Noel Whelan: Deepening Westminster crisis may yet bear fruit
UK parliamentary manoeuvres will rapidly bring Brexit question to a head
If the UK exits without a deal at the end of March it would be physically, administratively and politically impossible for the Irish Government to put in place any type of monitoring on the Border. Photograph: Getty Images
At the time of Britain’s last major constitutional crisis in 1956, Lady Clarissa Eden, wife of prime minister Anthony Eden, told a gathering of Conservative women that “in the past few weeks I have really felt as if the Suez Canal was flowing through my drawing room”. It remains the most quoted utterance of the whole Suez crisis.
In the next few weeks Philip May can be forgiven for having a similar sense that the Irish Border runs through the flat he now occupies at Downing Street with his wife Theresa.
Next week the constitutional crisis in Britain is set to reach an intensity at least as dangerous as that experienced in the weeks after the British followed the Israelis into Egypt in 1956. The Suez crisis derived principally from the failing policy, and failing health, of Eden himself. The fine Brexit mess that British politics has now got itself into is more layered, and responsibility for it rests across the British system.
Our Government is in suspended animation
Last month Lord Peter Hennessy, a leading historian of Whitehall, described to the Financial Times how Westminster’s vote on the withdrawal agreement is “uniquely important” because it touches on so many central issues of high politics and constitution.
These include Britain’s place in Europe, its place in the world, the Irish question, the future of the union, the future of the party system and Britain’s economic and social condition. Hennessy pointed out how “Brexit is stress-testing our nation’s institutions and its constitution through this series of interlocking questions – of which parliament is an absolutely crucial one”.
Significant developments in the House of Commons itself this week have quickened the pace of the constitutional crisis. In a controversial break with precedent, the speaker, John Bercow, allowed a vote on an amendment to the motion on the withdrawal agreement which requires May if she loses the meaningful vote next Tuesday to come back to parliament within three days and outline what her government proposes to do next.
Importantly, it seems parliament will be able, in any vote on that proposed next step, to vote also on other Brexit options.
From an Irish point of view these Westminster parliamentary manoeuvres have the benefit of bringing to a head rapidly the question of whether or not we are likely to have a no-deal Brexit.
It was always going to take a few weeks of intense crisis in Britain to resolve the conflict between the Brexit fantasies and political and economic realities. It is better that should crisis come before rather than after the end of March.
There is now at least a possibility that the sharpening of the crisis will facilitate the avoidance of a cliff-edge Brexit by giving rise to a request to extend the article 50 timeline or a unilateral revocation of the article 50 notification.
Meanwhile in Ireland our Government is in suspended animation. It must present itself as industriously preparing behind the scenes for a no-deal scenario. Truth be told, at this stage the Government can do no more than scope out and itemise the steps which may have to be taken if that scenario arises. Money and effort spent on preparing for a no-deal exit will be wasted if the withdrawal agreement actually passes or if Brexit is delayed or abandoned.
The Border with Northern Ireland will also run figuratively through Government Buildings and Leinster House in the coming weeks. Maintaining the current situation where it is effectively a border in name only will continue to be the crucial priority.
Even if there is a cliff-edge Brexit there will continue to be no border infrastructure, at least for the short term. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has made it clear that there are currently no plans to erect customs posts or regulatory checkpoints on or near the Border.
In saying so Varadkar is doing no more than acknowledging the inevitable. If the UK exits without a deal at the end of March it would be physically, administratively and politically impossible for the Irish Government to put in place any type of monitoring on the Border. The local communities on both sides, who have enjoyed two decades of unimpeded crossings, would simply resist or ignore any Border infrastructure. If pressed they would engage in civil disobedience.
It is often a good idea to leave a back door open in the interest of reducing the temperature in the immediately adjoining rooms. Ultimately, however, other EU member states will begin to complain about the draught that an unmonitored Irish Border exposes them to, and will insist that we comply with our obligations as a member state.
Our best hope, and it can only be a hope, is that the British crisis, whether it comes next week or shortly thereafter, creates such economic and political shocks that common sense quickly prevails.