It’s time to think about the un­think­able ... a dis­in­te­grated UK, a reig­ni­tion of the Trou­bles

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Fin­tan O’Toole

There was a time when the phrase “not beyond the bounds of pos­si­bil­ity” didn’t sound quite so scary. But in an era when we hardly even no­tice that the pres­i­dent of the United States is on Twit­ter call­ing a porn star “Horse­face”, and Ja­cob Rees-Mogg is a se­ri­ous con­tender to be prime min­is­ter of the United King­dom, the bounds of pos­si­bil­ity are dis­turbingly wide.

So let us con­sider the fol­low­ing sce­nario for the un­fold­ing of events on these is­lands over the next few years. It is im­prob­a­ble but no more so than many con­tem­po­rary re­al­i­ties.

Theresa May agrees a fudged deal with the Euro­pean Union, keep­ing the UK in the cus­toms union for an ex­tended tran­si­tion pe­riod and lock­ing it in there­after to be­ing a satel­lite or­bit­ing the Euro­pean planet. The deal, de­spised for dif­fer­ent rea­sons by Leavers and Re­main­ers, is re­jected by the House of Com­mons. The Bri­tish sys­tem is so paral­ysed that no se­ri­ous ne­go­ti­a­tions are pos­si­ble be­fore time runs out. The UK leaves the EU on March 29th, 2019, with no deal.

In the mean­time, May is ousted and the Tory party’s civil war be­comes ab­so­lute. It splits be­tween a mod­er­ate party led by Jus­tine Green­ing and a fac­tion of ul­tras led by Rees-Mogg. There is a gen­eral elec­tion. Labour wins a nar­row ma­jor­ity of seats in Eng­land on a rad­i­cal so­cial­ist plat­form. But the Scot­tish Na­tional Party sweeps the board in Scot­land and Plaid Cymru does very well in Wales. The Demo­cratic Union­ist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin hold their po­si­tions in North­ern Ire­land. So Jeremy Cor­byn does not have a Com­mons ma­jor­ity.

In or­der to come to power, Cor­byn agrees a pact with the SNP. Ni­cola Stur­geon will al­low him to be­come prime min­is­ter on one con­di­tion: he agrees to a new ref­er­en­dum on Scot­tish in­de­pen­dence in 2020.

But Cor­byn is still three seats short. He ap­proaches his old friends in Sinn Féin with an of­fer they can’t refuse: take your seats in West­min­ster at least for key votes to keep me in power and in re­turn I will in­struct my sec­re­tary of state for North­ern Ire­land to call a bor­der poll for May 3rd, 2021, to co­in­cide with the cen­te­nary of par­ti­tion.

At a stormy Sinn Féin spe­cial ardfheis in Dublin, Mary Lou McDon­ald wins the day and the party ac­cepts Cor­byn’s of­fer. Amid scenes of may­hem in the Com­mons cham­ber with the DUP MPs chain­ing them­selves to the speaker’s chair, Cor­byn be­comes prime min­is­ter.

Cre­at­ing havoc

He takes of­fice, how­ever, in ap­palling cir­cum­stances. The no-deal Brexit is cre­at­ing havoc for the Bri­tish econ­omy. There are in­ter­mit­tent ri­ots by truck driv­ers at Dover. Food prices are soar­ing, caus­ing deep dis­tress for those who can­not af­ford them. The pound has col­lapsed, push­ing up prices of im­ported goods.

The in­ter­na­tional mar­kets, op­posed to Cor­byn’s left­ist pro­gramme and spooked by the eco­nomic chaos, push up the in­ter­est rates at which Bri­tain can bor­row. Gov­ern­ment rev­enues fall, leav­ing the new chan­cel­lor of the ex­che­quer, John Mc­Don­nell, in con­stant cri­sis man­age­ment mode. Labour’s hopes of mak­ing sub­stan­tial new in­vest­ments in re­build­ing the wel­fare state are stalled.

Mean­while, in Ire­land, the no-deal Brexit has forced the Ir­ish gov­ern­ment and the EU to es­tab­lish cus­toms posts on the 208 of­fi­cial bor­der cross­ings. Dis­si­dent IRA mem­bers have blown up some of these posts and fired shots at un­armed cus­toms of­fi­cers, forc­ing the State to place troops on the Bor­der to try to pro­tect them. The dis­si­dents also ramp up street vi­o­lence aimed at Protes­tants and the PSNI as they did in Derry in the sum­mer of 2018.

