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A New Ireland?

Bertie Ahern, who was the taoiseach (prime minister) of the Irish Republic from 1997 to 2008, was a brilliant machine politician, not a nationalist or an ideologist. In fact, if you said the word ‘principle’ in his presence, he might have to look up the meaning. But here’s what he said after the Sinn Féin Party came first in last Saturday’s Irish election.

“I think a border poll (on the unification of the Republic and Northern Ireland, which is currently part of the United Kingdom) is inevitable. If you ask me when that is, I think it’s probably five years off at least….but it will be inevitable over this decade.” Are we about to see the final, peaceful solution to the 400-year-old ‘Irish problem’?

Not necessarily, but the long, frozen stability of Irish politics both north and south of the border is definitely dissolving. In Northern Ireland the Catholics have finally achieved the ‘revenge of the cradle’, displacing the Protestants as the majority population – at a time when, coincidentally, the turmoil of Brexit is making all the old certainties about the province’s ties to the UK open to question.

In the south, independent from the UK for a century and home to almost three-quarters of the island’s 6.6 million people, almost everybody is of Catholic heritage and matters have long seemed more settled. Politics was dominated by two centre-right parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, neither of which gave more than lip-service to the notion of unification with the North.

Nobody in the Republic wanted to hear about that. The ‘Celtic Tiger’ years (ca. 1995-2008) had finally made the Republic a prosperous place, after a long history of genteel poverty. Most of its citizens had no desire to see a united Ireland if it risked bringing the North’s chronic violence (‘The Troubles’, 1968-1999) to the south as well.

In these circumstances Sinn Féin, an all-Ireland leftist and nationalist party that operated as the political front of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the ‘Troubles’, had little attraction for voters in the Republic. It was Northern-dominated and linked to terrorism, and both of the major parties in Dublin refused to have anything to do with it.

And now, suddenly, Sinn Féin ends up with more votes than any other party in the Republic. What happened?

This political revolution is NOT driven by Irish nationalism. Few of the people who voted for Sinn Féin cared much about the North, or unification, or any of that old stuff.

They voted for Sinn Féin because they were fed up with high rents, housing shortages and long hospital waiting lists. Their only alternative was to vote for the same two old parties that have been passing power back and forth for a hundred years, so they ignored Sinn Féin’s IRA links and voted for it anyway.

Those links recently became easier to ignore because Gerry Adams, Sinn Féin’s leader for 35 years and simultaneously a senior officer in the IRA (though he always denied it) finally retired in 2018. His successor, Mary Lou McDonald, definitely has no blood on her hands, and she was born in the Republic, not in the North. She’s voter-friendly, not scary, and she got the votes.

Irish politics is clearly now a three-horse race, in the sense that Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael each got between 21% and 25% of the vote. But that leaves each of them with fewer than half the seats they would need for a majority in the Dáil (parliament).

Prospects for viable coalition-making were looking grim after the election, with both traditional major parties saying they would never enter a coalition with Sinn Féin. The only viable alternative was yet another deal between the two traditional major parties – but that is what the voters had just revolted against.

Now it’s looking a little saner, with Micheál Martin of Fianna Fáil saying that he’s open to talks with Sinn Féin. But the sheer tribal truculence of Irish politics is embodied in the very names of the Republic’s major parties: ‘Ourselves Alone’ (Sinn Féin), ‘Tribe of the Irish’ (Fine Gael), and ‘Soldiers of Destiny’ (Fianna Fáil ).

It will therefore take some time to make a deal, but one will be reached eventually, and it will probably include a place for Sinn Féin. Mary Lou McDonald, the Sinn Féin leader, said it plainly – “We are going to have a unity referendum” – and Fintan O’Toole, the best Irish political commentator of his generation, explained what that means in his column in the Irish Times.

“(The voters) have gone where they were warned not to go,” he wrote, “and in doing so they have redrawn the map of Irish politics to include territory previously marked ‘Here Be Dragons’.”

