Gerard Howlin: Mairead McGuinness' nomination may stop Boris Johnson in his tracks

The stakes increased when the UK government’s chief legal adviser Johnathan Jones resigned, apparently in protest over what he is being asked to do on the NI protocol.
Gerard Howlin: Mairead McGuinness' nomination may stop Boris Johnson in his tracks

Mairead McGuinness. An Irish commissioner with her hands around the windpipe of the City of London could have a chilling effect on British ardour. Picture:

Yesterday’s nomination of Mairead McGuinness as future commissioner for financial services may add to the reasons Boris Johnson will hesitate before publishing today draft legislation threatening to drive a coach and horses through the Northern Ireland protocol. The fine detail will be critical. An Irish commissioner with her hands around the windpipe of the City of London could have a chilling effect on British ardour, which is running high.

A scoop in the Financial Times on Sunday relying on “three people familiar with the plans” said that “sections of the internal market bill are expected to 'eliminate the legal force of parts of the withdrawal agreement' in areas including state aid and Northern Ireland customs.” That put the cat among the pigeons. The UK government, whatever plans it had importunely exposed by an inconvenient leak, has been rubbing soothing ointments into the inevitable outrage since. It hasn’t, however, denied the plan, merely sweetly saying things about tidying up loose ends, if loose ends aren’t tied up.

The deadline is maybe six weeks away, in the immediate run-up to the October EU summit. To emphasise the point, the lead UK negotiator David Frost said yesterday, as Michel Barnier arrived in London, that he would “drive home our clear message that we must make progress this week if we are to reach an agreement in time". 

Today could be a red-letter day. It’s a game of chicken. The stakes increased again yesterday when the UK government’s chief legal adviser Johnathan Jones resigned, apparently in protest over what he is being asked to do on the NI protocol. He is only the latest in a line of senior civil servants to go. Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings have boxed in Sir Humphrey. That may not be the good thing it seems.

We need to be clear; the full horrors of a no-deal Brexit are now an immediate danger. After a fashion, this denies logic. It is not in Britain’s interest to crash out of the EU with no deal. It is certainly not in the economic interests of those in Britain who voted to leave. But then neither was Brexit, and they voted for it anyway. Donald Trump is at opposite ends of the spectrum, to the economic interests of the poor white voters who are his staple supporter. Yet, they are largely unmoved by facts, and remain stubbornly loyal to him.

Brexit was never about a logical analysis of interest. It is about a visceral reaction to disempowerment globally and social displacement locally. It is the raft of Medusa for angry people. It should never have happened. But the Brexit vote itself was far from the full flood of Brexit sentiment. Boris Johnson’s destruction of Labour’s red wall in the North of England suggests, to the contrary, he is riding a tiger which could consume him if he attempts to dismount. This is all politics, first and last.

Too many people thought logically about Brexit, and concluded smugly it couldn’t happen. In this I include myself. While we must continue to hope for the best, we live in a world where we would be wise to fear for the worst. 

The age of optimism is over.

The worst for Ireland will be immediate. Take a part of our economy already on the floor —  beef. The live trade is only a small part of the market, but it is very important for maintaining prices, even at their current level. No-deal means a tariff of 10.2% or €93.10 per 100kg, according to the InterTrade Ireland website. Processed beef will attract tariffs north of 40%. That turns Ireland into a safari park for cows.

Up the food chain, infant formula attracts a tariff of 7.6%, biscuits 9%, other baked stuff 3.8%, and the list is endless. Narrow margins will overnight be trumped by unaffordable tariffs. It is jobs and businesses gone. We won’t have to wait for January 1 to feel the effects, because sentiment will run well ahead of the event. And that’s only half of it.

Irish exports to the UK will be hobbled by tariffs, the paperwork to deal with them, and the time and cost of involved in doing it all. In reverse, every time we import from the UK, we pay tariffs so we increase our cost base. The ESRI estimated that Brexit will cost households an annual increase of €892-€1,360. The overall cost to the economy could be up to €3bn per year.  Not to mention Northern Ireland. A no-deal exit will be politically destabilising. Along the border itself, business will become doubly difficult as hinterlands are cut off. Smuggling will be the only activity likely to prosper and in the wake of that comes thuggery, in a balaclava masked as politics.

Remember, politics drives all of this, and it is politics that eventually will have to mop it up. Standing up to the Europeans and putting Paddy in his place gets the hormones of the Brexiteer coursing. This is not about furthering defined or logical interests. It is about recapturing lost potency with newfound, and a straight-out-of-central-casting, marvellously British defiance. A sideshow is the continuous nudging by the UK of Dublin, to bring its influence to bear on the EU to soften up. 

If a threat to bring the curtain down on negotiations was leaked in the Financial Times, there is a continual whisper about how in some undefined circumstances we might have preferential treatment on the land bridge in and out of the UK, afterwards. Having already lost influence, and caused annoyance with an act of national stupidity over a golf society dinner, any such connivance is about the very last thing we should consider.

Let’s see what today brings, and what will emerge over the coming weeks. What will come, comes on top of Covid-19 which itself has enormous economic consequences. As the outcome of golfgate demonstrated, in Covid there is a heightened atmosphere. People are already under pressure. Some may be gliding along satisfactorily but for many there is a sense of foreboding about lost jobs, increased personal debt and in some situations the burden of care for loved ones, which while services are curtailed, is bearing down heavily. We are far from best placed for a second major shock if it comes. Our political architecture is as shaky as I have ever seen it.

Facts and figures barely begin to measure the consequence of a hard Brexit. Lives will be blighted and rural areas will he hardest hit. That’s on top of lost tourism revenues. Stability in Northern Ireland and on this island will be jeopardised. The internal union of the UK will be under acute pressure, as it falls off a cliff from the European Union. In turn that has enormous consequences here. Still, it might all be a big bluff. Maybe.

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