Brexit, but at what cost?

With less than two months to go, there remain numerous questions about a post-EU Northern Ireland

The camera pans to the audience before the presenter walks onto the stage. “Ladies and Gentlemen welcome to Deal or no Deal where we are joined by tonight’s contestant…”

With two months until the UK’s departure from the EU, it could be said that Boris Johnson is taking part in a spin off of this classic Channel 4 game show. Instead of contestants playing for money, British Prime Ministers play for the economic fate of Britain and the rest of the EU. This has become the British political system and, sadly, Ireland has a stake in the game.

In 2018, Trinity saw a 20% decrease in applications from students from the North. This number will surely increase if the UK leaves without a deal on October 31st. A no-deal Brexit will mean custom checks along the border, creating long delays and lead to less frequent transport services for students travelling to and from Northern Ireland. There are currently 2,400 students from Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK studying in Trinity and, though there has been no change in the student tuition fees for the academic year 2019/2020, the future is far from certain. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, it is very likely that UK students may have to pay significantly higher international fees in the future.

“In the event of a no-deal Brexit, it is very likely that UK students may have to pay significantly higher international fees in the future.”

The Brexit campaign’s narrative of Britain having lost sovereignty as an EU member state has ignored the fact that Britain actually dictates a multitude of areas within EU policy. It also disregards the fact that free movement of people is vital to the British economy. Instead, anti-immigration sentiments were plastered in many British newspapers, fuelling dangerous populist discourse.

The Brexiteers’ so called ‘Independence Day’ is on the horizon. But when you scrape away all this rhetoric, the self-interest of the elite is all that remains. For example, the desire to turn the UK into a deregulated tax haven will conveniently benefit Jacob Rees-Mogg’s investment company. However, the British population will not share this benefit; the UK will not be ‘free’ to make trade deals, at the very best it will walk in shackles towards one dictated by the US. At the very worst, a deal will not materialise in the near future. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, has firmly stated that Congress will not approve any trade agreement that undermines the Good Friday Agreement. 

Johnson either fails to recognise the detriment a hard border will have or is deliberately playing it down. It would not be, as he claims, the same as the London traffic congestion charge. Such a border will inevitably threaten the Good Friday Agreement and lead to a rise in political violence north and south of the border. The issue for students from the North therefore goes beyond inconvenience and potentially limited transport; it becomes a security concern. During the height of the Troubles, the border checkpoints were targeted by parliamentary organisations. If this were to happen again, the commute for students from the North into the Republic may become dangerous. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have both expressed the need to preserve stability in Northern Ireland.

“Such a border will inevitably threaten the Good Friday Agreement and lead to a rise in political violence north and south of the border.”

Johnson knows that mere mention of non-existent technology will not cause the EU to remove the backstop. Instead, it appears the seasoned Brexiteer is just biding time. He appears to be requesting the backstop be binned, knowing it is impossible. For a staunch Brexiteer like Boris, it doesn’t matter. Johnson is not concerned with whether the UK has a Brexit deal or not, whether the economy is strong or weak or whether food shortages and violence occur. His primary concern is legacy: to be the British Prime minister that delivered Brexit, fulfilling what Brexiteers view as the great goal of English nationalism. Johnson has written a book titled The Churchill Factor– it would not be a stretch to suggest he aspires to be a Churchillian type Prime Minister, idolised in a similar manner by future writers.

It may seem like Johnson is bluffing. That the perception of not being averse to crashing out is a poker faced negotiating tactic. But, unlike Theresa May, he is not running back and forward from Brussels desperately trying to secure a deal. Only time will tell, but Johnson’s threat to withhold part of the divorce bill should not be dismissed as an empty threat. 

To ask for an extension beyond 31st October is out of the question. This would inevitably lead to the rise of what the Tories fear most of all — Nigel Farage. Farage’s Brexit party secured 31% of the British vote in the European election. If this was not enough to scare the Conservatives, Farage will take them on in the next general election if Britain has not left by October 31st.

Between this loaded threat and Boris’ non-committal efforts to remove the backstop, a no-deal looks highly probable – if not certain. However, the episode of Deal or No Deal is not over. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, has called on members of other opposition parties to help him block a no-deal Brexit. This would involve a vote of no-confidence in Johnson, allowing for a unity government led by a temporary Prime Minister. At the time of writing, the Liberal Democrats, SNP, Change UK, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party have all agreed to attend a meeting with Corbyn. 

Corbyn’s success will be decided by the extent the other parties are willing to go to prevent a no-deal. Jo Swinson, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, has refused to back any unity government lead by Corbyn. Although, this position may change as the no-deal time bomb continues to tick.

“…it is not inconceivable that Irish unification will be viewed as the key to rejoin the EU and escape the post-Brexit economy.”

The attitude of achieving Brexit whatever the cost is not unique to Johnson. In a poll of the Conservative and Unionist Party, 59% of members said they would rather Irish unification if it secured Brexit. 63% said the same regarding Scottish independence. 

It does not take an in-depth analysis to appreciate the irony here. The DUP, who are inherently opposed to Irish unity, may end up serving it on a silver platter. It is also important to note that the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU; the majority of the members of the legislative assembly signed a letter to Donald Tusk in support of the backstop. In the British media this concern for the Good Friday Agreement has not been heard over the DUP’s stubborn opposition to the backstop. It would be easy to assume that the DUP speak for a majority when it comes to Brexit, but they simply do not. 

Consequently, it is not inconceivable that Irish unification will be viewed as the key to rejoin the EU and escape the post-Brexit economy. Mary Lou McDonald, president of Sinn Féin, has insisted on a border poll if a no-deal Brexit occurs. Although Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar believes it is not the time for a poll, the question of unification has now become part of public discourse both north and south of the border. 

The question therefore lingers: will the pursuit of Brexit lead to the collapse of the United Kingdom?

In print, this piece used the phrase “Northern Irish students”. This has since been amended to “students from the North”, at the request of the author.