To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 13. (“Nobody…well”; and “Now…Fáil”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

English Turkeys Vote For Christmas

Down on the turkey farm, the Scottish and Irish birds noticed that the smiling man in the festive costume was holding a hatchet behind his back, and hid. The Welsh turkeys looked confused and huddled together squawking. But the English turkeys marched bravely up to the chopping block, confident that this would be a Christmas to remember.

Boris Johnson’s big victory in Thursday’s ‘Brexit’ election was achieved almost entirely with English votes. Only 20 of the 364 seats won by the Conservative Party were in the other three ‘nations’ of the United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom will continue to be called that for several years, but this election has actually sounded its death knell. It was the votes of English nationalists that gave Johnson his victory, and they don’t really care if the UK survives. Just as well, because it won’t.

The English have been nationalists for around five centuries, but they were also content to share a broader ‘British’ identity so long as it gave them bragging rights on the world’s biggest empire. Once that was gone, a specifically English nationalism was bound to resurface eventually.

The resurgence of nationalism in Scotland and Wales was also inevitable, and in Northern Ireland it had never gone away. All those nationalisms largely defined themselves by challenging the domination of the English majority (83%) in the UK, but English nationalists obviously needed a bigger opponent to push against. They found it, inevitably, in the European Union.

The EU is not very credible as an oppressor, but it has been allotted that role by the Conservative Party and the right-wing, billionaire-owned media that dominate the English scene. From ‘Take Back Control’ to ‘Get Brexit Done’, the Conservatives’ slogans work in England, although they have almost no power in the other nations of the UK.

Three-fifths of Conservative Party members now believe that the break-up of the UK would be an acceptable price to pay for leaving the EU. A smaller majority would even accept the demise of their own party if that were the price of leaving. (The pollsters neglected to ask them if they were willing to sacrifice their first-born sons, but presumably their answer would have been the same.)

This unhinged English nationalism will hasten the departure of Scotland from the UK. Scotland will leave to get away from the English crazies and to stay in the EU, its path to the latter goal made easier because in 2017 Spain withdrew its long-standing threat to veto Scottish membership of the EU. A second and successful Scottish independence referendum is probably only two years away.

This election also revealed a majority for ‘Remain’ in Northern Ireland, and the shortest route to that goal would be via union with the Republic of Ireland (which remains an EU member).

That risks reigniting ‘The Troubles’ that ended 20 years ago, but the Protestant loyalists have been betrayed and abandoned by Boris Johnson, so it might work. All the options are now dangerous, and this one not necessarily more so than others.

As for Wales, it will unenthusiastically stick with England. After 600 years of being governed from London – twice as long as the other non-English parts of the UK – it has got used to it. Or at least lost the ability to imagine anything else.

And what about England’s future? It will formally leave the EU by the end of January, but this is just the start of Brexit Part II, the negotiation of a trade agreement with the EU. That would normally take many years, but Boris Johnson swears that he will end the negotiation with or without a trade deal by the end of 2020.

Maybe he’s bluffing again: he didn’t die in a ditch the last time he promised to do so if he didn’t get a deal in time. Besides, crashing out without a deal would be catastrophic for the British economy: half of all UK trade is with the EU. So many people think Johnson will make another sweetheart deal with the EU to save his skin, just like he did last October.

Not necessarily. Johnson pretends to be an amiable, scatter-brained clown, but he is actually a highly skilled political operator with close ties to hard-right British and American ideologues like Donald Trump. If he really shares their goal of opening the British economy up for asset-stripping, then crashing out is a way to achieve that goal.

On the other hand, Johnson is a man without fixed principles or ideology. His sole goal is the acquisition and retention of personal power, and that might require him to pay attention to the interests of the disillusioned and deluded former Labour voters who gave him this victory. He may not dismantle the British welfare state as far and as fast as his backers expect.

