain.

That Brexiteers had no idea what they had voted for is incontrovertible now. But the Project Fear, citizens of nowhere, gloomsters and doomsters talking down Britain were still supposed to listen and shut up. How did that work out for everyone?


So own it, DUP boys and girls; the current hellscape of Brexit Britain and the Northern Ireland protocol is your own whining, angry baby

The story is familiar but important to restate. Attempts are ongoing to bury the Brexit word. What is happening in the UK is no longer about Brexit apparently – not even a tiny bit. It’s all the fault of Covid, the EU, Covid, Britain’s "brainless bureaucracy” (Iain Duncan Smith). Four and a half years as a headline magnet and the word is being magicked away in that dark bulk of the British media that cheered, lied, distorted and bullied it through the electorate.

Drivers queue for petrol and diesel fuel at a filling station off of the M3 motorway near Fleet, west of London, on Sunday. Photograph: Getty Images

British news shows can hack through a whole hour or two of national calamities without squeaking the word. UK Labour leader Keir Starmer's massive 12,500-word essay mentions it all of five times. On Monday the leaders of the DUP and TUV produced a 1,300-word critique of the Northern Ireland protocol without a single mention. The brawling B baby they midwifed into existence is dead to them.

DUP votes

Remember the indicative votes in April 2019 when Westminster was frantically trying to put a shape on that Brexit mercury? Of the four amendments selected for a vote, one was a customs union plan proposed by the former chancellor Ken Clarke; any Brexit deal would have been required to include a commitment to negotiate a “permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union with the EU”. It was lost by just three votes thanks to the indispensable opposition of all 10 DUP MPs. So own it, DUP boys and girls; the current hellscape of Brexit Britain and the Northern Ireland protocol is your own whining, angry baby. Hmmm, best shift the argument to democracy.

As declared in the first sentence of their joint opinion piece, Jeffrey Donaldson and Jim Allister did indeed represent 71 per cent of those who voted unionist at the last general election. Far more tellingly, Donaldson's party now stands at 13 per cent in the same polls that have Allister's TUV (of which he is leader and sole Assembly member) surging from near zero to 14 per cent. Donaldson seeks political salvation with a man vowing not merely to stop EU checks on British goods arriving at Northern Irish ports but to end the powersharing agreement at the centre of the Belfast Agreement.

There is something almost comical about offering visas to foreign workers to truck in the turkeys for the Brits, on condition they're gone by Christmas Eve

Yet Donaldson, who used his pivotal Westminster vote to frustrate the will of the majority of Northern Ireland on Brexit, chooses a quote from the same Belfast Agreement to attack the protocol, direct spawn of Brexit: “It would be wrong to make ANY change in the status of Northern Ireland, save with the consent of the majority of its people.” This consent principle, they say, was central to assuring both unionists and nationalists that the future direction of Northern Ireland would be decided democratically and not by force or coercion. Furthermore, they say, all of these withdrawal agreement/protocol changes have been imposed without the people of Northern Ireland having any say about them. Isn’t democracy a foxy little chameleon? A word means just what I choose it to mean, said Humpty Dumpty … Just like Brexit.

Almost comical

Meanwhile, as brawls break out among panic-stricken motorists in British service stations, "there simply isn't a problem here [in Northern Ireland]", said Seamus Leheny of the freight trade body Logistics UK. The scarcity of general haulage drivers in other sectors is widely noted but a survey of hauliers by the British Hauliers Association shows that Brexit is almost level with drivers retiring as the main cause of the shortage. There is something almost comical about offering visas to foreign workers to truck in the turkeys for the Brits, on condition they're gone by Christmas Eve.

Vast tonnages of crops are rotting in English fields. Everyone has seen the news about the container of fish that cost £3,000 pre-Brexit that has now soared to £14,000. Still the massed efforts to bury the B-word under Covid-19 carry on, until an outsider spits it out.

On Radio 4’s Today on Monday, Edwin Atema, a Dutch haulage union representative, did just that: “The EU workers we speak to will not go to the UK for short-term visas to help UK out of the shit they created themselves.” Thank you, said the presenter, “not ideal language but we get the message”. Do they though?