In re­sponse to Cor­byn’s deal with Sinn Féin, loy­al­ists or­gan­ise ri­ots in Belfast, threat­en­ing vul­ner­a­ble Catholic com­mu­ni­ties. Low-level sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence re­turns to daily life as the count­down to May 3rd, 2021, be­gins.

South of the Bor­der, the no-deal Brexit causes a se­vere eco­nomic shock. Small and medium-sized com­pa­nies, es­pe­cially in the agri­food sec­tor, strug­gle and many of them lay off work­ers. In­ter­na­tional con­fi­dence in the Ir­ish econ­omy wanes be­cause of the un­cer­tain­ties of Brexit and the bor­der poll. Prop­erty prices, over­in­flated in the pre­vi­ous years, de­cline sharply, deep­en­ing the sense of eco­nomic anx­i­ety.

In this at­mos­phere, many be­gin to openly ques­tion the wis­dom of the bor­der poll: can the Repub­lic re­ally take on the fis­cal costs and po­lit­i­cal tur­moil of a united Ire­land?

Back in Eng­land, Cor­byn, al­ready em­bat­tled, faces a fe­ro­cious on­slaught from the right-wing press and the Rees-Mog­gian wing of the Tories for sell­ing out the union. He is de­nounced as a pup­pet of the slimy Scots and the mur­der­ous Shin­ners. He re­sponds in the only pos­si­ble way.

He knows that English at­tach­ment to the union is in fact ex­tremely weak, so he comes out ex­plic­itly and says that the union is a clapped-out con­cept: “I speak for Eng­land and for the English peo­ple.” He gal­vanises a hith­erto in­co­her­ent English na­tion­al­ism by ap­peal­ing to a dream of build­ing the new so­cial­ist Jerusalem in Eng­land’s green and pleas­ant land.

In this at­mos­phere, the SNP wins the Scot­tish in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum in 2020. Cor­byn ac­cepts and in­deed em­braces the re­sult as the pre­lude to the cre­ation of an in­de­pen­dent Eng­land. Talks be­gin on the for­mal dis­so­lu­tion of the An­glo-Scot­tish union of 1707. They are still pro­ceed­ing in May 2021 when the Bor­der poll takes place in Ire­land. Given the now es­tab­lished fact of the breakup of the union, 51 per cent of the vot­ers in North­ern Ire­land vote for Ir­ish unity.

But on the same day, as re­quired by the Con­sti­tu­tion, there is a ref­er­en­dum in the South as well. A united Ire­land has been sup­ported by all the main po­lit­i­cal par­ties but it has be­come ob­vi­ous in the course of the cam­paign that vot­ers in an eco­nom­i­cally de­pressed coun­try do not want to pay the ¤11 bil­lion a year sub­sidy for the North. Se­nior economists have pointed out that, with ¤200 bil­lion pub­lic debt hang­ing over from the last cri­sis and the in­ter­na­tional money mar­kets push­ing up rates for new Gov­ern­ment bor­row­ing, it is a case, not of “won’t pay” but of “can’t pay”.

Ris­ing lev­els of street vi­o­lence in Belfast and Derry, along­side threats from masked loy­al­ist groups to bomb Dublin, add to these anx­i­eties. In the quiet of the polling sta­tion, 51 per cent of vot­ers in South tick the box that says No to a united Ire­land.

And what then? Where do we go if the United King­dom is over but a united Ire­land can­not take its place? A crazy ques­tion, of course. None of this could re­ally hap­pen, could it? Well, all we can say is that it is within the bounds of pos­si­bil­ity.

And given what has al­ready hap­pened in­side those ever-ex­pand­ing lim­its, it might be wise to think about it.


n agrees a pact with Ni­cola Stur­geon. She will al­low him to be­come prime min­is­ter if he agrees to a new ref­er­en­dum on Scot­tish in­de­pen­dence


Riot Po­lice hold back Loy­al­ist pro­tes­tors as a Repub­li­can band marches past dur­ing an anti in­tern­ment pa­rade in Belfast, 2014.

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