Don’t ask me which way he will jump. He probably doesn’t know that himself yet.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“The EU…the UK”; and “As for…else”)

The Last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

It has been suggested that Boris Johnson (who becomes the prime minister of the United Kingdom this week) is what you would get if Donald Trump had been educated at Eton and Oxford. Maybe, although there is a great gulf between Trump’s bombastic self-promotion and Johnson’s self-deprecating, rather shambolic persona.

There is such a thing as a national style, and Trump’s shtick would fail as badly in Britain as Johnson’s would in the United States. But questions of style aside, the two men are almost identical.

They are both inveterate, shameless liars. They are both what lay people call narcissists and the experts call ‘sociopaths’: men (they are mostly men) who accumulate numerous wives, girlfriends and children as they go through life, but never really engage with anybody. And neither of them has any real purpose in politics.

They are quite good at winning, and they target the same sector of the electorate: older, less well educated people, frightened about their economic future, and often racist. Some of those who support them are none of those things, of course, but the courting of white nationalists by both men is unmistakable. The shriek of the dog-whistles is deafening.

What Trump and Johnson conspicuously lack is set of objectives that goes beyond merely winning and keeping power. Trump’s determination to expunge every trace of Obama’s legacy (healthcare, the Iran deal, etc.) gives him a kind of agenda, but an entirely negative one. Boris Johnson doesn’t even have that. His only role in British politics is to save the Conservative Party by ‘delivering’ Brexit.

Johnson wouldn’t be in Downing Street today if there had not been an election in Britain two months ago. It was only an election for the European Parliament, but Britain had to vote in it because it still hadn’t left the European Union despite two postponements.

The EU election did, however, give British voters an opportunity to express their views on Brexit, and it was catastrophic for the Conservatives. On the whole the vote split pretty evenly between pro-Leave and pro-Remain parties, but the Conservatives came FIFTH, behind the Greens and just ahead of the Monster Raving Loony Party.

Panic at Conservative headquarters! Their traditional voters are mostly Leavers, and they are so angry at their party for failing to get the job done, three full years after the referendum, that they are abandoning it for Nigel Farage’s newly formed Brexit Party. If there is a national election in the UK the Conservatives will be wiped out – and given the deadlock in parliament, an early election is quite likely.

So where’s Boris when we need him? We all know that he’s lazy, feckless, insanely ambitious, utterly unprincipled and liable to make huge mistakes, but we desperately need to rally the troops and he’s the one they love.

Boris generously agreed to help the Party out, so they unceremoniously dumped Prime Minister Theresa May and set up a contest for a new party leader that Johnson was bound to win. That automatically makes him prime minister as well, but he may be the last prime minister of a genuinely united kingdom.

Johnson can only succeed by taking Britain out of the EU by October 31st. He swears that he can get a better exit deal than Theresa May negotiated (which parliament refused to pass three times), but the EU says no further negotiations are possible. He could try the traditional remedy of shouting loudly at them in English, but it may not succeed.

If that doesn’t work, he says he’ll take the UK out of the EU anyway, without a deal. That would inflict serious economic hardship on the British population, but true Brexiters reckon that’s a small price to pay for leaving an organisation they detest. Half the English population doesn’t agree – and TWO-THIRDS of the Scots voted Remain.

If a largely English government drags the United Kingdom out of the European Union and into economic misery, then the Scots will probably decide to leave the UK and stay in the EU. The Scottish National Party is already promising another referendum on the question.

What happens in Northern Ireland with a no-deal exit from the EU and a ‘hard border’ between the North and the Republic is harder to predict. The shooting and bombing could start up again, or there could be a bitterly fought referendum on a united Ireland, or hopefully something less dramatic than either of those options would happen. But it will not stay the same.

So there’s rather a lot at stake, including the 300-year-old Union, and the man in charge is the farthest thing imaginable from a safe pair of hands. “Boris is the life and soul of the party, but he’s not the man you want to drive you home at the end of the evening,” as Energy Minister Amber Rudd put it recently.

