Both the British and Irish Governments have this week warned their people of the dangers (however seemingly remote) of a no-deal Brexit. No doubt there have been junior staff on both sides beavering away in basements to plan for the possibility, whether or not their superiors took them seriously. And the probability of those contingency plans being dusted off has surely increased in the last few days.
But we must also entertain the even smaller chance of a perfect storm, of which a catastrophic Brexit is merely the first act. Consider that, with hindsight, betting on the worst possible outcome at every major decision point over the last two years would have net the pessimistic punter a hefty profit; and that political chaos can set in motion a domino effect of system failure unthinkable in more stable times.
So let us borrow Jason O’Mahony’s crystal ball and peer into the cosmic accumulator.
Imagine that Brexit talks drag on for so long that the EU cannot possibly ratify in time. This will become inevitable before the end of 2018. A motion to extend the Article 50 negotiation period by six months passes unanimously in the European Council, but the UK government fails to get legislation through the Commons to alter the legal Brexit date. Theresa May loses a vote of confidence among her own MPs and the negotiations collapse. In a last desperate bid to avoid a general election that could return a Corbyn-led government, Jacob Rees-Mogg is elected PM.
An emergency deal covering uncontroversial matters such as aviation and medical isotopes is patched together at the last minute, but without a transitional trade deal or an agreed backstop a hard border is now inevitable. Northern Ireland polarises, with Unionist politicians now entirely backing a hard border, and Nationalists calling for an immediate border poll. A last-ditch campaign to locate customs controls in the Irish Sea gets no traction. An opinion poll comes out showing 52% (discounting don’t knows) in favour of a United Ireland. Senior members of the Alliance and Green parties join the campaign for a border poll in advance of the Brexit date in March 2019.
The new Secretary of State is a hardliner, like the rest of the freshly-purged cabinet, and refuses to grant a poll – but that decision goes to judicial review and is overruled. By this stage Brexit is six weeks away. A border poll is organised in haste and passes by a hair breadth in NI on the eve of Brexit.
But despite (or perhaps because of) universal political backing, the simultaneous poll in the Republic is defeated by the same wafer thin margin. The Irish Government’s popularity is on the slide, in large part over its inability to force a backstop deal past Brexiteer intransigence and EU realpolitik. Plans are immediately put in place for a second referendum. But since Brexit is inevitable, “temporary” customs posts have already been put in place on border roads, manned by dew-faced young recruits with barely a week’s training in inspection procedure.
Barely a week into April 2019, the M20 in Kent and the A16 in France have become the world’s largest vehicle parks. Several hundred acres of Anglesey are being covered in hard infill at high speed. The Dublin Port Tunnel is gridlocked for four hours each morning, and queues at the Carrickcarnan border are tailed back as far as Loughbrickland in the north and Castlebellingham in the south. The Irish Government issues an order forbidding lorries from using the overtaking lane. This helps ease car traffic delays but doubles the length of the lorry queues overnight.
Paddy Power unveils a publicity-stunt sweepstake over the date when the ends of the M1 northbound and Port Tunnel customs queues will back up past each other.
All work to restart the Northern Ireland Assembly has ceased. Republicans argue that the changed context of the border poll means that devolution will need to be renegotiated in a new all-Ireland framework, which the DUP naturally rejects. Ken Clarke, Anna Soubry, Dominic Grieve and Philip Hammond quit the Conservatives to set up a new pro-EEA party, and the government collapses again. A general election is called for June 2019, and this will include Northern Ireland because it hasn’t left the UK yet.
Unionists rally behind the flag, while post-victory nationalism is divided and complacent. In a shock result, the DUP wipes out all other unionist candidates and actually increases its seat count. Nevertheless, Jeremy Corbyn becomes PM and pledges to withdraw from NI immediately. The DUP are now in open revolt against their own government and demand that the border poll be annulled.
There have been several instances already of vehicles refusing to stop at border checkpoints, in one case running over a customs officer and crushing his leg. Both governments quietly increase armed police support at customs, and reinforce checkpoints with concrete chicanes. The Polish and Hungarian governments bring Ireland to the ECJ, citing vast discrepancies between Irish border controls and the ones they are required to implement on their borders with Ukraine. The Irish government loses and, to howls of delicious outrage from the Brexit press, begins stopping up minor border roads.
The second referendum squeaks through in October, but the DUP argue that the result is invalid since it was not held on the same basis as the one north of the border. Nationalists are horrified because another border poll cannot be held in NI for a further seven years. Legal challenges are brought before both the UK and Irish Supreme Courts.
By now there are almost daily protests and counter-protests calling for the border poll to be either annulled or implemented immediately. And despite it being October, the usual Belfast flashpoints have been burning more or less continuously since July. Meanwhile, the Republic’s newly-refurbished Department of Unification has been sitting empty for six months. An inner-city Alphabet-Left TD demands that it be repurposed for housing the homeless.
Sinn Féin reiterate their demand that the UK should continue to support NI with cash transfers for the next 25 years. But Treasury estimates of the cost of Corbyn’s renationalisation programme have turned out higher than anyone had predicted, and the post-Brexit economic forecast is catastrophically grim. The UK replies that it has no money to spare and suggests that if the EU wants a United Ireland as a member it should be willing to pay for everything. But the EU budget has already been agreed, and repeated attempts to get negotiations reopened are blocked by a small group of creditor states. Ireland’s GDP forecast is revised downwards, again.
The Irish Supreme Court finds in favour of the DUP, quoting a narrow reading of Article 3; but the UK Supreme Court finds that the poll results in NI alone are sufficient for the British government to legislate for unification. A third referendum is scheduled for March 2020, this one explicitly revoking Article 3. The DUP pledges a fresh legal challenge regardless of the result.
The British Government passes the Northern Ireland (Withdrawal) Act 2019, but delays its implementation until the result of the third referendum. After a particularly fraught day of negotiations at Stormont aimed at reducing tensions on the street, thirteen young loyalists barricade themselves inside the disused Assembly chamber, elect a Speaker, and declare unilateral independence. An eight-hour standoff ends when one of the rebels tries to sneak out a side door for a toilet break. All are arrested and removed by the PSNI. A riot breaks out that evening in East Belfast, and six families are burned out of their homes.
Two days before Christmas 2019, at a minor border crossing, a 23 year old Revenue officer is shot in the neck. She survives. The 3 year old in the back seat of the car she was inspecting does not.
This article was originially published on Slugger on 2018/07/20.