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Brexiteers, you were warned about Ireland

If you wished to get to an easy Brexit, well, this isn’t the starting point you’d choose. Once again, the Irish question complicates life for Theresa May’s government. Today’s EU proposals suggesting that, in the absence of a satisfactory deal of the kind proposed back in December, Northern Ireland should, essentially, remain within the EU customs union are both evidently unacceptable to the UK government and a reminder that this is still a negotiated process. What is put on the table today is not necessarily what will be on the table when it is over. 

It is difficult to see how any UK government could agree to a ‘solution’ which, in many essentials, shifts the UK’s external frontier to somewhere in the middle of the Irish Sea. In that respect the fact May’s government limps on thanks to the support of the Democratic Unionist Party is neither really here nor there. 

But, look, the government’s response remains exasperating. The Times quotes a senior government source saying, ‘The prime minister is not going to sign up to anything that threatens the constitutional integrity of the UK or its common market.’ Somehow, I don’t think this source meant that the government will therefore abandon its Brexit plans. 

Who could have predicted any of this? Only people paying attention, a category which I concede includes neither the foreign secretary nor the secretary of state for international trade. Willy-waving is not a strategy and wishful thinking butters no spuds. 

The EU’s suggestions, even as a break-only-in-event-of-no-deal emergency, may be impossible and unacceptable but they’re not entirely inconsistent with previous promises – or at least promises of aspiration – made by the British government itself. In that respect, tiresomely interfering as it may be, the EU’s fall-back position is bracingly consistent with the UK government’s own pledge of continuing cross-border ‘alignment’. A pledge made as recently as last December. 

Brexiteers, as Katy Balls wrote this morning, may worry that the Irish border issue is being ‘used to frustrate Brexit’ but even Brexiteers cannot claim they were not warned, repeatedly and from a very early date, that this could prove a problem. Hark at Dan Hannan observing, in November 2015, that ‘Of all the scare stories propagated by EU supporters, the idea that the UK and Ireland would impose borders after 94 years is the silliest’. Oh. 

The UK government has had 18 months to produce a workable and satisfactory alternative plan and has, as yet, failed to do so. There remains time for such a proposal but it is very hard, at this stage, to see what it might be. And besides, the EU didn’t start this. If the UK is hoist upon its own petard it has done the hoisting itself. 

Leavers were warned time and time again that Brexit would prove a complicated business and that some of those complications would be constitutional ones. So be it, they decided, the risks were worth it. That’s an entirely defensible position but it is mildly rich to then complain about the long-advertised consequences that come with it. 

Is Brexit really worth all this? Evidently so. Brexiteers certainly have few doubts. YouGov polling conducted last summer by the Future of England survey, a joint initiative from the Universities of Cardiff and Edinburgh, revealed just how little Leavers care about the territorial integrity and future viability of the United Kingdom. 

At the very least, 81 percent of Leave voters felt the risk of the Irish peace process ‘unravelling’ was ‘worth it’ if this was the price of ‘taking back control’. Conservative Leave voters – supporters of what still purports to be a Unionist party – were even more vehement on this question: 87 percent felt it a risk worth taking. 

Now you may object that shifting the Irish border east is not quite the same as threatening the peace process but these results at the very least serve as a useful representation of how voters in England think of these matters. And the truth is that for Leave voters everything else is a matter of only second-order importance. That helps explain why 88 percent of Leave voters in England also think Scottish independence a risk worth taking if doing so preserves the purity of Brexit. 

Since some 92 percent of Tory Leave voters think this way, there is something mildly galling about seeing Theresa May wrapping herself in the Union Flag, pledging herself to do everything it takes to maintain the United Kingdom’s internal integrity. She might very well believe that; many of her supporters just aren’t that into it. 

At least, that is the case now. It may be that the contrast between the known-known of Brexit and the prospect of possibly hypothetical fresh constitutional challenges in Scotland and Northern-Ireland skews these preferences. Nonetheless, they form the evidence we have to work with. It is incontestable that Brexit was made in England and equally incontestable that it was driven by feelings of English exceptionalism (an exceptionalism that like most nationalist urges of its type also owes a great deal to resentment). 

Fair enough. But when you break it, you own it. That’s the position in which England finds itself and the rest of us must learn to live with the consequences of this blundering recklessness. Those consequences are complicated and they may yet prove far-reaching. Alleviating them means taking on the purest of the Brexiteer true believers. Does this prime minister have the courage to do that? 

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