If parliament can stop Johnson from doing a no-deal Brexit, of course, then none of this comes to pass. But it’s not at all certain that parliament can do that. The British are living in interesting times.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 14. (“They…deafening”; and “What…same”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

The Brexit Cult

Oscar Wilde described fox-hunting as “the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible.” Brexit may be similarly defined as the unhinged in pursuit of the infeasible.

Unhinged how? The last two men standing in the contest to replace Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party, and therefore Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, are Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt. Both of them have now promised to take the UK out of the European Union without an exit deal on October 31 unless the EU bows to their demands.

A ‘no-deal’ exit would be an economic catastrophe, for the UK’s foreign trade is currently conducted in accord with the myriad trade deals that the EU has negotiated over the decades on behalf of its members. Crash out and Britain would have NO trade deals in place, even with Europe.

Both contenders know that there would be huge economic pain, and still they press on. On Sunday Jeremy Hunt said he would willingly tell people whose companies went broke after a no-deal Brexit that their sacrifice had been necessary, although he would do so “with a heavy heart.” Boris Johnson simply says “F**k business.” (I am not making this up.)

Yet these two men belong to the Conservative Party, for almost two centuries ‘the party of business’. Unfortunately, that ship sailed some time ago. The party first became a vehicle for rabid English nationalism, and has now morphed into a secular cult that treats Brexit as the Holy Grail.

Conventional calculations of national interest no longer count. A recent YouGov poll found that 63% of Conservative Party members would be willing to see Scotland leave the Union in order to achieve Brexit. 59% were prepared to see Northern Ireland go too, and more than 60% were willing to accept ‘significant damage to the UK economy’. And it has to be the hardest, most damaging Brexit imaginable.

So yes, the Conservative Party has become unhinged – even though a perfectly sensible exit deal from the EU already exists. Theresa May signed it last November.

It’s not a great deal – you don’t have much negotiating leverage when you are walking out of a club with 27 other members – but it would preserve Britain’s ability to go on trading at advantageous terms with the rest of the world. However, May could not get her deal through because she has only a tiny majority in parliament, and the extreme Brexit wing of her own party would not vote for it.

Johnson and Hunt both vow to junk May’s deal and ‘renegotiate’ a better one, but that truly is infeasible. The EU has said plainly that May’s deal cannot be ‘renegotiated’, and repeats it almost weekly. Neither Johnson nor Hunt can make all 27 EU countries change their position by sheer force of personality.

They must know this, but they must pretend otherwise because the 160,000 members of the Conservative party who will decide between them – an overwhelmingly white, male and very prosperous group, average age 57 – believe with an almost religious faith that Johnny Foreigner will always crumble if you shout loudly at him in English.

It is the purest fantasy, and only a madman would want the job that Johnson and Hunt are vying for. As the fantasy collides with reality round about October, all things will become possible: a no-deal Brexit, the collapse of the government, the disintegration of the Conservative Party, a new election, or even a second referendum that sweeps all the nonsense of the past three years away. (56% of British voters say they would now vote ‘Remain’.)

Whatever the outcome, this is a delusional and destructive way of doing business. The latest round of gurgling insanity in Britain was brought about by the collapse of the Conservative vote in the otherwise unimportant elections for the European parliament in May: they came fifth.

The Conservatives panicked, rightly concluding that they will be toast in the next UK election if they don’t ‘deliver’ Brexit to their voters beforehand. Hence the defenestration of May and the search for a new leader who can somehow make the delivery before the party has to face the voters again.

Brexit now means a no-deal Brexit, since the EU is not going to abandon the existing deal. But the arithmetic in parliament has not changed either, and parliament has repeatedly rejected a no-deal exit. Johnson and Hunt have therefore both said that they would shut parliament down temporarily, if necessary, to get no-deal through. So much for democracy.

You can see how the British got into this mess in terms of cause and effect, but the sheer ignorance, incompetence and cowardice of the political class, and especially of the Conservative Party, is still stunning. It makes Donald Trump’s White House look well run.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“Whatever…again”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.