The nightmare scenario

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.

The vast, terrifying vista of boundless possibility.

The slippery slope argument is a well-known logical fallacy for two reasons. Firstly, it is almost universally wrong. Secondly, it is almost universally believed. This is because human beings are innately loss-averse, preferring the certainty of the here and now (however imperfect) to the unknown possibilities of change.

It is only when the here and now crosses a significant threshold of imperfection that uncertainty begins to look inviting. The mildly discontented compare the known and the unknown and say “don’t rock the boat, it could be worse”. The strongly discontented make the same comparison and say “anything would be better than this”.

This is the fundamental distinction between conservatism and radicalism. It is common in the West to assume that “conservative” is a synonym for “right-wing” but this is not strictly true. Margaret Thatcher fit the description of the classical social conservative but her economic reform programme was profoundly radical, coming from a conviction that the economy was in terminal decline and could only be rescued by extreme measures. During the putsch against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, the “conservative” faction consisted of the hard-boiled gerontocrats of the unreformed Communist Party, and the radicals were Yeltsin and his free-market advisers.

So conservatism-with-a-small-c is not a left- or right-wing label, but a resistance to movement, in any direction, away from the established local norm. And a little bit of conservatism is usually good for you, as it discourages hasty change and allows space for due reflection before taking action. But too much conservatism, too acute a fear of the mythical slippery slope, leads inevitably to paralysis.

Unionism (in a UK context at least) is a fundamentally small-c conservative position, in that it is primarily concerned with the risks of change. A mild form of conservatism would seek to manage these risks without ruling out change entirely. But the Northern Irish version often tends towards resisting change at any cost, and this resistance to change is not limited to the constitutional question.

Conservatism, like other broad -isms such as fundamentalism or liberalism, is not a logical position so much as it is an emotional one, a conviction born of temperament rather than intellect. Someone who is conservative on constitutional matters will tend to be conservative in other political areas, because they employ the same emotional vocabulary.

And we can see a broad party-political correlation between constitutional, social and economic conservatism. No matter how much one may argue that gay marriage has nothing to do with national identity, it is still remarkable how strongly aligned the conservative-radical axis is in both matters. This correlation is stronger in party politics, where following the agreed line is expected, than it is in the opinion pages, where free-thinking political catholicism (with a small c) is more acceptable.

The DUP can therefore be understood on one level as a small-c conservative party, one which is quite content (unlike Thatcher) to drink the milk of government subvention, while standing firm against both social reform and constitutional uncertainty. They look out across the vast, terrifying vista of boundless possibility and see only lions and tigers and bears.

And yet they voted for Brexit.

Because the DUP are also a deeply fundamentalist party. Religiously fundamentalist due to their roots in evangelical Protestantism, with its emphasis on returning to a simpler time when the faithful communed directly with God; but also politically fundamentalist, clinging to a concept of Westphalian sovereignty that dates from a simpler time, when a country could do whatever it liked within its own borders.

This “return to a simpler time” trope is key: while religious and political fundamentalisms may style themselves as “more authentic” forms of conservatism, they are not conservative at all. Because to make the world that they desire, they need to unmake the world that exists now. By trying to retreat into a sketchily-remembered past, they are just as radical as those who want to rush headlong into a sketchily-conceived future.

The nostalgic line drawings of Brexit fundamentalism could no better survive harsh reality than the idealistic line drawings of Communism. And yet simplistic ideas are seductive precisely because of their simplicity. The modern world is complex, baffling, exhausting. Simplicity is bliss.

And so the DUP, like their big-C Conservative allies, find themselves torn between their small-c conservative and radical wings – and in both cases the conservative factions are the pragmatic centrists, while the radical factions are the fundamentalist Brexiteers.

The triumph of the radicals may also help to explain their sudden onset of incompetence. Because when one is defending a strongly conservative position, all one needs to do is obstruct. The DUP’s infamous immovability is highly adapted to slow down processes, drag out negotiations and force the opposition to exhaust themselves into submission.

But this tactic does not work when one’s position is radically fundamentalist. Brexit is about action and change, and it is the EU’s institutional apparatus that is the conservative boulder in the road. Europe is standing still and the UK is the one squabbling itself into submission.

The DUP can’t stonewall Michel Barnier, because he is the conservative now, and the DUP are the radicals. They are the ones who took the leap into the brave unknown. And they’re still struggling to understand what just happened.

(Originally posted on Slugger)

Surf and turf

As blogger David Allen Green has pointed out, whoever produces the first draft of a legal document has the advantage. While the EU has been criticised for its backstop-Brexit draft, the UK has conspicuously failed to produce any draft at all, and shows no signs of doing so. The final transition agreement is thus unlikely to differ from the EU’s draft in anything other than some finer details and cosmetic language.

This was of course predicable and widely predicted back in December.

90% of the backstop draft is legalese for “the UK is out on its ear after the transition period ends, but anything that is in progress at that moment remains under EU jurisdiction until it is finished.” The other 10% reads (more or less) “the trade border will be in the Irish Sea unless the UK comes up with something that we like better in the meantime.”

The UK is not toast by any means. This agreement is still just a slightly altered default position, the current default being a catastrophic, no-transition crashout at midnight on March 31st 2019. All of the language is designed so that if some better agreement were to be reached within the transition period, this agreement could be washed away.

But the EU’s draft is important in that it narrows the menu of possible outcomes to three broad categories. Like an office christmas party, the choice will be surf, turf or vegetarian, with the only variation available being the style of potatoes.

Firstly, the red-meat turf option. Until a withdrawal agreement is signed, a no-deal hard Brexit is always a possibility. At best, this would be WTO rules on day one. Or the UK might follow through on its threat to ignore WTO rules requiring border customs controls, and thereby start a trade war with just about everyone that matters. Or it could fail to join the WTO, and throw itself on the mercy of the open sea. Given that the UK would have just violated a solemn agreement with the largest trade bloc in the world, mercy would not be forthcoming.

None of the above are appetising, but all are quite possible. And all would inevitably mean a hard border in the terrain, whether on the UK’s orders, the EU’s, or the WTO’s.

So perhaps surf would be more digestible. The backstop agreement, or some derivative of it, could be agreed now, but the long-term relationship talks could fail. This would mean that the backstop deal would become reality on 31st December 2020 and the border would remain in the sea. Unionists would be horrified, but some of the little-Englander Brexiteers might see it as a price worth paying.

Or thirdly, vegetarianism. A close, permanent trading accord could be agreed in the 21-month transition period. Perhaps nothing in the backstop deal might have to be implemented. But any alteration would certainly come at a cost to the UK’s red lines, leaving carnivorous Brexiteers dissatisfied. And based on the current government’s track record, it would likely be a humiliation.

At the moment the vegetarian option looks most likely, despite the political chaos it would cause in Westminster. This is because of two plain facts. Firstly, the UK doesn’t have an alternative on the table. And secondly, once the backstop deal is signed, it’s either a surf border or I Can’t Believe It’s Not Brexit. And a surf border is anathema to both Remainers and Brexiteer unionists.

With luck, unionists and Remainers will come to understand that they are on the same side. But there could be another two years of political histrionics before that decision becomes inevitable.

The only plausible get-out-of-jail-free card for the carnivores would be a swift and decisive border poll. But that decision is entirely out of their hands.

(Originally published on Slugger)